A secretive propaganda unit is manipulating our social media. But it’s not Russian.
The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) dossier on Russian meddling into UK politics remains unpublished. But Britain has its own meddling ‘agency’ – a designated brigade of the British army. Moreover, it has a connection with Twitter management.
Exclusively, The Canary can also reveal that one of the brigade’s forerunners was a British army ‘psyops’ division linked with the parent body of discredited data miners Cambridge Analytica.
Inside the 77th
In March 2015, it was reported that the British army intended to create a new brigade – the 77th Brigade – to specialise in:
psychological operations and use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age.
Three years on, Wired visited the brigade’s HQ. It described one of its rooms as:
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.
The 77th’s slogan is: “Behavioural change is our USP [unique selling point]”. The Financial Times reported that the 77th includes 200 regular and 270 reserve personnel.
The brigade has four divisions. Its Digital Operations (Web Ops) Team, for example:
collects information and understands audience sentiment in the virtual domain. Within the extant OSINT [open source intelligence] policy framework, they may engage with audiences in order to influence perceptions to support operational outcomes.
While those in its Content Team:
design and create video, audio, print and digital products that aim to influence behaviours for both an Army and external audience. Additionally, they advise on campaign strategy and propose innovative behavioural change methods.
Gordon MacMillan, a reserve officer with the 77th Brigade, is now Twitter’s head of editorial for the Middle East.
Cambridge Analytica connection
The 77th Brigade was formed from:
the Military Stabilisation and Support Group, Media Operations Group, 15 Psychological Operations Group and the Security Capacity Building team.
As reported by The Canary, 15 Psychological Operations Group was headed by Steve Tatham, who went on to head the Defence division of SCL, the now defunct parent of data miner Cambridge Analytica (also defunct in the wake of the Facebook data privacy scandal).
SCL was paid £548,000 for a project involving target audience analysis training for NATO staff. Tatham has also written about countering propaganda for NATO.
A government spokesperson confirmed it had contracts with SCL: with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) between 2014 and 2015, the Home Office in 2009, and the Foreign Office (FCO) between 2008 and 2009. Then culture minister Matt Hancock separately confirmed that contracts were issued (in 2008, 2009 and 2014) with the MoD and the FCO.
SCL was also awarded ‘List X’ status by the MoD, which meant access to confidential documents.
The Canary has previously revealed that in 2014 SCL had a £150,000 contract with the MoD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory called Project Duco. It concerned analysing “psychological and anthropological principles” in regard to how the public interacts with government messaging.
As revealed by former Canary editor Nafeez Ahmed, SLC’s Mark Turnbull also spoke at FCO’s Wilton Park conference, ‘Diplomacy in the Information Age’. In 2004, Turnbull led Bell Pottinger’s public advocacy projects, which claimed to specialise in:
understanding and influencing the human and social dynamics of conflict and cooperation…[using]…people’s identities, interests, networks and narratives that are the focal point for communications designed to deliver measurable change in support of political, social, developmental or military objectives.
In 2011, Turnbull was the subject of an investigation into the use of “dark arts” to influence UK government policy.
The work of 77th Brigade appears to complement that of the Integrity Initiative. As reported by The Canary, Integrity is a propaganda network funded by the FCO, MoD, the US State Department and NATO via the Institute for Statecraft.
Indeed, in an internal handbook Integrity recommends to its members that:
if asked about our funding, be very clear: the Integrity Initiative is funded by the Institute for Statecraft. The IfS gets its funding from multiple sources to ensure its independence. These include: private individuals; charitable foundations; international organisations (EU, NATO); UK Govt (FCO, MOD).
And on 27 November, in answer to a Written Question, Sir Alan Duncan confirmed:
In financial year 2017/18, the FCO funded the Institute for Statecraft’s Integrity Initiative £296,500. This financial year, the FCO is funding a further £1,961,000. Both have been funded through grant agreements.
Integrity is active in the UK, as evidenced by its UK cluster list. Integrity documents also mention people representing the Royal United Services Institute, the Henry Jackson Society, the Atlantic Council, Chatham House and Orbis. Orbis is a private intelligence agency headed by ‘Trump dossier’ author Christopher Steele, who also contributed to the ISC investigation on potential Russian meddling in UK politics.
Integrity has identified journalists and military personnel as contacts. Statecraft director Chris Donnelly was special adviser to NATO secretary-general, an adviser to Margaret Thatcher and an honorary colonel in military intelligence.
Wired argues that the work of 77th Brigade is not dissimilar to that of the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG), a division of GCHQ that specialises in disinformation.
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was first to expose the work of JTRIG. Wired asserts that JTRIG’s arsenal includes “posting negative information on internet forums”, changing someone’s social media content, depositing compromising information on a target’s computer and other digital dirty tricks.
In January 2018, The Canary published a presentation by LulzSec co-founder and security researcher Mustafa Al-Bassam to the Chaos Communication Congress, summarising JTRIG’s work.
He claimed that the group “is tasked with creating sock puppet accounts and fake content on social media, so as to use “dirty tricks” to “destroy, deny, degrade [and] disrupt” enemies by “discrediting” them”. Techniques deployed by JTRIG, include compromising sex stings, such as honey-traps:
A leaked 2011 report for JTRIG on ‘behavioural science’ and marked Top Secret summarises its work:
The report elaborates:
Documents indicated how GCHQ/JTRIG would use Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) to disable servers hosting chat rooms of not just hacktivists but political groups. (Labour’s main websites were recently reportedly disrupted by DDoS.)
When asked about the role of the 77th Brigade, an army spokesperson told Middle East Eye:
There is no relationship or agreement between 77th Brigade and Twitter, other than using Twitter as one of many social media platforms for engagement and communication.
A Twitter spokesperson added:
The assertion we pick and choose what to disclose, or ignore specific countries, is pure conjecture and has no basis in fact… When we have reasonable evidence of an information operation – regardless of the origin or intent – we make it public. Transparency in build [sic] into our DNA as a company.
Nothing for granted
Meddling in politics is not just the domain of Russia, but practised by all countries. This includes the UK, which has a network of propaganda specialists at its disposal. And in the cyber world we inhabit, there are forces at play that largely serve corporate and state interests and so influence our opinions.
We should question everything.
Featured image via Wikimedia
We know everyone is suffering under the Tories - but the Canary is a vital weapon in our fight back, and we need your support
The Canary Workers’ Co-op knows life is hard. The Tories are waging a class war against us we’re all having to fight. But like trade unions and community organising, truly independent working-class media is a vital weapon in our armoury.
The Canary doesn’t have the budget of the corporate media. In fact, our income is over 1,000 times less than the Guardian’s. What we do have is a radical agenda that disrupts power and amplifies marginalised communities. But we can only do this with our readers’ support.
So please, help us continue to spread messages of resistance and hope. Even the smallest donation would mean the world to us.
Leave a ReplyYou must be logged in to leave a comment.Join the conversation
Please read our comment moderation policy here.