Wednesday 23 November 2011

Cyber Warriors

Najib recruits cyber army to defend Barisan
He launches grouping of bloggers, tweeters who will explain govt policies online

KUALA LUMPUR: The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) is stepping up its cyber campaign by enlisting a loose group of bloggers and tweeters who will voluntarily explain the government's policies and defend them online.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who launched 1Malaysia Social Media Volunteers (myVO1CE) yesterday, said the time had come for BN to revamp the way it engaged with the public.

'Last time, getting information across to the people on the ground meant going to an open field and asking the Information Department to set up a stage and microphones,' he said at the inaugural 1Malaysia Social Media Convention in the Putra World Trade Centre here. 'Social media will enable us to engage the public directly.'

Datuk Seri Najib also gave the pro-BN social media users official recognition, calling them the new army for the party in the virtual world.

'So, this is your role as cyber warriors. Our social media army can 'turun padang' (get to the ground), but not by rolling up your sleeves and trouser legs. Bring out your iPads, iPhones, BlackBerrys and laptops. These are our weapons as the cyber warriors,' he said to applause by about 2,000 participants.

Social media has become increasingly important politically. Some 11.3 million Malaysians were on Facebook in the middle of the year, according to the Malaysian Insider news site.

'If we cannot tackle this new wave, we will be swept away,' Mr Najib said. 'If we cannot defend ourselves against the opposition, by default, we will lose.'

He said he, himself, was an active user of digital technology. For example, he said, he made a live recording of himself during a recent haj pilgrimage using his iPhone 4, and it was broadcast on national television.

Also present at the function was Dr Novandri Hasan Basri, a Penang Umno leader and blogger known for his attacks against the Penang state government.

One of the convention's committee members, Mr P. Kamalanathan, a ruling coalition MP, said the convention aimed to promote good ethics in blogging, tweeting as well as on Facebook.

A recent survey by global information and analytics provider Nielsen last month found that Malaysians spent an average of 20 hours online each week.

The Star/Asia News Network, Published 21 Nov 2011


US military's cyberwarriors spot lies, misleading postings and counter extremist ideology
By Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, The New York Times, 17 Nov 2011

MacDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — The morning sun had barely cast its fresh light over Tampa Bay when Ardashir Safavi — born in Iran, a refugee to Turkey, educated in the mid-Atlantic states — was up and patrolling two dozen Persian-language Web sites, hunting militant adversaries in cyberspace.

His mission was to scan news reports, blogs, social media and online essays to identify those he viewed as “containing lies, misinformation or just misperceptions” about American military operations and Pentagon policy across the Middle East.

In recent months, Mr. Safavi and his teammates spotted posts that included doctored photographs of Osama bin Laden purporting to prove that Al Qaeda’s leader had not died in an American commando raid. They turned up blogs stating that the Pentagon was accelerating war plans for invading many Muslim nations, and others amplifying Taliban accusations that American troops rape with impunity across Afghanistan.

Mr. Safavi works as part of the Digital Engagement Team, established in 2008 by the military’s Central Command to “counter extremist ideology, promote cultural awareness and explain U.S. interests,” said Maj. David E. Nevers, the team’s chief officer, who must approve all responses before they are posted on foreign-language Web sites.

The team includes 20 native speakers of Arabic, Dari, Persian, Pashto, Urdu and Russian, the latter a shared language across the Muslim countries of the former Soviet states of Central Asia. Given that Central Command is responsible for military actions in an arc of instability stretching from the Indian Ocean across the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea, people here call their headquarters “Tampa-stan.”

The government’s expanding efforts in computer-network warfare, offense and defense are among the most secret enterprises carried out by the military and intelligence community. To counter the adversary’s use of the Internet, American cyberwarriors have hacked into extremist chat rooms to sow confusion, or to inject poisonous code to take down militant Web sites. Sometimes, they choose not to act, but silently track the online movements of jihadists to learn their plans.

In contrast, the Digital Engagement Team operates in total sunshine: all of the online postings carry an official stamp acknowledging sponsorship by Central Command.

The team’s operators “respectfully deflect baseless and often irrational insults, confront adversaries with factual evidence and expose extremist propaganda that might otherwise go unrefuted,” Major Nevers said. “All engagements are transparent and attributable.”

The only obfuscation is the use of online pseudonyms to protect the civilian contract employees from potential retaliation.

Mr. Safavi’s Internet pen name is drawn from a grand Persian dynasty. On a recent morning, he spotted a provocative Persian posting that inspired an energetic thread of responses criticizing the Pentagon’s relationship with a complicated ally, Pakistan, mostly posing theories of Great Game conspiracies pitting spy vs. spy, insurgency vs. military, Washington vs. Islamabad.

The discussion was relevant beyond Mr. Safavi’s native Iran, since there are large Persian-speaking populations in Afghanistan and in its northern neighbor Tajikistan.

“You’ve heard of the Iron Curtain, of course,” Mr. Safavi said. “We’re here to pierce the Electronic Curtain because the military has decided that it cannot cede this information space to violent extremists.”

Mr. Safavi typed up a translated summary of the Internet exchange, which in a matter of minutes had grown to 29 entries read by thousands more. He proposed a response drawn from Pentagon and State Department policy statements: it described shared American and Pakistani security interests, citing as evidence the large number of Pakistanis in security forces who were killed in battles with insurgents within that country’s borders.

Then he sent a message up his chain of command to Major Nevers on a form labeled “Permission to Engage.”

The Digital Engagement Team works in cyberspace but not at network speeds because translation and approval take hours. Yet it has tried to make a virtue of the demands of oversight. If an offending Web posting is spotted in the early morning, the response is online by early afternoon, landing just as computer users across the Middle East resume their Web surfing in the hours between dinner and sleep.

Parallel to these military efforts, the State Department created a strategic counterterrorism communications center whose online analysts and bloggers try to understand what inspires their target audience — men 18 to 30 years old, mostly in the Middle East — to violent extremism, and to find ways to steer them away from that.

“We really want to have an intimate understanding of where they’re coming from, what they’re saying, how they’re saying it, and what drives them,” said Richard LeBaron, a former American ambassador to Kuwait who is the center’s coordinator.

For the State Department’s Digital Outreach Team, Arabic- and Urdu-speaking analysts engage extremists in online conversations, identifying themselves as representing the United States government. “The fact they engage with us indicates we’ve hit a nerve,” Mr. LeBaron said. “They often use horribly abusive language, so our folks have to have thick skins.”

Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism analyst at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, said that despite their limitations, these online outreach campaigns were efficient and inexpensive tools in the government’s increasingly holistic approach to combating terrorists, especially as the United States draws down its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In many respects, Mr. Fishman said, juxtaposing factual images — videotapes of the hateful preachings of the Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri against the triumphant protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo this year — can be more powerful, and more effective, than any message the government can transmit.

“Just demonstrate the facts and let reality speak for itself,” Mr. Fishman said.

Popular Arabic-language Web sites acknowledge the impact of the Digital Engagement Team. A blogger at wrote late last year that the effort “represents a shift in the style of engagement normally used by Americans with the populations of the region, which usually addresses the elites and the governments in English.”

The blogger acknowledged that the military’s online initiative “is to open a dialogue with readers and Web sites that represent a segment with different interests and opinions,” and that the Central Command postings in “smooth Arabic” were “often very sophisticated.”

Military officers admit that beyond anecdotal feedback, it is hard to measure the program’s impact. Software can tabulate the number of people reading the postings across the foreign-language Web sites where the team engages. But it is impossible to measure whether opinions are changing — and, if so, whether the team is a significant influence, or simply trying to empty the ocean of militancy one thimble at a time.

“What’s most important is that we are engaging in intelligent, honest and forthright discussions,” said Maj. T. G. Taylor, Central Command’s chief of media. “The fact that more and more forums allow us to participate with their audiences is perhaps a more important measure of our communication efforts.”

One recent effort by the Central Command involved answering a chat room query on what had been accomplished by America’s decade-long involvement in Afghanistan. “Afghans today enjoy more political, economic and social rights than at any time in the history of the country,” the Digital Engagement Team wrote back. It added, “The days of public stoning and the beating of women in the streets are over.”

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