It’s a staple of the mudslinging in comment threads at various political blogs, in response to right-wing trolls, to wonder who’s paying them. Now, thanks to an article in today’s Guardian UK, we know at least one of the answers: We are.
The US military is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.
A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an “online persona management service” that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world….
The discovery that the US military is developing false online personalities – known to users of social media as “sock puppets” – could also encourage other governments, private companies and non-government organisations to do the same.
The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations “without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries”.
Three thoughts. First, this report is that the US military is seeking to develop software that would at least partially automate what can easily be done at most any Web site or Facebook or Twitter account by hand. It’s therefore reasonable to assume that the US military (along with how many other government agencies?) is already doing this, just not as efficiently as the new software would allow.
Secondly, the US government is prohibited by law from propagandizing US citizens (insert laugh track here), and since online communities have no international borders, even if they’re based overseas, that’s exactly what these efforts would do. This is not just a breach of online etiquette. It’s a crime.
Third: why, oh why, does it always seem to be a British or other foreign media outlet that first reports these stories? I’m just sayin’…