San Francisco, CA – In May, news emerged that the State Department had “hacked” into “tribal sites in Yemen”, changing al-Qaeda recruitment advertisements into ones containing information about civilians killed in terrorist strikes. A story from the Associated Press stated that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “explicitly acknowledged that the US government hacked into websites run by al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen”.
While there were strong reactions all around – from those who felt the project was ingenious to those who pointed out the hypocrisy of the hack in the wake of law enforcement’s apparent persecution of Anonymous – it turns out that the story was (at least initially) mis-reported.
“If the sites on which the advertisements were hosted were truly affiliated with al-Qaeda, purchasing advertisements on those sites would be… in violation of ‘material support’ law.“
In fact, as Wired’s Kim Zetterreports, State officials did not hack the websites, but rather placed anti-al-Qaeda ads to replace those that were running. According to State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, the ads were placed for free, though Nuland admits that State does pay for counter-ads on sites like YouTube where extremist material is placed. Interestingly, the admission follows a recommendation made last month by Evgeny Morozov, who wrote a piece suggesting that the State Department’s Internet Freedom initiative could learn from the tactics employed by Anonymous.
It is worth noting that if the sites on which the advertisements were hosted were truly affiliated with al-Qaeda, purchasing advertisements on those sites would be – for a civilian, at least – in violation of “material support” law (18 USC 2339A), which stipulate that US citizens may not provide material support or resources (meaning any tangible or intangible property or service) to those entities on the list of designated foreign terrorist organisations [PDF]. Of course, the law contains a provision (j) that support or resources “approved by the Secretary of State with the concurrence of the Attorney General” is not prosecutable.
It is also worth noting that, if the State Department had, in fact, hacked into websites, their doing so may be considered a “use of force” under the Charter of the United Nations. But in light of more recent news – that is, of the Obama administration’s involvement in Stuxnet – such a notion seems almost quaint.
Propagandising for the State
In addition to this latest news, a Washington Post article on the matter also noted that the US Central Command (CENTCOM) has a digital engagement team that monitors blogs and forums and engages with those who are “moderate in tone”. While in theory this might sound like a good idea, previous reports about CENTCOM’s efforts claimed that the project used “fake online identities” to engage with online supporters of terror, something which journalism professor Jeff Jarvis lambasted as “clumsy”. In the Post article, counter-terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann also questioned the effectiveness of such efforts in a place like Yemen, where internet penetration is approximately 1.8 per cent.
“CENTCOM’s engagement efforts seem like straight-up propaganda.“
The State Department has also engaged with online extremists via a multilingual Digital Outreach Team. That effort, too, has at times veered toward the absurd; in 2007, Palestinian blogger Haitham Sabbah reported being targeted by a member of the team after writing a blog post about US and Israeli state violence in the Middle East.
Although the State Department’s team explicitly acknowledged their government employer, it is not clear that CENTCOM’s is as transparent. So while both ventures raise questions about effectiveness, CENTCOM’s “engagement” efforts seem like straight-up propaganda.
For his part, Secretary Clinton’s Senior Adviser for Innovation, Alec Ross, has expressed the opinion that online propaganda is ineffective, stating this past January: “I just don’t think propaganda works on social media, at all.” Ross’ opinion seems to run counter to the recent admissions: counter-propaganda is, in fact, still propaganda.
A threat to ‘Net Freedom’?
Insofar as State continues to engage in counter-propaganda, transparency must be a central tenet of their work. Otherwise, the ‘Net Freedom’ initiative that continues to pour millions into anti-censorship and other technologies is under threat: after all, what reason do foreign activists have to trust a government that covertly “hacks” foreign websites?
“If the targets are strictly those engaged in violent extremism, then why in 2007 were they targeting a Palestinian blogger?“
The State Department must also make clear where it draws the line on extremism. If the targets are strictly those engaged in violent extremism, then why in 2007 were they targeting a Palestinian blogger who merely commented on the hypocrisy of nation-states that promote nonviolence while engaged in violent occupation? While few American taxpayers would have a moral quandary with State’s actions toward al-Qaeda websites, the targeting of mere commentators is far more contentious.
Still, the effectiveness of these tactics must be questioned. The efforts that the US government puts toward internet freedom are laudable, but attempting to influence an online population of fewer than one million users (such as Yemen’s) is a waste of resources; such funds would surely be better spent improving the country’s internet access and infrastructure or providing circumvention technology for users to route around censorship.
Jillian C York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.
Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork