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Online ‘propaganda’ campaign targets USA Today reporters

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Two USA Today reporters have become the target of a propaganda campaign after they reported on the tax problems of a intelligence contractor.

Tom Vanden Brook and Ray Locker reported in February on “dubious, costly” propaganda campaigns carried out by contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The reporters noted that Leonie Industries was awarded a contract from the Department of Defense, even though the company’s owners owed at least $4 million in federal taxes.

Leonie Industries is a relatively small company that specializes in cyber operations, intelligence analysis, psychological operations, and counter-IED explosives operations. The company said that due to the owner’s financial troubles, they were unable to fulfill their “personal tax obligations on time,” but have since been “faithfully paying their tax liabilities through installment plans.”

Since reporting on the company, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts have been created in the name of Tom Vanden Brook and Ray Locker, according to USA Today.

In addition, dozens of comments criticizing the reporters on message boards, Yahoo! answers, Wikipedia, blogs, and other websites have suddenly sprung up. Websites were even registered in their names, but have since been taken down.

“I find it creepy and cowardly that somebody would hide behind my name and presumably make up other names in an attempt to undermine my credibility,” Vanden Brook said.

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The propaganda campaign appears to be similar in concept to “persona management software” that the U.S. Air Force had sought to acquire. The technology would allow a single individual to command virtual armies of fake, digital “people” across numerous social media portals.

A Pentagon spokesman told USA Today that he was not aware of any contractors who were targeting the reporters “nor would it be acceptable.”

“This is a clear attempt at intimidation that has failed,” Locker said.

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Trump endorses killing journalists, like Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Online ad networks are now targeting sites that cover acts of violence against dissidents, LGBTQ people and people of color.

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