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College Football's Cyber Warfare

by on February 22, 2018 5:00 AM


After special prosecutor Robert Mueller announced indictments for a number of Russians last week, the Washington Post published an interview with an employee from a Russian troll farm near St. Petersburg. The employee talked openly about creating multiple online personalities and using them to influence opinions, organize efforts and create division using narratives and stories they had cooked up.

This was some real 21st century spy warfare, the kind of stuff you would see in the Showtime series “Homeland.”

But would you believe this type of social media/internet cyber warfare has been going in college football for a long time?

It has.

The internet disinformation wars began years ago in college football. As far back as the late 1990s coaches and operatives in football programs would create online message board personalities to post "rumors" on opposing team's message boards. Often the rumors involved an opposing coach being on the hot seat, or players being unhappy or wanting to transfer. These posts usually sparked a string of responses.

These threads were created to sow doubts about rival schools in recruiting and often the coaches who started the disinformation would direct recruits to check them out. The recruit would see the rumor and the negative fan feedback.

Those were the early days and they seem quaint now.

As social media exploded so did the size and sophistication of college football social media operations, including cyber warfare.

Because the NCAA now allows coaches and teams to retweet things recruits post they can easily signal to their fan base who they are recruiting. For years the NCAA did not allow teams to publicize who they were recruiting to prevent rogue boosters from having contact with recruits.

Those days are over. Coaches essentially confirm who their school is recruiting and fans can engage directly with recruits on social media. It creates a lot more opportunity for disinformation.

But the real cyber warfare takes place with internet operations in college football programs. Like the Russian troll farms, they create online personalities to troll other teams, to contact and help recruit players and to try to control and react to any negative news stories.

One of the methods used in the Russian troll farms was to stage mock debates between people in comments sections, or in social media. A couple of trolls would debate a straw man in the comments section and inevitably they would convert the straw man to endorse the view they wanted.

Some programs have the same type of operation. On message boards or social media you’ll see online personalities that always defend their school and engage every time there is something they want to refute.

But the disinformation plots don't just work on recruits. They are used to fight against negative fans when a team might be struggling. They are used to create apparent "virtual momentum" and the appearance of a groundswell of support when a school is deciding to possibly fire a coach, or hiring one. They are used to swamp the comment sections of certain writers who may be critical of the program.

Athletic directors and administrators fall for it because they are concerned about popular opinion. While head coaches may maintain plausible deniability, the operations are all part of helping them keep their jobs.

It is possible that the superagents in college coaching who have many big-name clients may have similar operations. As openings come and go, those agents could deploy their trolls to whip up popular opinion to get their guy hired and thereby reap the rewards of major new contracts.

As more details about the Russian operation emerge, keep in mind that the cutthroat world of international cyber warfare and politics may be reflective of what may be going on at your favorite school’s athletic program.

These operations have shot up as the NCAA’s regulatory retreat from social media has left an online world of Wild-West lawlessness.

Building the positive propaganda and combatting every negative rumor and utterance has become a full-time 24/7 operation. So too are the even murkier operations that create disinformation through rumor and innuendo to damage other schools or help your school with recruits, fans and administrations. An army of interns in football buildings around the country are always on the case.

And you thought that this was a Russian creation? Guess again.

It is a bold new world out there. Prophecies of disinformation operations using high-level technology that Orwell wrote about in his book “1984” have been exposed in politics. Little did many of you suspect that those Orwellian tactics have already been part of college football programs’ operations for years.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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