Paying “Friends” to “Like” America: Our government's social media scheme to fake popularity

Pundits often speculate on the price of American foreign policy. They often wonder what the cost of maintaining the nation's good image abroad might be. Thanks to a recent AP report, there may now be the beginnings of a metric to measure that. On January 5, the AP ran a story about the fraudulent commercial underbelly of the social media industry. Among other things, it detailed information-age sweatshops in Bangladesh – where you can bulk purchase social media clout for half a penny per click. Buried in the article was a snippet about the US State Department discontinuing the practice of paying for Facebook “Likes” after an internal report revealed it had spent $630,000 buying non-existent “Likes” and “Friends.”

The report is labeled sensitive but unclassified. It was highly critical of the structure and internal culture of the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), the section of the US State Department that is charged with public diplomacy through media, including social media. The pay-for-Friends scheme was hidden in the 57-page report that detailed low worker morale, contractor cronyism, convoluted chains of command and a meeting-intensive environment.

It is not clear from the report how $630,000 was spent on Facebook “Likes,” “Friends” and “Shares.” Some of the money appears to have been paid directly to Facebook to promote images, posts, and articles. This caused the State Department to gain “Friends” and be “Followed,” but did not create the long term engagement desired. The $630,000 might have gone in part to Facebook, in part to a third world info-sweatshop, and in part to some American contractor. A search of government databases for social media-related contracts yielded no identifiable results for the State Department during the relevant timeframe. It is not possible to search these databases for classified information, so the exact nature of how America buys its Facebook friends may remain a mystery for some time.

The State Department maintains 150 social media profiles in ten different languages. According to the report “IIP employs 160 Civil Service and 26 Foreign Service personnel, along with 23 information resource officers (IRO) based in embassies. An additional 142 individuals work on contract.” It is not clear which or how many of these 203 Government employees and 142 contractors are the ones maintaining the 150 social media profiles and spending the money to buy virtual friends.

150 social media profiles may not have been enough. Several defense and intelligence contractors have offered social media management software to American intelligence services. These software suites allow an individual operator to virtually “be” 50 fake personae at a time, complete with individually tailored bios. The software suites also keep the lies straight. The management system is designed to prevent the operator from contradicting or repeating themselves, thus preserving the impression of a groundswell of support or scorn for a particular issue.

One company making such software was HBGary. HBGary was exposed by a group of hackers, including Jeremy Hammond, of conspiring with other security companies to spy on and defame investigative journalists and activists on behalf of the United States Chamber of Commerce. Hammond was arrested after exposing the private spying of other corporations on the public and is currently serving a ten year sentence.

HBGary has no unclassified contracts with the US State Department. It is not known how many other corporations make software similar to HBGary's, although there are clearly many. Only scant unclassified information has come to light in this case so far, and that information reveals that American public diplomacy for the 21st century consists, in par,t of buying fake Friends, fake Shares, and fake Likes. Perhaps the money would be better spent actually being likeable.

What did the State Department hope to gain from this pay-for-Likes and Friends in this 21st century spin on public diplomacy? The hamfisted era of propaganda leaflets and Radio Free Europe is giving way to social media networks being used as a tool to build America as a brand. America must appear to be the shining city on the hill through manufactured and distributed faux popularity – not through assertions in a president's speech.

The State Department uses social media for the same reasons that the United States military has a Cyber Command. As the 19th century military theorist Von Clausewitz remarked, “War is the continuation of policy by other means.”

Date Originally Published: 
Friday, January 17, 2014
Article originally published at: 
Gerry Bello