U.S. Military Program Creates Online Sock Puppets To Counter ‘Enemy Propaganda’

The United States government is now in the business of professional trolling. The Guardian has discovered a program referred to as “Online Persona Management,” the goal of which appears to be to manipulate online conversations so that they’re seen as being more “pro-American.” The Pentagon says the program doesn’t have an English language component, and that it merely exists to combat misrepresentations found on Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, and Urdu language Web sites.

The program’s contract, which set back the U.S. taxpayer a cool $2.76m, is part of the larger, $200m Operation Earnest Voice program. (Operation Earnest Voice was described [PDF] by the inspector general as “an operation to influence regional and international audiences to achieve U.S. Central Command strategic objectives.”)The contract was awarded to a California company by the name of Ntrepid Corporation.

Ntrepid’s Web site has a solitary e-mail contact. There’s no whois information either, as the site is registered to Domains By Proxy, Inc., whose slogan is: “Remember, your identity is nobody’s business but ours.”

Yup, the U.S. taxpayer is funding this program, but it’s none of our business to have so much as a telephone number to call to ask a question or two. Fairly suspicious, yes.

LinkedIn does have an Ntrepid Corporation listing.

Anyhow, Centcom, the people who awarded the contract in the first place, told the Guardian: “The technology supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites to enable Centcom to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US.”

The program would accomplish this goal by having a team of users setup and maintain a variety of online profiles. The trick is that it enables one person to control up to 10 separate online profiles, or identities.

Imagine a scenario where, say, a negative-toward-the-U.S. article appeared on an Arabic language Web site. One person working for Ntrepid would then be able to create 10 accounts to try to “correct” or “add balance” to the story. Person 1 says: this story is a bunch of lies! Person 2 says: this story is false! Person 3 says: I agree with Person 1 and Person 2! All the way through to Person 10, all of which are the same person. And that’s just one Ntrepid employee. Remember: this is a $2.76m contract we’re talking about. Presumably that can pay for more than a few such employees, who are then allowed to create these 10 profiles. Please RT!

In other words, Ntrepid is being paid $2.76m to run a bunch of sock puppets. Neat.

Each sock puppet, of course, would have a plausible backstory, so that, unlike the case of BioWare the other day, they’re not easily found to be manipulating the system. The idea is to create “excellent cover and powerful deniability” for these sock puppets.

Dance puppet dance, in other words.

The whole operation smells fishy. I’m also not sure what it says about the values of the government to be handing out multi-million dollar contracts so that a couple of people in an office park in California can troll people online, but what are you gonna do? Accept that this is merely a case of high-tech espionage (if you can call trolling “high-tech”), or something altogether more sinister?