NATO affiliated researchers recently conducted a test to see whether they could use some of the same social media techniques Russia famously used in an attempt to influence the US presidential election to infiltrate a NATO ally’s military exercise.
Using fake social media accounts, researchers at the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence identified troops, located battalions, and even manipulated soldiers to “instill undesirable behavior.”
They were remarkably successful. In about a month, the researchers, who used Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other publicly accessible online resources, gained detailed knowledge about the operation and successfully pushed some soldiers, at least, into disobeying orders. According to a Wired article, the researchers manipulated some personnel into abandoning “their positions.”
“Every person has a button. For somebody there’s a financial issue, for somebody it’s a very appealing date, for somebody it’s a family thing,” the center’s director, Janis Sarts, told Wired. “It’s varied, but everybody has a button. The point is, what’s openly available online is sufficient to know what that is.”
The researchers created Facebook pages designed to mimic pages about the campaign or official-looking armed forces pages. They created groups, fake profiles, and profiles that impersonated real people. In some cases, the social media platforms rose to the challenge and shut down parts of the ruse. In other cases, researchers were able to get away without any repercussions. Certain groups and fake profiles were never suspended. Moreover, using the “suggested friends” feature on Facebook, researchers identified the members of entire units based on knowing just one person.
The report didn’t go into details about which NATO ally or allies were involved in the experiment. Nor did it discuss how exactly researchers manipulated troops to divulge information and act in “undesirable” ways.
“Our experiment showed that, at the current level of information security, an adversary is able to collect a significant amount of personal data on soldiers participating in a military exercise, and that this data can be used to target message with precision, successfully influencing members of the target audience to carry out desired behaviors,” the report states.
While the researchers relied on their ability to exploit the “human flaws” of social media users, they called out “vulnerabilities built into the social media platforms themselves” such as the “lack of transparency.”
Facebook has stepped up efforts at removing fake accounts from its platform, but NATO’s experiment shows that it’s still relatively easy for even a small group of people with limited time and resources to manipulate the platform and even disrupt armies.