Robot Wars

Robot Wars

This is worrying. You can now buy an instant army of fake online commenters to sway any public argument your way.

The author of this piece, George Monbiot, concludes: “Software like this has the potential to destroy the internet as a forum for constructive debate. It makes a mockery of online democracy.” He’s got a point I think.

The original piece was in the Guardian newspaper. I found it via Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science miniblog. Here’s the full text:

Robot Wars

Online astroturfing is more advanced and more automated than we’d imagined.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 23rd February 2011

Every month more evidence piles up, suggesting that online comment threads and forums are being hijacked by people who aren’t what they seem to be. The anonymity of the web gives companies and governments golden opportunities to run astroturf operations: fake grassroots campaigns, which 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 last 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 that 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.

But 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 HB Gary 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 the astroturfers working for them, 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 re-posting 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 re-tweeting 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 all fictitious personas”

But 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]. 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 organization. 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 “organizations that frequent same site/service often to easily switch IP addresses to look like ordinary users as opposed to one organization.”

Software like this has the potential to destroy the internet as a forum for constructive debate. It makes a mockery 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 often see on the Guardian’s sites. 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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10 Comments

Filed under blogs, media, politics

10 responses to “Robot Wars

  1. This is alarming, if unsurprising, news. I’m sorry to say I have no idea how fight back, I’ll leave that to the more techy sorts. I have enough trouble discerning spam from genuine comments as it is.

  2. How can we deal with such monsters? Create laws for the Internet?

    I warn friends repeatedly to be careful, not to be gullible or make themselves susceptible when it comes to the Internet.

  3. Barbara Rodgers

    I think I may have crossed paths with two “trolls” on separate occasions. It seems a shame that the skill it takes to create these astroturf operations isn’t channeled into more beneficial activities…

  4. I think there should be some kind of robot commentator software detection application available so that they may be routed out. Best yet, wordpress or askimet would do it for us. It would be interesting to contact askimet and ask them if their spam filtering devices can catch this kind of thing.

  5. Pingback: On-line Commentator On Your Site Could Be a Robot | ON MY WATCH – the writings of SamHenry

  6. Roo

    I have cross-posted a part of this with the link to your site (since not more than a few sentences and the image above at my site, did not ask permission. Are we still friends, then? I have also highlighted you in a Widget.

  7. Astroturfers. There exists a portion of the population that will make themselves believe anything they want to with just the slightest bit of evidence which is astonishingly contrary to fact. Ogama is a Muslim, Obama was born in Kenya, there is no global warming, there are plenty of whales and polar bears, union workers caused the deficit, war in Afghanistan protects us from terrorism and the world was created in 7 days. They will always be there. Another large group cannot be affected by astroturfes because they are watching the basketball game or American Idol. That leaves the rest of us. We can smell these rats, pay no attention and try to educate others without proselytizing.

  8. Yes ,it’s disturbing .But I suppose we have to be on our guard in “Real Life” Too. Always search for a human pulse in all encounters i guess.”Buyer Beware”!

  9. @Barbara – Yes, worth channeling the skill into something that adds to the sum of goodness in the world.
    @SamHenry – Good idea, may follow that up. And OF COURSE we’re still mates. That’s fine. (And flattering – though it’s really George Monbiot who should be flattered.)
    @Carl – fair point, but it can work well on single issue campaigns like airport expansion, new roads, waste dump location, etc. On the one side you have the protesters. On the other you have the fabricated letters to local newspapers and local councillors giving the false impression that the disruptive civil engineering project is in fact supported by many residents, despite the protest.
    @ I suppose Maxi and Tony are right. Be on guard and look for a human pulse.

  10. Shows how easily people can be influenced if these things are so effective in controlling public opinion…that in itself is disturbing. A wake-up call perhaps to society that it is time to think as individuals rather than as a mindless sheep-like collective? Promote independent, intelligent, individual thinking and maybe these things would lose their power and influence…

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