Did you know the US military is running its own troll factory? Well it’s not exactly a troll factory, because of course they don’t call it that.
Now before someone calls “whataboutism” or pulls the false equivalency card, let’s discuss exactly what this operation is before I explain why it’s still a bad idea.
First of all, this
troll factory “online persona management service” is run by the government, whereas the St. Petersburg Troll Factory (officially the Internet Research Agency) is privately owned by one of Putin’s sycophants. The Russian operation actually focused more on domestic politics, while this US program is at least on paper forbidden from engaging in domestic propaganda. And of course the best defense proponents could have is that this is aimed at terrorists or potential terrorist recruits.
Now with all that out of the way, I still say this program should be canceled or at least heavily modified and regulated.
First of all, this will just be one more example of governments behaving in dishonest ways. When a foreign government, or any government, puts out some kind of propaganda no matter how true, people should know who is producing it. RFERL, VOA, and BBC are all known to be state-sponsored news agencies. Even RT basically admits that it is as well. That was part of the “logic” behind the rather toothless gesture of forcing RT America to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Sure, people who just plain hate America are likely to dismiss anything and everything that is put out by a state sponsored outlet, but at least you’re being honest that way.
When this kind of thing gets exposed, and if this article is any indication it’s already being exposed, recruiters from extremist groups will have a handy way to build trust and break down trust in the US or moderate voices by pointing out that those social media accounts criticizing the Al Qaeda or Islamic State ideology are just sock puppet accounts. Even if they happen to be lying about a particular individual, all they have to do is show that the US has done this and that will be enough to persuade many impressionable people that they cannot trust those voices criticizing the extremists. How many times have we seen a conspiracy theorist justify a particular theory by pointing out that something similar actually happened in the past?
Another good reason to shut down or at least massive overhaul this campaign is mission creep. Sure, today it sounds really agreeable because it’s supposedly aimed at radical religious extremists. But one would have to be extremely naive to think this might not be expanded to target other groups. You know- trade unions, left-wing movements, opponents of undemocratic allies such as Saudi Arabia.
There’s nothing wrong with the US helping to amplify the message of Sunni religious authorities who condemn Wahhabist violence and terrorism- but the actual voice needs to be that of the authorities. Fake accounts or bots will be less effective and, as I alluded to before, become “evidence” that jihadists can use to discredit anyone preaching against their ideology.
Since 2014 US authorities have been increasingly concerned with countering foreign propaganda. One of the best ways to do so is to first of all refuse to engage in the same activity. The US would regain a lot more credibility if it would be me open about its sins, put greater emphasis on living up to its professed values, and most of all not engage in dirty tactics that only increase paranoia and conspiratorial thinking. The best propaganda is practice.