Thursday, March 02, 2006

U.S. Military Targets Blogs To Shape Opinions On Iraq, Afghanistan Operations

Jason Sherman
InsideDefense.com
March 1, 2006

In a bid to find new ways to influence public opinion about U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a small media affairs team in Tampa has burrowed into the mushrooming cyber world of blogs and persuaded hundreds of Web sites -- which then link to thousands of other sites -- to post content prepared by military public affairs officials.

Since last July, the Florida-based U.S. Central Command’s public affairs staff -- in an effort recently praised by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for its innovation -- has been initiating contact with editors of Web sites that cover operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, offering the same news releases and stories written by military officials that are made available to journalists affiliated with traditional media outlets.

In addition, this CENTCOM “electronic media engagement team” encourages these blogs to post a direct link -- along with the command’s insignia -- back to CENTCOM’s main Web site.

To date, more than 300 blogs have posted links to the command’s public affairs page, which have directed millions of viewers to CENTCOM’s site, command officials say. The blogs with direct links to CENTCOM’s site are linked to another 9,300 blogs. This second band of Web sites then link to another 270,000 blogs, providing a potentially exponential reach.

“It’s an incredible way to communicate with the public,” said Lt. Col. Richard McNorton, a CENTCOM spokesman, who oversees a team of two young, enlisted staff members who work full time on the blogs.

It has generated new traffic to the CENTCOM Web site, he said, and paved a new path for pushing content to the public that bypasses traditional print and broadcast media outlets.

CENTCOM’s Web site now gets more visitors through these linked blogs than it does from search engines like Google and Yahoo. Since the outreach effort began, online subscriptions to the command’s weekly newsletter have tripled, and the command has observed that items it sends to bloggers ripple across the Internet, directly reaching thousands of viewers, McNorton said.

These results have attracted high-level attention.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a speech last month to the Council on Foreign Relations on the need for the government to improve its strategic communications capabilities, highlighted CENTCOM’s project as an example of an innovative outreach effort.

McNorton, the CENTCOM spokesman, said the command has reached out to blogs edited by people who support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as to those who oppose it. To date, the vast majority of the blogs that regularly post CENTCOM content and provide a direct link are run by what he calls “supporters.”

“They will pretty much post anything,” he said. “The problem with that is the readers are already pro-military. It’s almost like we’re preaching to the choir.”

Fewer than 10 blogs written by those who oppose U.S. operations, which CENTCOM calls “determined detractors,” have established links, he said.

Along with these two categories, the public affairs team targets two other blog categories, McNorton said: Those run by pundits like Bill Bennett, who on occasion has posted CENTCOM content, and sites that are focused on current affairs.

Based on its experience with blogs, the command is laying plans to revamp its main Web site to provide more varied content that could be easily exported for use on blogs, he added. CENTCOM officials are looking to take advantage of new multimedia tools to provide video clips and podcasts -- individual sound files -- of speeches by senior command leaders like commander Gen. John Abizaid, he said.

All CENTCOM-generated content provided to blogs is in English. A real counter-propaganda campaign, McNorton said, would require engaging in other languages, particularly Arabic and Farsi.

“Right now our mission is to provide information to the public,” he said. “This is just another method of engaging directly.”

While military leaders may consider the blog outreach effort pioneering, McNorton noted that U.S. adversaries are demonstrating effective uses of this new medium.

“The enemy is so good at using Web sites and blogs to communicate and to recruit. They even have virtual Caliphates. We were so far behind the curve,” he said.

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