The need to protect the internet from 'astroturfing' grows ever more urgent | Internet | The Guardian

  
Via:  CB  •  7 months ago  •  30 comments

By:   GeorgeMonbiot (the Guardian)

The need to protect the internet from 'astroturfing' grows ever more urgent | Internet | The Guardian
George Monbiot: The tobacco industry does it, the US Air Force clearly wants to ... astroturfing - the use of sophisticated software to drown out real people on web forums - is on the rise. How do we stop it?

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This is an old concept that is still very real today and going on onlline! Watch out!!! You may be exhausted talking to phantoms, bots, and more.


S E E D E D   C O N T E N T



The tobacco industry does it, the US Air Force clearly wants to ... astroturfing - the use of sophisticated software to drown out real people on web forums - is on the rise. How do we stop

it?

Internet-user-in-public-l-007.jpg?width=465&quality=45&auto=format&fit=max&dpr=2&s=b812e178d9ec82c4817223dea28eaf77

A real person using the internet. Unfortunately we can no longer assume what we are reading is written by one of these creatures. Photograph: Jeff Blackler/Rex Features

Every month more evidence piles up, suggesting that online comment threads and forums are being hijacked by people who aren't what they seem.

The anonymity of the web gives companies and governments golden opportunities to run astroturf operations: fake grassroots campaigns that create the impression that large numbers of people are demanding or opposing particular policies. This deception is most likely to occur where the interests of companies or governments come into conflict with the interests of the public. For example, there's a long history of tobacco companies creating astroturf groups to fight attempts to regulate them.

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.

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 HBGary Federal suggest that a remarkable technological armoury is being deployed to drown out the voices of real people.

As the Daily Kos has reported, the emails show that:

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."

Perhaps the most disturbing revelation is this. The US Air Force has been tendering for companies to supply it with persona management software, which will perform the following tasks:

a. Create "10 personas per user, replete with background, history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent … Personas must be able to appear to originate in nearly any part of the world and can interact through conventional online services and social media platforms."

b. Automatically provide its astroturfers with "randomly selected IP addresses through which they can access the internet" (an IP address is the number which identifies someone's computer), and these are to be changed every day, "hiding the existence of the operation". The software should also mix up the astroturfers' web traffic with "traffic from multitudes of users from outside the organisation. This traffic blending provides excellent cover and powerful deniability."

c. Create "static IP addresses" for each persona, enabling different astroturfers "to look like the same person over time". It should also allow "organisations that frequent same site/service often to easily switch IP addresses to look like ordinary users as opposed to one organisation."

Software like this has the potential to destroy the internet as a forum for constructive debate. It jeopardises the notion of online democracy. Comment threads on issues with major commercial implications are already being wrecked by what look like armies of organised trolls - as you can sometimes see on guardian.co.uk.

The internet is a wonderful gift, but it's also a bonanza for corporate lobbyists, viral marketers and government spin doctors, who can operate in cyberspace without regulation, accountability or fear of detection. So let me repeat the question I've put in previous articles, and which has yet to be satisfactorily answered: what should we do to fight these tactics?


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CB
Professor Principal
1  seeder  CB     7 months ago

The internet is a wonderful gift, but it's also a bonanza for corporate lobbyists, viral marketers and government spin doctors

 
 
 
Right Down the Center
Sophomore Guide
1.1  Right Down the Center  replied to  CB @1    7 months ago

That is why a health dose of skepticism is needed for everything you read or see on the internet. 

 
 
 
Greg Jones
Professor Guide
1.1.1  Greg Jones  replied to  Right Down the Center @1.1    7 months ago

Including this forum.

 
 
 
Right Down the Center
Sophomore Guide
1.1.2  Right Down the Center  replied to  Greg Jones @1.1.1    7 months ago

Yep. Especially with a few posters who do little other than spin a crap web.

 
 
 
CB
Professor Principal
2  seeder  CB     7 months ago

Skepticism yes, conspiratorial naysaying no.

 
 
 
Right Down the Center
Sophomore Guide
2.1  Right Down the Center  replied to  CB @2    7 months ago

That is a fine, often fuzzy line.

 
 
 
CB
Professor Principal
2.1.1  seeder  CB   replied to  Right Down the Center @2.1    7 months ago

Why? Do you see conspiracies across the spectrum of life? Conspiracy theories are dangerous, which is why I discipline myself to not let them run amok with me!

 
 
 
Right Down the Center
Sophomore Guide
2.1.2  Right Down the Center  replied to  CB @2.1.1    7 months ago

Conspiracy theories are in the eye of the beholder. Which brings me back to be skeptical of what you see and hear. Assume the narrator has an agenda. It is too easy to take a side and say that anything the other side says must be a conspiracy theory. And heaven forbid someone says both sides are guilty of it.

 
 
 
CB
Professor Principal
2.1.3  seeder  CB   replied to  Right Down the Center @2.1.2    7 months ago

We can be skeptical and apply wisdom at the same time. Because no matter how you try or not try-you, we, will believe something at all times. Why? Because fact or fiction is how we operate as creatures living side-by-side communally. So wisdom is the thing. And it is borne out of experiences.

 
 
 
Drinker of the Wry
Freshman Principal
2.1.4  Drinker of the Wry  replied to  CB @2.1.1    7 months ago
Conspiracy theories are dangerous,

There is a new one right now on NT about CEO's:

  • exploiting supply chain bottlenecks, foreign war and a pandemic to bring in record profits 
  • preparing to exploit climate change in the same way
  • ending the historical norm to  prices low to pick up profit by gaining additional market share
 
 
 
Right Down the Center
Sophomore Guide
2.1.5  Right Down the Center  replied to  CB @2.1.3    7 months ago

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. Socrates

 
 
 
Drinker of the Wry
Freshman Principal
2.1.6  Drinker of the Wry  replied to  Right Down the Center @2.1.5    7 months ago

He said it well.

 
 
 
CB
Professor Principal
2.1.7  seeder  CB   replied to  Right Down the Center @2.1.5    7 months ago

jrSmiley_99_smiley_image.jpg Really. And your experiences in life can be summed up as you knowing (absolutely) nothin g?

 
 
 
Right Down the Center
Sophomore Guide
2.1.8  Right Down the Center  replied to  CB @2.1.7    7 months ago

You added the absolutely?  Trying to improve on Socrates I see.

 
 
 
Nerm_L
Professor Principal
2.2  Nerm_L  replied to  CB @2    7 months ago
Skepticism yes, conspiratorial naysaying no.

How do you define conspiracy theory?  Here's the dictionary definition:

- a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators

A conspiracy theory would be "the US Air Force is using bots to manipulate public opinion on social media".  Of course, if there is evidence then it is no longer a theory.

 
 
 
CB
Professor Principal
2.2.1  seeder  CB   replied to  Nerm_L @2.2    7 months ago

Conspiracy theory is a form of information warfare, also. And, I wonder why a discerning person wishes to believe disinformation!

 
 
 
Right Down the Center
Sophomore Guide
2.2.2  Right Down the Center  replied to  CB @2.2.1    7 months ago
I wonder why a discerning person wishes to believe disinformation!

Maybe you could get an answer from all the people that choose to believe Joe is a good president.

 
 
 
CB
Professor Principal
2.2.3  seeder  CB   replied to  Right Down the Center @2.2.2    7 months ago

An opportune moment, RDtheC: Why do people pretend a U.S. president is ultimately in-charge when this nation has three branches and ranks of government (federal and states) non-breaking authorites?

 
 
 
Right Down the Center
Sophomore Guide
2.2.4  Right Down the Center  replied to  CB @2.2.3    7 months ago

Ask them that also.

 
 
 
CB
Professor Principal
2.2.5  seeder  CB   replied to  Right Down the Center @2.2.4    7 months ago

Because you know (absolutely) nothing, right?  /s

 
 
 
Right Down the Center
Sophomore Guide
2.2.6  Right Down the Center  replied to  CB @2.2.5    7 months ago

That must be it.  When lacking any facts make stuff up. /s

 
 
 
CB
Professor Principal
2.2.7  seeder  CB   replied to  Right Down the Center @2.2.6    7 months ago

Or, deflect 'away.' (Whichever comes first!)

 
 
 
Right Down the Center
Sophomore Guide
2.2.8  Right Down the Center  replied to  CB @2.2.7    7 months ago

Making more stuff up I see. Good for you.

 
 
 
CB
Professor Principal
2.2.9  seeder  CB   replied to  Right Down the Center @2.2.8    7 months ago

This what you are doing right here, has the potential to destroy the internet as a forum for constructive debate.

 
 
 
Right Down the Center
Sophomore Guide
2.2.10  Right Down the Center  replied to  CB @2.2.9    7 months ago

Congrats on the trifecta of disinformation.  Joe's board will be coming for you if you don't cool the making stuff up

 
 
 
CB
Professor Principal
2.2.11  seeder  CB   replied to  Right Down the Center @2.2.10    7 months ago

Well, at the least, a 'refresher' in astroturfing has been rendered for others to review at some point and time.  You can relax for now, RDtheC.

 
 
 
Drinker of the Wry
Freshman Principal
2.2.12  Drinker of the Wry  replied to  CB @2.2.11    7 months ago
at the least, a 'refresher' in astroturfing has been rendered for others to review

I thought that I knew what astroturfing meant but maybe I'm wrong.  Please cite some here so I can review as you suggested.  

 
 
 
CB
Professor Principal
2.2.13  seeder  CB   replied to  Drinker of the Wry @2.2.12    7 months ago

Yeah, and no. You can 'stand down' for now.

 
 
 
Drinker of the Wry
Freshman Principal
2.2.14  Drinker of the Wry  replied to  CB @2.2.13    7 months ago
Yeah, and no.

Huh?

You can 'stand down' for now.

Did you stall?

 
 
 
Right Down the Center
Sophomore Guide
2.2.15  Right Down the Center  replied to  CB @2.2.11    7 months ago

I was already relaxed but thanks for the permission

 
 

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