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Pentagon fighting Taliban on social media front

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military is ramping up efforts to counter the Taliban's growing presence on social media sites by aggressively responding to falsehoods and reporting violations of the sites' guidelines on violent threats, experts say.

Twitter accounts or websites associated with militant groups typically take responsibility for attacks whether or not they had anything to do with them.

But most of the information they provide is either exaggerated or false, said Army Lt. Col. T.G. Taylor, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.

The Pentagon has become quicker and more effective at issuing rebuttals through Twitter and other venues, said Christopher Paul, an information operations analyst at RAND Corp.

"Insurgents have always wanted to make themselves look like winners," Paul said. "The Internet makes it a whole lot easier."

Winning the information war is particularly important in insurgencies, where shaping public opinion can count as much as what happens on the battlefield.

The Taliban and other militant groups issue statements and video to create a perception of chaos in the country and to undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

Despite the Taliban's hostility to modernity, they have adapted well to social media, military officials said.

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"They're all over Twitter," said Marine Lt. Col. Stewart Upton, a spokesman for Regional Command Southwest. "They're incessantly tweeting."

Internet access remains limited in Afghanistan, but increasingly people have cellphones and Taliban claims often spread from social media to satellite television and local news outlets. Militants also use a variety of languages on the Internet, including English.

The military has long struggled with how to counter enemy propaganda in Afghanistan. Insurgents post claims quickly and the military had been slow to respond, waiting to get the full story.

"We're getting better," Paul said. "There's a practical limit to how good we can get."

The military says it has reported militants when they have directly promoted violence.

Twitter could suspend an account if a user violates policies. Twitter spokeswoman Rachael Horwitz said the social networking service does not discuss specific accounts, including military requests.

Over the past year, Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, has reported about 10 social media violations by militants, Taylor said. In general, however, officers say they prefer to engage the Taliban openly rather than impede their right to free speech by trying to deny them access to the Internet.

"That would make it look like we're afraid to engage them on the moral battlefield and we're not," Upton said.

The more aggressive approach seems to be working. Increasingly, local media are seeking out the coalition for its side of the story and eying Taliban claims more skeptically than in the past, the military said.

This week the Taliban took to Twitter to deny responsibility for the recent beheadings of 17 Afghans. The Afghan government dismissed the statement, saying the Taliban was responsible.
 

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