DOD’s propaganda plan to develop automated Internet sock-puppets and Troll Brigades

I’ve seen this elsewhere, and haven’t been able to follow up on the research. But George Monbiot has. So here you go.

One of the threads in the corporate (HBGary) / governmental (DOJ) effort to bring down Anonymous and Friends (click for context) is the attempt to de-legitimize online discussions by using astroturf sock-puppets — in essence, an online Troll Brigade paid to pop into discussions (on any subject really; there are pro-salt trolls) and confuse the issue by making it appear that there really is a debate where there is none.

This has been around for awhile; it’s called “astroturfing” — creating fake-grass-roots pseudo-movements — and there are both real-world equivalents and online equivalents.

So what’s new? Computer software that automates the creation and management of brigades of fake identities, controls their interaction to hide their lack of real-world history and existence, and allows them to be deployed in hordes by small numbers of real-world Troll Masters.

And guess who’s funding this research? The Pentagon, of course (the bulk of your tax dollars at work). Monbiot on his blog at The Guardian:

The need to protect the internet from ‘astroturfing’ grows ever more urgent
The tobacco industry does it, the US Air Force clearly wants to … astroturfing – the use of sophisticated software to drown out real people on web forums – is on the rise. How do we stop it?

Every month more evidence piles up, suggesting that online comment threads and forums are being hijacked by people who aren’t what they seem. … 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.

Do click through; Monbiot lists some of the capabilities that the Anonymous-hacked HBGary emails reveal, such as “persona management software,” automated reposting and linking to content generated elsewhere, and spoofing with social media to make the virtual troll appear to be, for example, commenting on conferences actually attended. (Dkos diarist Happy Rockefeller is a valuable resource for this research, by the way.)

Then Monbiot adds:

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 [task list added here].

His conclusion, an excellent question (which guarantees my emphasis):

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?

This leads inevitably to the notion of an emerging grass-roots war against some international sci-fi government-plutocrat-media complex (still looking for a better phrase) — and with Anonymous of all “people” as an important ally.

So I’ll answer Monbiot’s question with another — Is Anonymous showing us the way?


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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