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ASTROTURFING THE INTERNET February 24, 2011

Posted by wmmbb in Blogging in general.
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George Monbiot suggests that software is now been used to overtake online forums. This software can be used to imitate people while presenting corporate and bureaucratic interests.

George Monbiot quotes the example of the proponents as Tobacco and the US Airforce. He writes:

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.

George Monbiot continues:

Software like this has the potential to destroy the internet as a forum for constructive debate. It jeapordises 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.

At the same time extraordinary measures are taken against Wikileaks. At the very least it tells us something about Corporate respect for democracy. Those who engage in the Public Relations and other activities have it seems lost any sense of personal responsibility. It is that sad. In Australia, I am guessing, there is a chance that such a scheme might run foul of the Electoral Act.

It strikes me a deep moral wrong to act in such as way as to corrupt any form of social technology, not least the democratic process. And yet these kind of activities are not new. There is bound to be further developments.

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