British Army Has an Entire Brigade of Online Trolls Devoted to PsyOps
British Army Has an Entire Brigade of Online Trolls Devoted to PsyOps by Carl Miller – Russia-Insider
“The unit was formed in a hurry in 2015 from various older parts of the British Army – a Media Operations Group, a Military Stabilisation Support Group, a Psychological Operations Group. It has been rapidly expanding ever since”
A barbed-wire fence stretched off far to either side. A Union flag twisted in a gust of wind, and soldiers strode in and out of a squat guard’s hut in the middle of the road. Through the hut, and under a row of floodlights, I walked towards a long line of drab, low-rise brick buildings. It was the summer of 2017, and on this military base nestled among the hills of Berkshire, I was visiting a part of the British Army unlike any other. They call it the 77thBrigade. They are the troops fighting Britain’s information wars.
“If everybody is thinking alike then somebody isn’t thinking,” was written in foot-high letters across a whiteboard in one of the main atriums of the base. Over to one side, there was a suite full of large, electronic sketch pads and multi-screened desktops loaded with digital editing software. The men and women of the 77th knew how to set up cameras, record sound, edit videos. Plucked from across the military, they were proficient in graphic design, social media advertising, and data analytics.
From office to office, I found a different part of the Brigade busy at work. One room was focussed on understanding audiences: the makeup, demographics and habits of the people they wanted to reach. Another was more analytical, focussing on creating “attitude and sentiment awareness” from large sets of social media data.Another was full of officers producing video and audio content. Elsewhere, teams of intelligence specialists were closely analysing how messages were being received and discussing how to make them more resonant.
Explaining their work, the soldiers used phrases I had heard countless times from digital marketers: “key influencers”, “reach”, “traction”. You normally hear such words at viral advertising studios and digital research labs. But the skinny jeans and wax moustaches were here replaced by the crisply ironed shirts and light patterned camouflage of the British Army. Their surroundings were equally incongruous – the 77th’s headquarters were a mix of linoleum flooring, long corridors and swinging fire doors. More Grange Hill than Menlo Park. Next to a digital design studio, soldiers were having a tea break, a packet of digestives lying open on top of a green metallic ammo box. Another sign on the wall declared, “Behavioural change is our USP [unique selling point]”. What on Earth was happening?
“If you track where UK manpower is deployed, you can take a good guess at where this kind of ‘influence’ activity happens,” an information warfare officer (not affiliated with the 77th) told me later, under condition of anonymity.
“A document will come from the Ministry of Defence that will have broad guidance and themes to follow.” He explains that each military campaign now also has – or rather is – a marketing campaign too.
Ever since Nato troops were deployed to the Baltics in 2017, Russian propaganda has been deployed too, alleging that Nato soldiers there are rapists, looters, little different from a hostile occupation. One of the goals of Nato information warfare was to counter this kind of threat: sharply rebutting damaging rumours, and producing videos of Nato troops happily working with Baltic hosts.
Information campaigns such as these are “white”: openly, avowedly the voice of the British military. But to narrower audiences, in conflict situations, and when it was understood to be proportionate and necessary to do so, messaging campaigns could become, the officer said, “grey” and “black” too. “Counter-piracy, counter-insurgencies and counter-terrorism,” he explained. There, the messaging doesn’t have to look like it came from the military and doesn’t have to necessarily tell the truth.
I saw no evidence that the 77th do these kinds of operations themselves, but this more aggressive use of information is nothing new. GCHQ, for instance, also has a unit dedicated to fighting wars with information. It is called the “Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group” – or JTRIG – an utterly unrevealing name, as it is common in the world of intelligence. Almost all we know about it comes from a series of slides leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013. Those documents give us a glimpse of what these kinds of covert information campaigns could look like.
According to the slides, JTRIG was in the business of discrediting companies, by passing “confidential information to the press through blogs etc.”, and by posting negative information on internet forums. They could change someone’s social media photos (“can take ‘paranoia’ to a whole new level”, a slide read.) They could use masquerade-type techniques – that is: placing “secret” information on a compromised computer. They could bombard someone’s phone with text messages or calls.
JTRIG also boasted an arsenal of 200 info-weapons, ranging from in-development to fully operational. A tool dubbed “Badger” allowed the mass delivery of email. Another, called “Burlesque”, spoofed SMS messages. “Clean Sweep” would impersonate Facebook wall posts for individuals or entire countries. “Gateway” gave the ability to “artificially increase traffic to a website”. “Underpass” was a way to change the outcome of online polls.
They had operational targets across the globe: Iran, Africa, North Korea, Russia and the UK. Sometimes the operations focused on specific individuals and groups, sometimes the wider regimes or even general populations. Operation Quito was a campaign, running some time after 2009, to prevent Argentina from taking over the Falkland Islands. A slide explained “this will hopefully lead to a long-running, large-scale, pioneering effects operation”. Running from March 2011, another operation aimed for regime change in Zimbabwe by discrediting the Zanu PF party.
Walking through the headquarters of the 77th, the strange new reality of warfare was on display. We’ve all heard a lot about “cyberwarfare” – about how states could attack their enemies through computer networks, damaging their infrastructure or stealing their secrets. But that wasn’t what was going on here. Emerging here in the 77th Brigade was a warfare of storyboards and narratives, videos and social media. An engagement now doesn’t just happen on the battlefield, but also in the media and online. A victory is won as much in the eyes of the watching public as between opposing armies on the battlefield. Warfare in the information age is a warfare over information itself.