Two USA Today reporters became the targets of a ham-fisted online smear campaign after they started asking questions about the other ham-fisted propaganda efforts being carried out by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The culprits used fake Twitter and Facebook accounts and set up slanderous Wikipedia entries to try and discredit Tom Vanden Brook and his editor Ray Locker, almost immediately after they began working on a story about military contractors hired to perform "information operations" in support of our overseas wars. The report, which ran on February 29, concluded that the Pentagon has spent of hundreds of millions of dollars on poorly executed and poorly monitored propaganda efforts that did little to help the war effort and possibly even undermined it.
The fact that the fake websites and accounts were registered shortly after Vanden Brook began contacting Pentagon contractors (who supposedly specialize in such information campaigns) suggests an obvious attempt to pre-emptively embarrass the paper and discredit their work. It also seems to verify the premise of their story, which is that these people aren't very good at their job. While the tactics they used are common in the online reputation game, they were completely transparent and easily uncovered. The least ambitious message board troll can register a fake website domain and fake Wikipedia pages hardly count as sophisticated psychological warfare. If the military can't do any better than this, it's no wonder we're not winning the hearts and minds of our adversaries.
The contractors also seem to have forgotten that they were not dealing with some random unknown bloggers or non-tech savvy Afghan villagers. The men they were trying to smear work at a national newspaper and have the resources and platform to not only uncover the discrediting efforts, but the means to counter-attack and amplify the very story they didn't want told. By going after Vanden Brook and and Locker, their opponents have only given their report more legs, both prolonging its shelf life and drawing a wider audience than it otherwise would have received.
This is PR 101, people. (Does the phrase "ink by the barrel" ring a bell?) Never mind that it's also illegal to for the military to carry out "psy-ops" within the United States, a fact some Congressional committees may find interesting. If only they'd done their job right the first time, maybe they wouldn't have be in this mess.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.