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The 'pop-op' - Digital Threat Digest

PGI’s Digital Investigations Team brings you the Digital Threat Digest, SOCMINT and OSINT insights into disinformation, influence operations, and online harms.

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Taylor Swift is the latest target of a far-right conspiracy theory that claims her and NFL boyfriend, Travis Kelce, are part of a ‘psyop’ (psychological operation). Swift has long been a target of far-right theories, especially following her support for Joe Biden during the 2020 election. The current theory goes that the Democratic Party have concocted an elaborate plan, using Swift and Kelce’s popularity in the NFL to brainwash people into voting for Biden in the November election. Those who support this theory claim that Swift will appear alongside Kelce at the Superbowl halftime show, this upcoming Sunday, to publicly endorse Biden.

The origin of this claim comes from threat actors sharing a clip from the 2019 Cyber Conflict Conference, where researcher Alicia Bargar discusses the cultural impact and power that Swift holds and how this could be harnessed to ‘encourage or promote behaviour change’. The same clip was used on Jesse Watters’ segment on Fox News recently, where he branded Swift as a ‘Pentagon asset’ but later added he had ‘no evidence’ of this. This led to official, if exasperated, confirmation from the Pentagon itself that this is a ridiculous accusation.

As an OSINT investigator, I always encourage people to be critical of what they see online, to think about the intent behind what people post online and how threat actors are trying to gain your attention and engagement. There has been a significant rise in threat actors branding events as a ‘psyop’, designed to seed constant distrust and paranoia. To these threat actors, everything can now be branded as a ‘psyop’, especially if it does not fit into the world narrative that Threat Actor A has spent months cultivating on X.

An article featured in Dazed Digital recently stated we are entering an era of ‘psyop realism’, where memetic warfare is being used to amplify ‘psyop’ content. This type of content may seem innocuous to some, it’s just a meme about 9/11 here, or a pizzagate meme there, but these actions plant the seed for conspiratorial thinking, with the algorithm sometimes delivering the final blow to entomb the user within this conspiratorial echo chamber.

So, whilst it does seem ridiculous that people are legitimately claiming a popstar to be an agent of the Pentagon - it serves as a reminder that the road to conspiracy is not swift. It happens over time, through the sharing of memes, inside jokes and comedic content which can lead users into spaces online which reinforce more nefarious and dangerous ways of viewing the world.

More about Protection Group International's Digital Investigations

Our Digital Investigations Analysts combine modern exploitative technology with deep human analytical expertise that covers the social media platforms themselves and the behaviours and the intents of those who use them. Our experienced analyst team have a deep understanding of how various threat groups use social media and follow a three-pronged approach focused on content, behaviour and infrastructure to assess and substantiate threat landscapes.

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