by Jillian C. York
When news of China's "50 Cent Party", a cabal of internet commentators hired by the country to leave pro-government comments on blogs and forums broke a few years back, it was largely ridiculed in the Western media as an unwinnable PR strategy.
It is difficult to say whether China's strategy has been a success, but it has certainly inspired copycats, with a recent report suggesting the phenomenon might be coming soon to Russia.
According to a report from Global Voices, Russian bloggers have recently uncovered a job description looking for someone to leave seventy comments per day from up to fifty accounts on a single blog.
It appears that the United States has been won over by the idea. Not only does the department of state employ paid commenters, but a new $2.75 million initiative led by US Central Command would allow for the creation of sock puppets in order to combat online extremism.
"America's own 50 Cent Party"
Since 2006, the Digital Outreach Team, a 10-person operation within the department of state's Bureau of International Information Programs, has engaged on blogs within the Arabic, Persian, and Urdu blogospheres, leaving comments on various sites while overtly identifying themselves as US government employees.
Unlike China's initiative, the US program targets individuals outside of the country, in the hopes of correcting misconceptions about United States foreign policy.
In late 2010, a paper released by the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD) opined that the state department's efforts in this space have been ineffective in combating extremism in the Palestinian territories and that future efforts should include both a lack of disclosure and an increase in personnel. The FDD's paper also recommended the team become a source of intelligence.
Though there is no evidence that the FDD's paper effectively influenced the department of state's strategy, a more chilling approach is taking root.
The United States military has contracted with California-based company Ntrepid to develop software that would allow users to secretly manipulate conversations on social media sites.
Sophisticated sock puppetry
The operation, led by United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, would allow a US military officer to control up to ten separate, realistic personas “based” anywhere in the world. In a piece by the Guardian, Centcom spokesman Commander Bill Speaks stated that the operation would not target sites in English--rather, the target languages will be Arabic, Urdu, and Persian--nor sites hosted in the United States.
The stated purpose of the mission is to counter speech and violent propaganda online. And surely, just as the revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia coordinated online, so can terrorists.
Though Centcom would not comment on whether they coordinate with the Department of State on their efforts, the Department’s Digital Outreach Team explicitly states that they don’t target extremist sites, due to their lack of traffic and unwillingness to engage with U.S. representatives.
But is manipulating fake personas the right way to go about targeting undesirable speech? And is a $2.75 million, presumably tax-funded project like this worth the cost? Creating multiple spam accounts isn’t exactly rocket science, and as Jeff Jarvis points out, if the efforts are uncovered, the U.S. government will be seen as “stooping to the morals of a clumsy Nigerian spammer.”
More importantly, will an effort like this be effective? Can military analysts successfully infiltrate terrorist groups via web forums or will time and taxpayer dollars be wasted targeting individuals unlikely to cause any damage to the United States.
If the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ advice were taken to heart, for example, taxpayer dollars would be essentially be spent defending Israel, not the United States. With a vague descriptor like “violent propaganda,” it’s unclear which groups and individuals Centcom’s project will target, and how that will benefit U.S. citizens.
Jillian York is a writer, blogger, and activist based in Boston. She works at Harvard Law School's Berkman Centre for Internet & Society and is involved with Global Voices Online.
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