U.S. Navy Using Social Media To Counter Houthi Disinformation

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The Iranian-back Houthi rebels in Yemen have made repeated claims that they have damaged or even sunk the United States Navy’s Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69). The Houthi misinformation/disinformation campaign has continued to make the rounds on social media, while satirical posts have served to confuse matters at home and abroad.

However, as of this week, the warship and other vessels in her carrier strike group remain in the Red Sea protecting commercial shipping. In addition, the United States Navy’s carrier and other vessels in the region have continued to target the Houthis on the ground, and increasingly they’ve been countering the group online as well—taking the fight to social media. Yet, instead of engaging directly with the militants, the current media effort has been built around highlighting the daily routine.

As The Associated Press first reported, after one false Houthi claim, Capt. Christopher “Chowdah” Hill—the commanding officer onboard CVN-69—responded by sharing images on social media of the carrier’s bakery that included muffins and cinnamon rolls, while another post boasted about the flattop’s “Taco Tuesdays.”

Such dialog has been as much about countering rumors that the warship had been damaged or worse, but also about reassuring the families of crewmembers back home that it is business as usual for the carrier and her crew.

“The whole intent of the social media outreach was to connect with families, to bring them closer to the ship,” Hill told the AP. “So if I can post pictures of sons and daughters, husbands and wives out here, or even fathers and mothers, get it out there, it just kind of brings the family closer to us. And again, that’s our support network. But it also took on another role because everyone else was watching to see what we’re doing.”

The U.S. Navy’s use of social media to counter misinformation regarding the carrier could be useful for several reasons, explained Dr. Lance Hunter, professor of International Relations within the Online Master of Arts in Intelligence and Security Studies Program at Augusta University.

“First, given that the Houthi rebels have sunk two commercial ships in the Red Sea since November 2023, some individuals may mistakenly believe false information that the USS Eisenhower has been sunk,” said Hunter.

“Those responsible for the disinformation campaigns are trying to conflate the sinkage of the commercial ships with the status of the USS Eisenhower. Individuals who are not fully aware of the situation may be more likely to believe the misinformation,” Hunter continued. “Therefore, the U.S. Navy’s efforts on social media are important to correct the false narrative and inform the international community of the actual events.”

Is It Effective Beyond the United States

The use of social media to counter the false information comes as the warship has now been deployed to the region since last fall, and the crew may be facing fatigue from such a long presence in an active combat zone.

“The U.S. Navy’s social media strategies on this issue, led by Captain Hill have aimed to combat misinformation as well as bring the ship’s crew and their families closer together based on the type of content that is shared on social media,” added Hunter. “The approach is a creative way to counter misinformation while boosting the morale of the crew and their families back home.”

Yet, the light-hearted posts may not convince some in the Middle East, where many are quick to believe the carrier has been hit by drones and missiles. Images of cinnamon buns and posts about “Taco Tuesday” are likely to be dismissed as U.S. propaganda and disinformation. Even in America, the light-hearted social media posts come as there are reports the U.S. Navy has been engaged in the most intense combat operations since the Second World War.

“Spreading news on social media assumes that one, the U.S. military is a credible source of information for a targeted audience; and two, that accurate information alone is enough to boost morale,” suggested Irina Tsukerman, geopolitical analyst and president of Scarab Rising, Inc.

“Both assumptions are wrong,” said Tsukerman. “The Houthis, Iran, and various other regional proxies and terrorist organizations have a massive propaganda apparatus in multiple languages—including aimed at the United States public and US officials, via official channels, social media channels, and lobbyists and activists—which has a significant advantage of understanding the Western public mindset and information landscape far better than the other way around.”

She added that while the Houthis occasionally make outlandish claims linked to nonexistent successes such as the alleged hits on USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which aroused incredulity from the U.S. military and public, the stories are too often supplemented by real successes. This included the hijackings of vessels by Iran and successful hits on commercial ships.

“Houthis are taking credit for non-existent or unprovable attacks for a few reasons,” explained Tsukerman.

This includes internal propaganda for their supporters in Yemen, including those in the ‘Axis of Resistance’—the network of Iran-backed militias and terrorist organizations in the region.

In addition, the Houthis are all too aware of the power propaganda, and almost certainly believe that most Westerners don’t follow the news closely.

“Such claims can weaken the morale of the Americans, cause market panic, and lead to shipping prices skyrocketing, which is generally bad for the U.S. economy and for everyone else in the region,” Tsukerman continued. “The third reason is to make themselves stand out among the other Iran-backed groups and boost their own standing and utility which in turn gives them additional legitimacy with Iran and additional legitimacy against regional powers such as Saudi Arabia.”

The United States Navy may need to do more than just put up light-hearted posts to counter the Houthi claims. As it stands, the U.S. could be successful in countering the disinformation at home, but the Houthis will continue to denigrate the U.S. and its allies and recruit followers and supporters from its most outlandish claims.

“The U.S. is failing to understand how this sort of disinformation works in practice and why posting the real news is not enough, particularly when there is an overwhelming amount of amplified propaganda through channels that the U.S. military cannot replicate,” said Tsukerman. “At the very least, the U.S. should be looking for ways to put an end to Houthi access to channels of distributing disinformation, and causing confusion and obfuscation in their ranks, making it more difficult for them to achieve even real victories.”

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