Viewpoint: U.S. Military Abuses Social Media

Industry Should Disavow and Offer to Do It Right

By Published on .

British newspapers reported in mid-March that the American military plans to manipulate social-media sites by flooding them with fake identities and propaganda intended to counter Islamic extremism. They've been working on it for a while. General David Petraeus told Congress last year that such activities were intended to "...ensure that credible voices in the region are heard." You can read about it here.

You should care, as a marketing leader, and as a citizen.

This is dumb political strategy. It's like the government announcing that it's going to use advertising to lie to people, or issue a budget that proudly flaunts accounting standards. Our military has told the world that it plans to violate our oath in the court of public opinion. The practitioners of any industry so insulted would step up and not only explain why it won't work, but decry such sinister misuse of their tools. Lawsuits would be filed. Details demanded. Maybe they'd volunteer constructive alternatives.

What have we heard from the social-media lobby? A yawning silence. My hope is that they don't know what's going on (though it would be odd that all those highfalutin monitoring mechanisms could miss it). My fear is that they just don't care or, worse, don't see a problem.

The military's plan is to enable up to 50 controllers each to manage "sock puppets" -- false online personalities -- and use them to counter pro-extremist content by inserting pro-American content into conversations conducted in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto. It is part of a $200 million psychological warfare program called "Operation Earnest Voice." Its $2.76 million price tag is being spent with a company called Ntrepid (which didn't seem to exist before it got the gig, and might be perfect for the job since the contract specifically requires "excellent cover and powerful deniability").

This plan violates every principle of online peer-to-peer social experience. Authenticity. Credibility. Direct connections. Truth. These aren't ideals that we can consider sacrificing in the pursuit of a greater good; rather, they're the nuts and bolts of how social media work, according to what the experts keep telling us, so abusing them reduces the likelihood that the military's campaign will succeed. We have extensive proof that this is true, as big brand names like Walmart have learned through painfully embarrassing experience.

And you know what? They are ideals, too, and ideals matter after all. It's impossible that the best we can do to affirm them is to violate them. I think we have a responsibility as Americans to step up and disavow such misuse of our national reputation, even if we harbored the slightest expectation that it could work. Didn't the Cold War teach us that we never realize the ends that we think justify the means?

WOMMA should be all over this, issuing press releases and testifying before Congress. Industry gurus should interrupt their selfless promotion of their trade and speak out. Your digital agencies should have a position on it. Major brands that spend money on social-media campaigns should step up and offer their expertise to the government. If you're really willing to stand behind the ROI you promote on these pages or at industry conferences, then why not let the military benefit from your expertise? Write your representative in Congress. Volunteer your time. While you're at it, ask your favorite media reporter or blogger why they're not up in arms over this garbage.

Again, I'm somewhat scared that the military's plans were conceived in the same spirit as corporate use of sponsored conversations, funding for bloggers to post, and campaigns intended to otherwise distract consumers with entertaining or symbolic content instead of inform them. In other words, they're doing what's accepted behavior these days, so it's possible that the social lobby's silence is a sign of their approval.

If it is , here's a quick story to illustrate why they and the military are wrong: We fought the Cold War through costly proxy wars and ideal-crushing intrigue in an era when there were no immediate or inexpensive ways for people to connect over vast distances. Conversation was as important then as it is now, though, and both American and Soviet institutions organized cultural exchange programs that brought more than 50,000 Soviet citizens to the U.S. between 1958 and 1988. We successfully changed many of their minds, but what did it wasn't the superiority of our military or inevitability of our political philosophy, but rather the reality of our supermarkets. The fact that we had fresh vegetables and product choice, even in winter, suggested how far behind their country was compared to ours, and brought into question everything their leadership claimed was true.

The cure for the lies of violent extremists isn't more or better lies. It's truth.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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