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[] The militarization of MySpace

Front Page
Oct 4, 2006
The militarization of MySpace

By Nick Turse

Those young years can be hard ones. The acne, the awkwardness, the angst.
That may be one reason, if you're between your early teens and your
mid-20s, you may already be making "friends" in the cozy cyber-confines of, the social networking website that bills itself as "an online
community that lets you meet your friends' friends".

At MySpace, each user can create a customized webpage or "profile", upload
photos (only from your best angle and then Photoshopped to the hilt), blog
around the clock, and - most important of all - court those "friends".

In an eerie reflection of the very world many MySpace scenesters
undoubtedly plunge into cyberspace to avoid, the measure of success at the
site is how much you can increase your page's popularity. You do this by
posting attention-grabbing content, breathlessly soliciting other users,
putting up provocative pictures to attract attention, sending out
"bulletins" to your existing "friends" and asking them to "whore" you out
to their list of friends. With its multimillions of "friends" to garner,
the site is wildly popular - and not just for insecure teens, either.

MySpace has become a magnet for those who want, for one reason or another,
to draw young eyeballs (and often young pocketbooks). Colleges, corporate
products such as Toyota's Yaris and the Honda Element, even fictional
characters such as Ricky Bobby from the movie Talladega Nights or fast-food
outlet Wendy's minimalist cartoon pitchman Smart, have already gotten into
the MySpace act.

In August, the site hit a major milestone - 100 million profiles. Even
including those corporate-sponsored sites and fictional pages, that's still
a whole lot of would-be friends.

Recently, Fortune magazine reported that MySpace, bought by Fox News mogul
Rupert Murdoch in 2005 as part of a US$580 million deal, "passed Google in
terms of traffic" and now ranks second only to Yahoo in page views with 1
billion daily. Already "home to 2.2 million bands, 8,000 comedians,
thousands of filmmakers and millions of striving, attention-starved
wanna-bes", the magazine reported that, on a typical day, it signs up
230,000 new users.

While the site's meteoric growth might be slowing of late, it has shown
special skill in recruiting people since its launch in 2003. In the same
years that MySpace has become an Internet superpower, the US Armed Forces
have sustained substantial losses.

Bogged down in unpopular occupations of two countries with no sign of
victory in sight, the US military has lowered its standards and now
recruits, writes Brad Knickerbocker in the Christian Science Monitor, "more
soldiers from the 'lowest acceptable' category based on test scores,
education levels, personal background and other indicators of ability".

Little wonder, then, with 80% of MySpace users reporting they're over 18
years old, that the military has set its sights on occupying some virginal
virtual territory in its search for fresh-faced recruits who might be
thrown into the Afghan and Iraqi breaches.

So the US Marine Corps launched its MySpace profile. A thoroughly
predictable page, it boasts a streaming video that might best be termed
boot-camp-on-speed - complete with clips of a stereotypical drill
instructor barking out commands and a bullet-cam speeding toward a target
on the rifle range.

The site even offers downloadable desktop wallpapers, mainly Marine Corps
"anchor and globe" emblems or photos of World War II-vintage marines.
Conspicuously, there isn't a modern image in sight in any way evocative of
the war in Iraq (deployment pressure from which recently caused the corps
to announce that it would force reservists to return involuntarily to duty
because of a lack of volunteers).

By July, according to an Associated Press report, "430 people had asked to
contact a marine recruiter through the site ... including some 170 who are
considered 'leads' or prospective marine recruits". With Iraq sapping its
strength, even those modest figures must be music to Marine Corps ears.

By mid-September, the marines already had close to 21,000 MySpace "friends"
endorsing their page, just below the 22,000 garnered by the "unauthorized"
Noam Chomsky page and way below Yaris's 70,000. But a respectable number

In August, not to be left out, the US Air Force launched its own page.
Along with the already requisite downloadable wallpapers, it offered
youthful visitors the opportunity to click to chat with an air force
"adviser". Colonel Brian Madtes, the air force recruiting service's
strategic communications director, was blunt about the reasons in an
"interview" with the air force's own news agency: "In order to reach young
men and women today, we need to be in tune and engaged in their circles. is a great way to get the word out to the public about the
amazing things people are doing in the air force."

One-upping the marines, the air force also launched a cross-promotional
effort with the Fox network television show Prison Break. Visitors to its
MySpace profile page were offered five slick "rough cuts" of air force
commercials on which to vote their preferences. The winning ad ran during
the September 18 episode of the prison-escape drama.

The next day, in an abrupt about-face, the air force shut down its MySpace
page over "concerns that association with inappropriate content might
damage the service's reputation". As Madtes told the Air Force Times, "The
danger with MySpace is we got to the point where we weren't real
comfortable with the potential for inappropriate content to be posted [on
the page of] a friend of a friend. We didn't want to be associated with
that and tarnish our reputation."

Earlier, the US Army also expressed reservations over MySpace, and canceled
an advertising contract with the site after just one month, because of
reports of "child predators approaching youths via the site". In fact,
MySpace is entangled in a US$30 million lawsuit brought by a "14-year-old
girl who says she was sexually assaulted by another user of".

In a recent speech, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales called attention to
an incident in which a man "used to lure an 11-year-old girl
into having illicit sexual relations", and the House of Representatives
passed a measure to ban and other social-networking sites from
schools and libraries, by a lopsided 410-15.

This summer, an army sergeant based in Fort Drum, New York, was caught in a
sting operation soliciting a sheriff's detective, posing as a 15-year-old
girl on MySpace, for sex. He pleaded guilty to "criminal solicitation and
attempted rape in the third degree".

Despite these developments and the air force's hasty withdrawal, the army
has decided to embrace MySpace in a bigger way. In November, it's slated to
launch a profile, according to Louise Eaton, the service's advertising
media and Web chief. The change of heart occurred, she said, when the army
received "a lot of assurances from MySpace that they're taking a more
proactive approach to controlling the environment ... and protecting the
privacy of people under 18".

In a telephone interview with Tomdispatch, Eaton said that MySpace
production teams were working with army Web designers and a team from
McCann Erickson, the army's ad agency, to create an interactive site
complete with downloads, videos, access to blogs, an RSS (really simple
syndication) feed and "several ways to contact a recruiter". While the
army's designers are primarily after the eyeballs of 17-24-year-old
"enlistment prospects", she recognized that a younger set may also be
taking a look. "It's all right for younger people to see it, it's not
propaganda," she commented.

According to Eaton, the army's profile page is entirely devoted
to shuttling people to its official GoArmy website. Taking a page from
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's book, she defines success - in this
case online, not in Iraq - in terms of "metrics". For her, three are key:
page views, people who contact the army for "more information", and traffic
to "We'll be very interested to see how many people register as
our friend," she confessed, suggesting that she expected them to be "very,
very, very many in number".

MySpace proved impossible to contact on its work with the military,
refusing to respond to multiple messages, but Eaton was expansive when it
came to what was on the army's online drawing board. Her service, she
assured me, was "not just interested in the enlistment prospects, the young
people ... We're also interested in their parents."

Unlike the military's debut on MySpace, this isn't in itself news. After
all, the army already had parents in its online sights last year through
Today', a slick website that professes to "to educate parents
and other adults about the opportunities and benefits available to young
people in the military today" with nary a mention of war, injury or death.
What is news is the army's coming venture in targeting grown-ups through
America Online, where it will launch "a social networking site for parents".

The army's eyes are also on "the blogosphere". Eaton noted that "many, many
military people unofficially participate, and we're studying that and
trying to figure out where to go with that". And don't forget about, a video-posting site that bills itself as "a consumer media
company for people to watch and share original videos worldwide through a
Web experience". "YouTube is doing some cool things," said Eaton. "We don't
know where it's going to go, but we're watching it closely."

Even while meeting its current recruiting goals this year, the military is
feeling the heat and pulling out all the stops to attract potential
recruits and fill the ranks. Like its sponsorships of the Professional Bull
Riders, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys' Association and NASCAR (the
National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing), its use of specially
engineered video games and snazzy television commercials, the Pentagon's
new focus on finding "friends" on social-networking sites is a symptom of
how hard-pressed its officials really are. Increasingly desperate to
recruit and retain bodies, the US military continues to invade new media
territory, from text-messaging to Pentagon podcasting.

Today, sexual predators aren't the only ones trolling the Internet for
young bodies. MySpace claims to be taking steps to safeguard children from
a certain type of cyber-stalker while, at the same time, facilitating the
efforts of another group just as interested in putting those young bodies
in truly uncomfortable situations. With MySpace "friends" like these, who
needs enemies? After all, what kind of "friend" looks to enlist you in a
potentially life-threatening enterprise already considered a catastrophe by
most Americans?

The militarization of MySpace is just the latest Pentagon effort to occupy
a new realm that will put the military product in front of ever more young
eyes. The role of "friendly", taking a desperate military's
money to target its hordes of young friends searching for popularity online
is troubling.

But it's also typical of the business side of the military-corporate
complex, because it's the civilian firms - producing everything from
weapons to websites - that allow the military to function as it does. In
the case of MySpace, the friendly firm is deeply involved in producing the
US Army's page and will, said Eaton, be "doing the daily maintenance" on it.

If bios at the site are to be believed, there are young Iraqis on MySpace.
What if you, an American kid with an Iraqi MySpace "friend", check in with
that friendly US Marine Corps recruiter, enlist, and are sent to Iraq by
your MySpace military "friend" and the latter "friend" calls on you to kill
the former? Does MySpace have any reservations about setting up a system
where such a scenario could become a reality?

Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of

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