A bit on the late side as usual, I read this article by George Monbiot tonight on the bus (coincidentally while going around Parliament Square) and was immediately outraged. For those of you who can’t be bothered to read the article, the summary is thus:
For a while now, PR companies (and the Chinese government) have been paying people to go on the internet and promote products (or ideologies) subtly – i.e. not as an obvious advertisement, but more like Jane Doe goes on a message board and tells everyone how much she loves using hair product K or a Chinese citizen getting upset and abusing a criticism of the Chinese government. What’s even more worrying though, is that lately organisations (companies and other types of organisations including the US Airforce) are now paying dedicated companies who are creating multiple fake people to do the same thing. Two quotes from the article:
“I was contacted by a whistleblower… 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… 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.”
“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… 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.”
As somebody who feels like she grew up with the internet, believes in democracy and free speech and participated in online forums, this absolutely outraged me. I’m always one for thinking I can help make a change. So I started writing an e-mail to the George Monbiot discussion group. The rest of this post is an edited version (for clarity) of this e-mail which turned out into a mini manifesto of what we as individuals can do to fight back against internet astroturfing.
The first thing is to raise awareness. Being an ex-computer scientist and now working in the environmental sector, I feel like I should have heard about this by now, but it came as a huge shock (although, “oh, that makes sense” did make itself heard at the back of my mind). So perhaps what we can do is post this on any popular message boards we frequent, make people aware and solicit opinions. Tweet it, post it on facebook and reddit.
Which brings me to the second thing. The article mentions ‘social media’ a lot. It may mean other services, but to me the largest social media networks are Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. I’ve never actually read the terms and conditions of any of these services (and I can’t afford the time to right now), but the first question should be if what these companies are doing are contravening these services’ terms and conditions. Same goes for the targets of these companies: the newspaper websites, popular forums, etc. If they are, great. If not, we need to write to these websites to make them aware of what is happening – maybe they are already, maybe they’re not. But I’m guessing that none of them want their websites used in the manner by which astroturfers are attempting to. They’ll need to rewrite their terms and conditions, and they’ll need to put people onto the case to figure out how they can detect and stop it.
This will be the difficult part for these companies. The Daily Kos reports that HB Gary are recruiting from “many different agencies and top universities like MIT”. The social media companies will have to stay ahead of these guys, but I’m sure they can do it. I know they, too, are recruiting from top universities and stealing staff from each other.
I’d love to have a discussion on this and hear anybody’s thoughts. In the meantime, I’ve posted George’s article to my facebook wall and tweeted it as per my suggestions.