Dissecting a black ops operation (and how #epalwatch was abused)

From about 3pm till about 7pm on January 14, 2015 and continuing till January 16, the hashtag #epalwatch was used by what we believe to be black ops accounts to bash a brand that this group alleged was promoting its services for the papal visit.

Social media has become the new arena for black operations (or black ops, for short).

Wikipedia defines a black operation this way:

“…a covert operation by a government, a government agency, or a military organization. This can include activities by private companies or groups. Key features of a black operation are that it is clandestine, it has negative overtones, and it is not attributable to the organization carrying it out. The main difference between a black operation and one that is merely clandestine is that a black operation involves a significant degree of deception, to conceal who is behind it or to make it appear that some other entity is responsible (“false flag” operations).”

I have heard and seen examples of black ops, here and abroad. But instead of wading in the fray and getting personally involved, I normally would prefer the educational route — educating netizens about black ops and trolling in workshops on digital citizenship.

But not this time. Not when a very important pillar of citizen advocacy is used to bash a brand, hoping to bring it to its knees. I am talking specifically about the hashtag #epalwatch and how it has recently been used AND ABUSED by a group of black ops accounts.

Here is my Storify post with the tweets I curated.

What are the telltale signs of a black ops?

Simple. You will notice in this case that these were not ordinary rants from affected customers. I observed some patterns, at least with this particular abusive black ops.

1. The tweets bashing the brand came in quick succession, often just a minute apart. They also had similar tones and writing style.

2. Once one account would make an original tweet, other accounts that were apparently part of the black ops would retweet it in an effort to reach a wider audience and to keep flooding the timeline.

3. The tweets and retweets would continue even into the wee hours of the morning (unholy hours). I have seen how ordinary netizens complain about different customer service issues with different brands. Most would do so during hours when they hope their complaints will get the attention of the brand on Twitter so that a service response can be made. No one would go to the lengths these accounts went to, tweeting frequently and way beyond office hours, if they were just legitimately complaining.

4. Looking into the timeline of these black ops accounts, one would notice a pattern as well:
– Their Twitter timelines contained mostly bashing tweets (either original tweets made by them or retweets of the other black ops accounts)
– To make the operations look less like black ops, the accounts would include retweets like quotations or news. In fact when I called them out and tagged them on Twitter, they resorted to copying some of my (and others’) #epalwatch tweets and making it appear as their own.
– The black ops accounts follow each other.
– The accounts do not engage. They tweet but they do not converse with other netizens.
– Going back several months, you notice that they use other hashtags that bash the targeted brand like #(brand)bulok
– Practically all the black ops accounts were set up around the same time (opened within August 2014).

What is truly sad is not just the fact that for a time, the #epalwatch hashtag was flooded with abusive tweets directed at a brand; it was seeing young netizens using their social media skills for what I can only conclude to be personal financial gain. While we in Blog Watch are striving to reach out to the youth and teach them how to use the internet responsibly, there are those who fall for the corruption schemes of the older generation. It is indeed a monumental challenge to bring digital citizenship closer to the hearts of each and every Filipino, especially the youth. But it can be done and we will continually strive to spread this.

As the 2016 campaign and election period nears, #epalwatch will probably see a strong revival of photo submissions as epal posters start to come out and netizens resume reporting. Chances are, black ops will prosper, targeting political candidates. As netizens and potential voters, it is good to know the different ways to spot such black ops so that you can wisely distinguish legitimate tweets from the rest.

For those who have plans of taking advantage of the #epalwatch hashtag’s popularity to bring a brand down or conduct political or personal black ops, this is what we have to say:

“For as long as this group (or any other similar group) continues to use #epalwatch for its black ops, we will continue to storify and publish these tweets. Blog Watch cannot stand idly by and allow a very important hashtag used for citizen advocacy such as #epalwatch to be used and abused by any group for black ops against anyone or any company not related to the anti-epal advocacy.”

DISCLOSURE:

Blog Watch is a non-profit and purely volunteer organization dedicated to promoting online freedom of expression and access to truthful and accurate information. It is committed to enhancing the capabilities of netizens for positive and principled action.

Blog Watch is composed of independent-minded bloggers and social media users who leverage new technology tools to advocate social change and serve as a nonpartisan citizens’ watchdog and collective conscience for transparency and good governance.

The public is warned that should there be any parties claiming to represent Blog Watch and who ask for any kind of material or other consideration for involvement in Blog Watch undertakings are bogus and should not be entertained. Blog Watch further requests that any suspected fraudulent or illegal activity of this nature be immediately referred to Blog Watch or to appropriate law enforcement authorities.

Please contact Noemi Lardizabal-Dado, the editor, if you need to verify our roster of volunteer-members and editorial policies at noemidado @ gmail dot com or at contact @ blogwatch. tv.

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BlogWatch receives the “Best Story” Award for the First Data Journalism PH 2015 from the Open Knowledge Foundation and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism  for their story on “Aid Monitoring: Citizens’ Initial Efforts in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda” . Forbes Philippines also received the same award.

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