Fears are growing over the increase in ‘astroturfing’ – with signs that creating fake accounts to support controversial corporate debates are becoming more widespread.
According to the Guardian’s George Monbiot, the phenomenon whereby the illusion of a consensus on a specific argument is fabricated by an organisation on a specific, and typically controversial and unpopular, subject is becoming increasingly common.
Astroturfing is not very new of course, however it appears that techniques are becoming more widespread and sophisticated.
A whistleblower has reportedly told Monbiot that he had been employed by a company to create around 70 separate personas to avoid detection and to lend weight to sponsored arguments he would then post on internet forums.
Unfortunately it seems that such staggeringly undemocratic approaches are not uncommon, though it’s difficult to say just how widespread the practice actually is.
A recent hack on HBGary saw the release of a document that showed exactly how the firm was employing people to perpetuate the company’s viewpoint online.
A Word document was retrieved showing how the company used “persona management software”, which created all the necessary background for a fake identity to appear credible, such as a name, email, web page and social media accounts for an authentic profile which would easilly stand up to any cursory checks on Google.
With the historical background edged in, fools other posters about the legitimacy of an argument, particularly dangerous when it is considered that some people are prone to taking group opinion as a reasonably, if rarely totally, reliable gauge of fact.
So when a company uses such unscrupulous and persuasive tactics to its own ends it could mean that online readers are unknowingly being persuaded by corporates, on anything from anti-climate change to Justin Bieber’s new film being worth the entrance fee at the cinema.
The leaked document showed that it is possible to use social media in a way that an employee could “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.”
Even more disturbing, according to Monbiot, the US Air Force has been up to no good, seeking its own “persona management” technology that will be able to 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.”