Is the US military seeding fake videos on reddit?

By Jeremy Wilson

Lots of people claim to know how to make a video go viral, and what sorts of content work best. But only a few things are absolutely guaranteed to make a video successful, and one of the most foolproof is to follow the template of the military homecoming video.

These videos, which depict the reunion of US servicemen and women with their family following a deployment, trigger a mixture of emotions from patriotism to joy that  people find irresistible.

Even those with generally ambivalent feelings towards the military can’t help being swept up by the human element. Who could hate on a child tearfully throwing themselves at the brave parent they haven’t seen for six months?

It’s a wet dream for those handling the military’s public relations and the tableau has become a mainstay of Hollywood and a trope in movies from rom coms to slashers.

While these videos have found no problem circulating themselves, there has been something deeply suspicious going on over the past year on the popular social news site reddit. These types of videos have always done well and continue to do so on reddit, but about a year ago they began hitting the frontpage with suspicious regularity.

On closer inspection, it was revealed that most of these videos were being posted by a brand new redditor who would delete their account shortly after posting. For it to happen as often as it did could only mean one thing: a single person or entity was responsible for all the posts.

Invisible hand

When a redditor first pointed out the trend, the social network had a mini-meltdown. “The military is manipulating us!” they squealed as they accused every post from pictures of military puppies to pictures of soldiers waving on the plane home of being the product of sockpuppets.

The reaction might have been hysterical. But the fact remains that someone was manipulating the system to drive positive emotions about the military to millions of eyeballs.

Why would anyone, military or otherwise, want to push feel-good military videos on reddit? The most simple reason is the same as for anyone who wants to drive hits to content. Getting to the front page of reddit not only guarantees hundreds of thousands of hits, but it’s the first step to going viral, putting content in front of the media repackagers at The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed who, in turn, are watched by the mainstream media.

The second and more complicated reason is the opportunity offered by reddit to manipulate the emotions of a specific demographic. The majority of the tens of millions of regular reddit users are US-based, young, liberal and sceptical.

Negative news stories about the US military are met with a chorus of nodding exasperation for a generation who grew up with the Iraqi and Afghan wars. But the majority of redditors aren’t using the site for deep and nuanced debate: rather, they are chasing cheap and easy hits of entertainment – making them vulnerable to manipulation.

There’s a now an entire reddit manipulation industry devoted to influencing our feelings

Take the post that prompted the reddit witch-hunt against the military: the a link to the now-removed video “Man absolutely floored by the return of his son-in-law from deployment in Kuwait. This emotional of a reaction from a father-in-law is amazing”.

The post was the only submission from a new redditor and until the reddit sleuths got involved the top two comments were the only comments from new users who had joined reddit within minutes of each other.

The nature of the reddit voting system means those who comment first will have a much greater chance of being upvoted and thus being viewed by people clicking through to the post.

And what was the that top comment? “This is one of the best ones I’ve ever seen. The amount of emotion this man has for his son-in-law is amazing. What a lucky woman for having two such men in her life”.

It takes a hardened heart to downvote such a comment and regardless of whether or not they are planted, similar comments are often popular under such these feel good military posts.

So is it them?

There’s no concrete proof that the military are manipulating reddit, or any other social media sites in this way, though it’s tough to imagine who else might want to improve what they call “sentiment” around online discussion of war and the military.

But we know that advertisers certainly are. “Astroturfing,” the practice of masking the interests behind an advertising campaign through the use of sock-puppets is an established practice. From movie campaigns to product placement, there’s a now an entire reddit manipulation industry devoted to influencing our feelings.

The Psychological Operations (PSY-OP) division of the US military, now known as Military Information Support Operations (MISO), conveys selected information to influence the emotions and thus the behaviour of their audience. They are forbidden to specifically target US citizens, but we know they are also trained in the art of influencing activity online.

Representatives from the entire US military complex attend the Information Operations Global conference each year. Last year’s event was titled “Delivering Effects through Influence Activity”. The reddit logo was plastered on the front page of the conference’s website.

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The Guardian revealed almost three years ago that the US military was developing software that would allow it to manipulate social media sites by using fake identities to spread pro-American propaganda.

The brave new world of user-controlled social news sites is still in relative infancy and, as it stands, is frighteningly open to manipulation, providing an overwhelming temptation for those looking to push an agenda.