In today’s world of social networking, information spreads like a wildfire and greatly influences public opinion. Through Facebook and Twitter accounts around the globe, people share news articles, undertake political and ideological conversations, and even influence news coverage in national outlets. Over the past couple months, we’ve witnessed this intense power as blogs, discussion boards, Facebook and Twitter have fueled uprisings across the Middle East, leading to “Egypt’s Internet Revolution” and concrete military action in Libya.
And on a smaller scale, who among us hasn’t logged into WSJ.com, FT.com or even yaledailynews.com to comment on a controversial article or opinion piece? But what if those behind organizing the uprisings, or behind the calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China, or leading the conversations on news station discussion forums weren’t who they claimed to be? What if they were foreign government actors attempting to sway public opinion? Crazy, right? Possibly the talk of an insane government conspiracy theorist? Think again.
On March 17, The Guardian reported on a U.S. government contract awarded for the design of software that would allow the U.S. military to do just that, “create fake online personas to influence Internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.” As reported, this new software will allow a service member, most likely a psychological operations soldier, to control up to 10 fake online identities and use those identities to promote a positive discussion of America on foreign websites and chat rooms. Target languages include Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto. Of course, the government has said they will not target English language websites or U.S. citizens (such an action would be against a recently enacted California state law, where many such servers are based). But the program will reportedly target chat rooms and web discussions throughout the Middle East and Asia. As explained by General David Petraeus, the goal is simply to be “first with the truth,” or at least the first with the truth the military wants to promote.
While I believe the intent behind this operation to be noble — dissuading would-be jihadists from committing acts against our soldiers, allies and interests — I cannot help but see this deceitful program as yet another example of the American government failing to live by the values we claim to promote.
In recent years, there have been numerous examples of where we have failed to live up to our own principles. Such failures run from the top to the bottom, from party to party, to the very core of our being. Whether it’s a conservative Republican senator chasing same-sex tail in public bathrooms or liberal Democrats cheating on life-long partners, we can’t seem to be the men and women we claim to be. We, collectively, believe in the universal right of human dignity, yet we committed the abuses at Abu Ghraib. We hold the Declaration of Independence and the rights of life and liberty in the highest regard, yet we violently stripped both from the innocent in the murderous acts at Haditha. And we build a fence along sections of our Southern border after mounting a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty that declares, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddle masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Hypocrisy is about as American as apple pie, and it is this hypocrisy that degrades our message. How can American values positively influence the world of the future if we can’t even show we value them ourselves?
Benjamin Franklin once said, “It is a grand mistake to think of being great without goodness and I pronounce it as certain that there was never a truly great man that was not at the same time truly virtuous.” We often think we’re great. But before we can hope to realize our potential, we must find and live by the goodness inherent in our system. The American moral standard does not, or at least should not tolerate the deceitful tactics that the proposed new software represents. Using deceptive online profiles to influence public opinion, to create an overpowering voice for Team America in any land, does not live up to the American ideal of the free exchange of ideas. We are better than that. The Internet should remain a tool for open discussion, and American military and political leaders should take a stand to end this program. We, Americans, believe in the right of free speech. And we should, for once, stand up for the ideals in which we believe.
Alex Hawke is a sophomore in Berkeley College and an Eli Whitney student.