DOD taking to the web to fight information war
Stars and Stripes June 17, 2007
Mideast edition, Saturday, June 17, 2007
STUTTGART, Germany — For decades, the idea war was fought over the airwaves. Broadcasters used networks such as the U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe to send their message behind the Iron Curtain.
The sites target audiences in two contentious regions, northern Africa and southeastern Europe.
Both look like normal news sites with a mix of news, sports and entertainment. Both have dozens of links to other sites ranging from Turkish Daily News to Reuters to the Washington Post.
EUCOM pays $4.7 million annually to General Dynamics Info Technologies to manage the Web sites, which get nearly 800,000 visitors per month.
“[EUCOM] does not concede the Internet as a battleground for ideas to the extremists who are very actively using it to spread their extremist rhetoric,” an e-mailed statement from the EUCOM public affairs office said.
“Web-based initiatives are an important part of our theater security strategy to build understanding and support for objectives in the Balkans and the Maghareb region of North Africa.”
Stars and Stripes requested to interview a subject matter expert from EUCOM for this story, but one was not provided. Instead, EUCOM provided e-mailed responses.
The Magharebia site, launched in 2004, targets northern Africa and is translated into Arabic, French and English. The Southeast Europe Times site was launched in 1999 to counter anti-NATO propaganda in the former Yugoslavia.
At least one observer implied that Stars and Stripes is doing a disservice by reporting about the sites.
“Everything we do should be legal and appropriate,” said Dr. James Carafano, senior research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. “But the less said about this, the better. You don’t mail your battle plan to the enemy.”
Carafano said the U.S. has to produce Web sites on the up and up: Fight the war of ideas, but respect the rule of law.
“It’s one of the great misperceptions people have about terrorism and the Internet,” he said. “People think of cyber-terrorism as a threat, that they’re going to attack the Internet. Quite the opposite is true.
“For terrorists, the Internet is one of the great tools” and used for planning, recruiting, and gathering intelligence.
The Africa site targets audiences in Algeria, Morocco and other nations with heavily Muslim populations. One challenge it faces is making sure it is sensitive to its intended audience, said Fadi Haddadin, editor of the Arabic Web site for the Washington-based Cato Institute.
The United States needs to be wary of offending people, even if it is not intentional, he said.
Haddadin, after reading stories in Arabic on www.magharebia.com, felt they might come off as favoring the Berbers, the indigenous people of Morocco, and being anti-Arabs.
“For an average Arab looking at the Web site, [with] stories about the Berbers and their language and culture, they might think [the U.S. military] is trying to split the Berbers and Arabs in that region,” said Haddadin, a Jordanian Arab.
Although the EUCOM connection is not evident on the sites’ news pages, it is in the links titled “Disclaimer” and “About Us.”
It is not unusual for Web sites to downplay sponsors because it’s often irrelevant, said Larry Hart, a spokesman for Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all U.S.-government sponsored broadcasting, such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Marti (Cuba).
“Underhanded would be to try to make people think you’re funded by something you’re not,” he said.
In its press release, EUCOM stated it was weighing the cost-effectiveness of forming similar Web sites for different parts of the African continent.