Since the start of the Iraq war, there’s been a raucous debate in military circles over how to handle blogs — and the servicemembers who want to keep them. One faction sees blogs as security risks, and a collective waste of troops’ time. The other (which includes top officers, like Gen. David Petraeus and Lt. Gen. William Caldwell) considers blogs to be a valuable source of information, and a way for ordinary troops to shape opinions, both at home and abroad.
This 2006 report for the Joint Special Operations University, “Blogs and Military Information Strategy,” offers a third approach — co-opting bloggers, or even putting them on the payroll. “Hiring a block of bloggers to verbally attack a specific person or promote a specific message may be worth considering,” write the report’s co-authors, James Kinniburgh and Dororthy Denning.
Lt. Commander Marc Boyd, a U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman, says the report was merely an academic exercise. “The comments are not ‘actionable’, merely thought provoking,” he tells Danger Room. “The views expressed in the article publication are entirely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, policy or position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, USSOCOM [Special Operations Command], or the Joint Special Operations University.”
Denning, a professor at Naval Postgraduate School, adds in an e-mail, “I got some positive feedback from people who read the article, but I don’t know if it led to anything.”
The report introduces the military audience to the “blogging phenomenon,” and lays out a number of ways in which the armed forces — specifically, the military’s public affairs, information operations, and psychological operations units — might use the sites to their advantage.
Information strategists can consider clandestinely recruiting or hiring prominent bloggers or other persons of prominence… to pass the U.S. message. In this way, the U.S. can overleap the entrenched inequalities and make use of preexisting intellectual and social capital. Sometimes numbers can be effective; hiring a block of bloggers to verbally attack a specific person or promote a specific message may be worth considering. On the other hand, such operations can have a blowback effect, as witnessed by the public reaction following revelations that the U.S. military had paid journalists to publish stories in the Iraqi press under their own names. People do not like to be deceived, and the price of being exposed is lost credibility and trust.
An alternative strategy is to “make” a blog and blogger. The process of boosting the blog to a position of influence could take some time, however, and depending on the person running the blog, may impose a significant educational burden, in terms of cultural and linguistic training before the blog could be put online to any useful effect. Still, there are people in the military today who like to blog. In some cases, their talents might be redirected toward operating blogs as part of an information campaign. If a military blog offers valuable information that is not available from other sources, it could rise in rank fairly rapidly.
Denning, the report’s author, has promoted controversial opinions before. In the early 1990s, when she was chair of the Georgetown University’s computer science department, Denning emerged as the leading advocate for the so-called “Clipper Chip,” a cryptographic device for protecting communications — until the government wanted to listen in. The project was cancelled by 1996.
In her 2006 paper, Denning warns that blogs can and will be used by America’s enemies. These sites, she argues, can also be used to serve U.S. government interests.
There are certain to be cases where some blog, outside the control of the U.S. government, promotes a message that is antithetical to U.S. interests, or actively supports the informational, recruiting and logistical activities of our enemies. The initial reaction may be to take down the site, but this is problematic in that doing so does not guarantee that the site will remain down. As has been the case with many such sites, the offending site will likely move to a different host server, often in a third country. Moreover, such action will likely produce even more interest in the site and its contents. Also, taking down a site that is known to pass enemy EEIs (essential elements of information) and that gives us their key messages denies us a valuable information source. This is not to say that once the information passed becomes redundant or is superseded by a better source that the site should be taken down. At that point the enemy blog might be used covertly as a vehicle for friendly information operations. Hacking the site and subtly changing the messages and data—merely a few words or phrases—may be sufficient to begin destroying the blogger’s credibility with the audience. Better yet, if the blogger happens to be passing enemy communications and logistics data, the information content could be corrupted. If the messages are subtly tweaked and the data corrupted in the right way, the enemy may reason that the blogger in question has betrayed them and either take down the site (and the blogger) themselves, or by threatening such action, give the U.S. an opportunity to offer the individual amnesty in exchange for information. (emphasis mine)
(Hook up: Cryptome.org; photo: Peter Starman / WIRED)
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