This morning, the Associated Press broke a story discussing the U.S. military’s use of fake online profiles (known as sock puppets) as a tool for countering violent extremism (CVE) online. The techniques employed in this effort amount to little more than a typo-ridden “catfishing” campaign. It is harmful to U.S. credibility, as it sows distrust and discourages persuadable potential extremists from having faith in the veracity of counter extremist messaging.
In 2015, ASP’s report on Military Public Diplomacy specifically recommended against this technique, stating:
“Deliberately misleading foreign publics about the source of information is not truthful, and holds the potential to discredit the messenger no matter the validity of the information.”
The question of how to best combat extremist propaganda and recruiting efforts online has been at the forefront of American foreign policy since the early days of the Iraqi insurgency. U.S. policy makers and practitioners are no stranger to the threat this poses to American interests. But poorly conceived and poorly executed information operations campaigns have plagued American efforts since this time. Efforts at the State Department to work on this issue have evolved multiple times, resulting in today’s Global Engagement Center.
As recent discourse has shown, we live in a time when it’s not entirely clear that the “truth is the best propaganda,” as Edward R Murrow once said. Russia’s apparent success in spreading disinformation through traditional and social media outlets has demonstrated how pervasive false messaging can be. But because Russia does this, and has shown significant success in terms of volume and audience reach, it does not mean that the United States of America should stoop to these levels. The message of America should be better and more principled than the message of Russia.
Certainly, there are times when revealing the truth would be detrimental to national security, especially when it comes to legitimately classified information. Lives, interests, and resources could be at stake which justifies certain levels of untruthfulness in order to protect those assets.
However, American commitment to the truth should be a principle this country stands for. When the United States communicates abroad in an effort to convince foreign publics that it is right in its policies and actions, it should not sew doubt in their minds that America is standing on a bedrock of truth.
When it comes to addressing those who may be “fence-sitters” on extremism, building a trust-based relationship is incredibly important. It is for this reason that family members and peers—sympathetic individuals who care about that person—are the best messengers. The United States is simply not a credible messenger in trying to convince potential extremists that terror attacks against the country are unjustified or shouldn’t be undertaken. The US must focus on enabling those credible messengers to spread their own message, while avoiding actions that may taint them as American puppets.
It is easy to lie. It is easy to pretend you are someone you are not on the internet. But that doesn’t mean its effective or right. The U.S. Government should be above this. Arguing against the extremist narrative is a worthy cause, but you don’t do it successfully by pretending you’re someone else. You do it by having an inarguably better narrative.