After I last wrote about online astroturfing, in December, I was contacted by a whistleblower. He was part of a commercial team employed to infest internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients, promoting their causes and arguing with anyone who opposed them. Like the other members of the team, he posed as a disinterested member of the public. Or, to be more accurate, as a crowd of disinterested members of the public: he used 70 personas, both to avoid detection and to create the impression that there was widespread support for his pro-corporate arguments. I’ll reveal more about what he told me when I’ve finished the investigation I’m working on.
But it now seems that these operations are more widespread, more sophisticated and more automated than most of us had guessed. Emails obtained by political hackers from a US cyber-security firm called HB Gary Federal suggest that a remarkable technological armoury is being deployed to drown out the voices of real people.
The piece goes on to describe the process by which “persona management” companies provide “pre-aged” fake personae, which have built-in histories of social media use, various profiles and accounts, etc. Apparently the Air Force has just signed a big contract for these types of sophisticated sockpuppets, which is seems have “the potential to destroy the internet as a forum for constructive debate.” Really? I kind of can’t imagine that anyone of note takes newspaper site comments that seriously. If the past several years have taught us anything, it’s that online discourse is a powerful tool for political organization, but probably not much in the way of a discursive public sphere. Has there ever been an instance of public policy deriving from the balance of blog posts favoring one side or another? Of sentiment analysis driving legislation? No matter how many sockpuppets elite organizations deploy — even if that number were zero — we have better ways of measuring public opinion than looking at what people are saying online. And if our concern is providing a productive environment for learning about policy issues, well, online discussion already doesn’t do that.