Can You Still Trust the Internet?

The Internet is supposed to be a democratic place. Anyone can have a voice and if you deserve to be heard, you will very often find willing listeners. What happens though when higher powers start to manipulate the system for their own purposes...

|
Mar 10 2011, 9:21pm

The Internet is supposed to be a democratic place. Anyone can have a voice and if you deserve to be heard, you will very often find willing listeners. What happens though when higher powers start to manipulate the system for their own purposes? Political and corporate astroturfing has been around for a while but in the Internet, these entities have found a new weapon of mass destruction.

After I 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 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.

Several weeks ago, leaked e-mails from the whole HBGary Federal versus Anonymous fiasco revealed that the U.S. government is actively employing such strategies to manipulate the Internet zeitgeist, reports DailyKos.

  • Companies now use “persona management software”, which multiplies the efforts of each astroturfer, creating the impression that there’s major support for what a corporation or government is trying to do.
  • This software creates all the online furniture a real person would possess: a name, email accounts, web pages and social media. In other words, it automatically generates what look like authentic profiles, making it hard to tell the difference between a virtual robot and a real commentator.
  • Fake accounts can be kept updated by automatically reposting or linking to content generated elsewhere, reinforcing the impression that the account holders are real and active.
  • Human astroturfers can then be assigned these “pre-aged” accounts to create a back story, suggesting that they’ve been busy linking and retweeting for months. No one would suspect that they came onto the scene for the first time a moment ago, for the sole purpose of attacking an article on climate science or arguing against new controls on salt in junk food.
  • With some clever use of social media, astroturfers can, in the security firm’s words, “make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise … There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to fictitious personas.”

So maybe the really good forum discussion you had on gay rights was actually with an undercover field agent. Maybe that awesome link you came across on Reddit or Digg was planted there for you to discover. And maybe the witty YouTube comment you forwarded to your friends was selected from a pre-made batch.

Ones and Zeros is Motherboard’s daily investigation into the particle accelerator that is the internet. Ones, you'll come to expect, represent what's "good" and zeros, what's "bad." Get more through our Facebook and Twitter.

Submit your own Ones or Zeros here or send an email to ones.zeros.mb@gmail.com, and they may just end up featured on the front page.