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US military spy operation to manipulate social media

Gen. David Petraeus has previously has said US online psychological operations are aimed at ‘countering extremist ideology and propaganda’. Credit: Associated Press

By: Kaitlin Kimont, Samantha Sanchez and Angela Romano

Even the U.S. military is on social media sites these days, but their intentions might not be the same. It has been reported that the U.S. military is currently developing software that will let it create fake online personas that will then be used to spread pro-American propaganda while influencing other’s opinions and confronting extremist ideology.

United States Central Command (Centcom) has just partnered with Netrpid, a California corporation, to create the fake online personas called “sock puppets.” The contract states that U.S. servicemen and women should be able to operate up to 10 personalities each and they must be convincing. The personas must have believable backgrounds and information that would make it hard to hack and discover that they aren’t real.

There is speculation that the persona project is apart of Operation Earnest Voice (OEV). The program started much like this one, but in Iraq as a means to combat the online presence of al- Qaida. It is now a $200 million program that has also been used in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

According to the former commander of Centcom, General David Petraeus, the main goal of OEV is used to counter terrorism and radicalization propaganda. Petraeus said, “counter extremist ideology and propaganda and to ensure that credible voices in the region are heard.” He went on to explain that this is so the US military could be “first with the truth.”

However, isn’t this demand to fight extremist propaganda actually propaganda in itself? If Internet users are posting their opinion on American military politics shouldn’t they be allowed to do so? The use of OEVis meant to systematically confront and convince anti-government/ military/war people that their opinion is either biased or based on something that is untrue. Yet they do this crusade for the truth while hiding behind a fake Internet persona.

There is an argument to be made that OEV is made with good intentions, but like many things this can get out of hand. Free speech and privacy group advocates already voice concerns regarding corporate influence over the mass media. Generally, they are saying they are disturbed by the already pervasive manipulation done by the mainstream media. Throw the US military and government into the mix of manipulations and it is bound to cause hysteria and anxiety.

On the comment board for The Guardian (London) story “LesterJones” wrote, “So the US wants to do to the Internet what has already been done to mass media…”

Restricting free speech on the Internet is a legitimate concern and critics are likely to complain that this will create a false consensus in online conversations and prohibiting objectivity.

Anyone can create a fake personality to pursue on the Internet, mostly for his or her own private use, but when there is fear of the government analyzing every comment on a controversial topic, someone may be less likely to say what they really feel.

People’s privacy rights are in jeopardy. This attempt to “secretly” manipulate conversations on Facebook and Twitter is a frightening thought that free speech may never be as “free” as it was intended to be.

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