NATO study experimented with using social media to influence soldiers

A research group affiliated with with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) found it was able to "instill undesirable behavior" in soldiers and gain "very detailed" personal information about them.

A study published in January by NATO’s Strategic Communications Center of Excellence and first reported by Wired this week explored "what kind of user data is available in the digital environment and demonstrates how a malicious actor can exploit this data in the context of a military exercise," according to its abstract. 

It found that someone looking to target soldiers for a real military exercise would be able to influence them. 

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"The results...suggest that in the current digital arena an adversary would be able to collect enough personal data on soldiers to create targeted messages with precision, successfully influencing their chosen target audience to carry out desired behaviors," according to the abstract.

Researchers said they attempted to influence soldiers by creating fake accounts, befriending the troops on social platforms and creating fake pages and groups where they could advertise to them. They could not disclose their exact methods "due to operation security."

"We’re talking professional soldiers that are supposed to be very prepared,” NATO StratCom Director Janis Sarts told Wired. “If you compare that to an ordinary citizen … it would be so much easier.”

The study notes that social media platforms, particularly Facebook, were able to counter some of the activities targeting troops. It said that the platform took down or suspended "honeypot pages" in about two weeks, pages mimicking real pages in an hour or two, and some profiles impersonating real people over varying periods. It did not suspend the closed groups or fake profiles. 

"The armed forces must step up monitoring and countermeasures to reduce the risk of social media being used to gather mission-sensitive information," the study concludes.