Thinking Tech

Online astroturfing gets sophisticated

Posting in Design

Online astroturfing--the use of fake online personas to support a product or cause--is nothing new. But two recent revelations cast the practice in a more sinister light.

When security consulting firm HBGary was brought to its knees by the crusading group of online activists known as Anonymous, it confirmed many peoples' worst suspicions about how corporations manage their reputations online. Among the leaked documents were plans to "disrupt" the work of journalists supportive of Wikileaks (theoretically to support of Bank of America, the alleged target of a forthcoming leak), to create false documents for its clients to mislead the press, and to create malware designed to impact the operations of Julian Assange's whistle-blowing organization.

Buried among these outwardly distasteful revelations was an email discussion of something called "persona management" software. A diarist at the Daily Kos has identified the most alarming passages:

Persona management entails not just the deconfliction of persona artifacts such as names, email addresses, landing pages, and associated content.  It also requires providing the human actors technology that takes the decision process out of the loop when using a specific persona.

To accomplish this, the company says it can create custom thumb drives or virtual machines that provide and keep updated virtual personas. A single human actor could possess numerous in-depth false online identities, each with a complete and deep web of convincing online connections and activities, and use them to disrupt discussions online.

For a corporation to send PR people to masquerade as legitimate online commenters is nothing new, and I suspect that most readers understand and consider the possibility that comments--be they under a product review or a weighty news story--might have been posted by someone with an explicit agenda. What makes this particularly worrying, though, is the level of sophistication HBGary was striving for. From another email:

Using the assigned social media accounts we can automate the posting of content that is relevant to the persona...In fact using hashtags and gaming some location based check-in services we can make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise, as one example.

What they're offering, it seems, is a ready-built, automated astroturfing machine. A client could conceivably ask HBGary to supply a small army of "commenters," who could make their message known in nearly any available forum online--not as automated representatives of said client, but under the guise of organic, free-willed, human supporters.

This alone point to a future in which anyone with money to burn could use it to pollute interactions online, manipulate public opinion, crowd dissenters and undermine the core premises of reader participation online. But, again, while this is an unfortunate development, it's not a terribly unexpected one.

But Author George Monbiot joins the Kos diarist in highlighting a similar proposal from a distinctly different source:

[The software] will allow 10 personas per user, replete with background , history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographacilly consistent. Individual applications will enable an operator to exercise a number of different online persons from the same workstation and without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries. 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. The service includes a user friendly application environment to maximize the user's situational awareness by displaying real-time local information.

This isn't actually a proposal. It'd be more accurate to call it a solicitation. A US Air Force solicitation, posted in mid-2010 on the Federal Budget Office's website, to be exact.

Granted, it's conceivable, or even probable, that the government has legitimate uses for such software, especially with wide use of social networks and online communication by terrorist groups. (Likewise, most accept the existence of outward-projecting propaganda efforts by the CIA; it follows that these efforts would extend online.) A more cynical, or perhaps realistic, view of the solicitation prompts worries about the government using such solutions for domestic image management, much like what HB Gary promised its potential clients.

No matter how private companies and public entities choose to use automated astroturfing software, one thing is clear: they almost certainly will. Whether or how this will change the nature of online debate and communication remains to be seen, but at the very least, the issue demands readers' awareness.

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure