The US government is turning to blogs and possibly to the virtual wasteland known as Second Life to step up its faltering information war against Islamist extremists. But critics remain unimpressed, saying the measures aren't enough to counter a massive internet campaign that spreads pro-terrorist messages to people in Islamic countries.
On Thursday, Duncan MacInnes, of the State Department's bureau of international information programs, told a congressional subcommittee that government spinmeisters are on the case. In the last year, they've launched a digital outreach team, which employs Arabic speakers to challenge anti-American misrepresentations on influential Arabic-language blogs and other places in cyberspace.
"We are currently in the process of expanding the original team of two Arabic bloggers to six, while also adding one Urdu and two Farsi (Persian) linguists," MacInnes said in prepared remarks (PDF here) submitted to the House Armed Services Committee's panel of terrorism. "We are also exploring how we can use the applicability of our mission of new cyber-technologies such as Second Life and cell phone games to further advance our mission."
He said an Arabic website used to counter violent extremism attracts more than 200,000 visitors per month from countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. A separate Persian site, he said, "has been highly successful," averaging 42,000 users per week.
Critics include US Representative and chair of the terrorism subcommittee Adam Smith, who is less than impressed with the State Department's tepid response to the extremist propaganda.
"My sense after the hearing remains that we are not adequately resourcing our online activities, both in terms of funding and in terms of giving the people on the front lines authority to act outside of a lengthy bureaucratic review process," he wrote in this comment on Wired News. "We're also not doing enough to reach out to online communities and bloggers based here in the US to get the benefit of their expertise."
Smith was largely echoing the sentiments of Wired News writer Noah Shachtman, who previewed the hearing.
"Ummmm.... Two bloggers, and 200,000 visitors - that's kind of small potatoes, right?" Shachtman wrote. Grass roots efforts to seed pro-US sentiments would be more successful if the 180,000 American troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan were encouraged to blog about their experiences, he argued.
Alas, US army regulations require all soldiers to get a supervisor's approval before posting information in a public forum. ®