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Combating jihadists and free speech: How the U.S. military is using fake online profiles to spread propaganda|
By Lewis Bazley
Last updated at 11:18 AM on 18th March 2011
Fake profiles would NOT operate in English as this would contravene U.S. law
Instead operators would work in languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Urdu
The American military has spent $2.8million on software to create fake personas on social networking websites in a bid to curb online jihadists.
The U.S. Central Command (Centcom) has awarded a $2.76million contract to California company Ntrepid in order to create false identities – known as ‘sock puppets’ – to manipulate conversations on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
The move is reportedly intended to hamper online extremism but critics will argue the scheme actually strikes a blow against free speech.
Online manipulation: The U.S. military is to use software that creates fake personas so as to combat extremism and spread propaganda
A June 2010 contract shows the software in question would allow users to control ‘10 personas… replete with background , history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent’.
Up to 50 users of the software would be ‘able to appear to originate in nearly any part of the world’ with the intention of interacting ‘through conventional online services and social media platforms’.
Centcom’s contract also stipulates that the users of the software should be able to handle a number of false online personas from one workstation ‘without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries’.
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Centcom spokesman Commander Bill Speaks told the Guardian: ‘The technology supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites to enable Centcom to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the U.S.’
He stressed the ‘sock puppets’ would not operate in English as to use such technology would contravene U.S. law – instead the false identities will conduct online conversations in languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Urdu.
However, the implications of the Centcom contract – which would allow U.S. forces personnel to contribute to Facebook conversation, tweets and message boards under a false name – could be of concern for free speech campaigners.
Jihadist: The U.S. project hopes to infiltrate online conversations between suspected terrorists - pictured here is Abdullah Ahmed Ali, 27, who was found guilty in 2008 of conspiring to kill hundreds of people in a bombing campaign
By contributing to online discussions while using a fake identity, the U.S. military would potentially be able to disseminate pro-American propaganda, attempt to quash dissenting opinions and create an artificial consensus.
With the software allowing users to manage several personalities from one location – thought to be Macdill air force base in Florida in this instance – its development may encourage governments or private firms to engage in similar practices.
Centcom commander James N. Mattis told a senate hearing earlier this month: ‘Our enemies operate within cyberspace (and its associated relevant physical infrastructure) to plan, coordinate, recruit, train, equip, execute and garner support for operations against the U.S., its allies and interests. Clearly, in the information age, our military must adapt to this new domain of warfare.’
The new scheme to develop fake online personas is believed to be part of Operation Earnest Voice, which manages Centcom's Information Operations, and in the words of Mattis, ‘seeks to disrupt recruitment and training of suicide bombers; deny safe havens for our adversaries; and counter extremist ideology and propaganda’.
A report by the inspector general of the U.S. defence department suggested Operation Earnest Voice had involved multinational forces in Iraq but the Ministry of Defence told the Guardian it had ‘no evidence’ of British involvement in the programme.
The MoD also declined to confirm if it had engaged in false persona creation, saying: ‘We don't comment on cyber capability.’
ber campaign: The project would see military personnel conversing on Facebook in languages such as Arabic or Urdu