Raw Story reports that a United States Central Command spokesman recently confirmed that the US Air Force had solicited private sector vendors for something called “persona management software.” The technology would allow an individual to “command” virtual armies of fake, digital personas across multiple social media portals.
The “personas” would have detailed, fictionalized backgrounds to make them undetectable as fake to outside observers, and there would be sophisticated identity protection to support the deception, preventing suspicious readers from uncovering the real person behind the account. The program would also fool geolocating services, so these “personas” could be virtually inserted anywhere in the world, providing ostensibly live commentary on real events, even while the operator was not present.
As readers of Ethics Alarms know, I am loathe to call any technological development inherently unethical, though some uses of any technology can be. Cloning, for example, is a perfectly natural, if inherently odd, way of reproducing—several lizards do it with gusto. There is nothing inherently unethical about cloning technology, but creating spare duplicates for organ transplants, as in the science fiction film, “The Island,” certainly is.
I had a difficult time, however, thinking of any ethical uses for the Air Force’s planned army of fake virtual personas. (Or would it be an Air Force of fake virtual personas?)
The Raw Story report speculates on some of the potential unethical uses, noting that,
“A fake virtual army of people could be used to help create the impression of consensus opinion in online comment threads, or manipulate social media to the point where valuable stories are suppressed.Ultimately, this can have the effect of causing a net change to the public’s opinions and understanding of key world events.”
An Air Force source, however, told Raw Story that the real purpose of the software was classified, saying that “the public cannot know what the military wants with such technology because its applications are secret,” and going on to say that the program “supports classified social media activities outside the U.S., intended to counter violent extremist ideology and enemy propaganda.”
Okaaaay.… that might be ethical, in a national defense setting. After all, the Air Force could use nuclear weapons to wipe out U.S. cities, but we trust the military to use them for our protection and security; the military has lots of tools like this, and perhaps the “army of fake personas” is just another one, only seeming unethical because it is new and strange—the Ick Factor.
It still makes me nervous, though.