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Can't Feed the Trolls: UK Army PsyOps Unit Fails to Meet Recruitment Targets

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77 Brigade, the British Army's online media 'PsyOps' unit, is struggling to attract trolls to its ranks despite a two-year recruitment drive, Ministry of Defense figures indicate.

The 'unit' has a target size of 448, of which 182 are intended to be full-time soldiers, sailors and airmen, and 266 part-time reservists. However, as of December 31, 2016 it was home to a mere 276 cyber warriors, meaning the unit was undermanned by just under 40 percent. Of the 276, 123 were reservists, meaning the Brigade has a shortfall of 29 regulars and 143 reserves. Over 2016, just 125 soldiers were recruited to, or posted into it from elsewhere in the army.

​The target size of 448 in itself represents a significant reduction of its originally-stated goal. In the midst of its recruitment blitz, 77 Brigade was envisioned as an "operational body of 1,500-2,000." Around 42% of this total were to be reserve "weekend warriors."

Formerly known as the Security Assistance Group, the unit was rebranded to 77 Brigade in 2015, the new name deliberately invoking Major-General Orde Wingate's Indian 77th Infantry Brigade long-range penetration unit, which fought behind enemy lines in the Asia-Pacific theatre of World War Two. It was an effective merger of the Army's Media Operations Group, 15 Psychological Operations Group, Security Capacity Building Team and Military Stabilization and Support Group. 

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The group, it was said, was set up in response to similar efforts by terror groups and 'hostile' states, such as Daesh, which have used social media and online campaigns to promote their propaganda, subvert mainstream media reporting and attract new recruits. Moreover, there are suggestions the unit is tasked with destabilizing and infiltrating opposition groups within and without the UK's borders.

77 Brigade is split into six separate 'columns', with the fifth column designated as the media operations unit. This is arguably an inside joke, referencing the phrase 'fifth column' coined by Emilio Mola, a nationalist general during the Spanish Civil War.

He told a journalist in 1936 that four columns of his troops would attack Madrid from the outside, while a "quinta columna" of covert supporters inside the city would undermine the Republican government internally. Ernest Hemingway subsequently used it in the title of a 1938 book; 'The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories.'

​A spokesperson for the UK Ministry of Defense said in a statement that the army was "pleased" with the rate of growth of the Brigade.

"It is attracting trained personnel of the right knowledge, skill and experience required for its roles. The shortfall in the reserve numbers is partly due to the recent increase in liability, but is, in the main, due to the fact 77 Brigade is a new formation and it takes time for this capability to be built up," they added.

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