A reporter and an editor from USA Today have become targets of a shadowy online misinformation campaign while investigating Pentagon propaganda contractors, according to the paper. Tom Vanden Brook and Ray Locker noticed fake websites, Twitter accounts, Facebook profiles, and even Wikipedia pages start popping up right after they began asking around about the military’s “information operations” programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. USA Today reports, “If the websites were created using federal funds, it could violate federal law prohibiting the production of propaganda for domestic consumption.” But a Pentagon spokesperson says, “We’re not aware of any participation in such activities, nor would it be acceptable.”
TomVandenBrook.com and RayLocker.com were both registered after the men started reporting stories critical of the Pentagon contractors, but were taken down after the journalists inquired about the bogus sites. Both pages used a proxy service to disguise who registered them. “The person who’s behind this, we can give them a lot of credit here and assume they’re very sophisticated about reputation attacks,” said one online expert. “This is the work of somebody who knows what they’re doing. They have some experience of covering their tracks. This is probably not the first time they’ve done something like this.”
Locker told Erik Wemple of the Washington Post that the smear campaign is “something I’ve never experienced in 30 years,” and that the fake sites linked to the journalists’ previous work and included “nasty, untrue” comments. “If they thought it would deter me from writing about this, they’re wrong,” said Vanden Brook. With a few more twists and turns, this could be a George Clooney movie.
Update: Gawker’s John Cook says the Pentagon contractor in question is probably Leonie Industries, “an information operations company with more than $90 million in Army contracts in Afghanistan,” which also happens to be the one Vanden Brook and Locker wrote about in February.