Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Another conspiracy theory confirmed: denier bots are real

I am not generally a fan of conspiracy theories. They are often a sign of intellectual laziness, paranoia, magic thinking and the victory of ideology over facts.

But sometimes they are true.

For example, WikiLeaks has confirmed (or at least gave even more credible evidence for) a few long-suspected facts.

A second example: a few months ago it was revealed that the popular social media site Digg was being gamed by a group of conservative users, who would "bury" any stories that didn't match their political ideology. (This may well happen the other way round, of course, and it may just be that the liberals have better watchdogs. My point here is not political.)

And now corporate emails stolen and published by Anonymous from US cyber-security firm HBGary Federal confirm another conspiracy: corporations and governments employ sophisticated software operated by paid shills to manipulate hundreds (probably thousands or tens of thousands) of "sockpuppets" in an effort to sway online debate through misinformation and spin. For corporations and governments to employ propagandists pretending to be honest members of the public is nothing new. What is new in this revelation is credible confirmation of the scale and technical complexity involved in such operations. The emails reveal some of the specifications of custom-designed software enabling a single person to operate dozens of discrete online personas, each with pre-developed online history, IP address and automated posting of talking points across a large number of sites.

It has been clear for some time that sites like the Guardian face a coordinated effort to bury certain topics in misinformation. Stories that contain particular key words (such as "climate") frequently get deluged with strangely similar critical comments, often within minutes of the story going live. But to have confirmation that denier bots are real means that I'm uncertain whether to be more worried at the degree of cynical manipulation that corporate and government interests are willing to go to in pursuit of their agendas, or more relieved that the segment of the general population who actually believe and promote the claims being made by these denier bots is smaller than previously thought.
"And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

- John 8.32 (NRSV).

16 comments:

craigbenno1 said...

There are many conspiracy's out there that deny justice. I myself have experienced such and it isn't much fun when facts are denied and distorted and real plights are ignored.

byron smith said...

DeSmog Blog: "There appears to be an increasingly sophisticated and planned effort by conservatives and polluter front groups to use “persona management” software to pollute social media outlets and website comment forums with auto-generated sockpuppet swarms designed to mislead and misrepresent real people. "

besideourselves said...

My biggest concern is that I am now trying to discern whether I am, in fact, an elaborately created 'sockpuppet' myself...

I guess that to the extent we choose to live our lives in a 'virtual' environment we deserve to have our notions of reality systematically manipulated and abused.

Brad Littlejohn said...

Scary...this explains a lot of odd things I've seen in comments before, though...and why I never bother to read them anymore.

Sockpuppet3 said...

I don't believe a word of this.

byron smith said...

More coverage from RawStory and AlterNet and the patent behind the system.

byron smith said...

Oops the AlterNet piece is Monbiot again. Sorry for double-up.

Jeremy said...

Many thanks for sharing commentary on sock puppets, I didn't realize there was all that useful analysis out there! In an ironic way, this phenomenon indicates the degree to which laissez-faire ideology doesn't work with communication any better than it does with economics. In short - before the interwebs offered us the 'democratization of communication' on a platter, periodicals had editors who were accountable for their content. Now that public communication has been commodified and made "open" it is exploitable to those who have the money and technology to obfuscate... I'm eager to see some sort of counter-movement in blogging. The "Real Name" feature for Amazon.com's commenting seemed a good move in this direction, but blogging and the newspapers which seem to want to emulate that new medium seem to be a bit behind the curve on editorial gate-keeping, and real identity checking... have you seen any positive counter-options aside from just resorting to instapaper or readability to chuck out comments from my reading process? As you mention, this subversion operates at the level of article selection and promotion as well in terms of manipulating hit counts. Yikes.

byron smith said...

Yes, it is one more example of the corroding effects of capitalism on democracy. Once more, the more money, the more "votes" one can afford in our plutocracy.

Countering the effect? Real name zealotry can be taken too far, and is only sporadically enforced. Some sites tie signing up to proving that you own a credit card, though once again it is possible to hold multiple credit cards (this would make the automated systems mentioned in the post a little more difficult, however), and again ties citizenship to participation in the market economy.

I'm not aware of any silver bullet solutions here. For the moment, simply being aware of the phenomenon and making others aware is an important step, even though it can serve to undermine online trust (or rather expose the fact that trust has already been undermined by the actions of the few (pretending to be the many)).

byron smith said...

Guardian: US Military use the technology for "counter-propaganda" purposes, saying it would be illegal for them to use it on US citizens. Is it illegal for major corporations to do so?

XINYI said...

The truth is that we will never know the truth and will forever be trapped in the pursuit of freedom and truth.
I believe that the world is governed by politicians and corporations. Liberty and democracy is a net woven with power and interests. We live within this net and ‘enjoy’ our freedom if we don’t try to break it. Of course, it has its vulnerabilities, such as ‘climate’ etc. If we touch its vulnerabilities, we will be thrown back to the net. They run the world with conspiracy one after another. The IMF managing director DSK is good evidence. I just read the headline and had no interest for further details. Let these politicians fight with each other. This is a zero-sum game. Somebody has to win at the expense of another’s loss. If you are smart and lucky, you may be able to choose to stand on the winner’s side. But don’t be too optimistic. The safe way is to be a bystander.
I don’t really care about the truth of denier bots. It’s just something there and always there, either denier bots or some others. The thing is to look at the world with an analytical eye. Don’t easily trust those free expressions in the media.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Fake Twitter accounts supporting pipeline.

byron smith said...

CD: Revealed: Fake Facebook Identity Used By Military Contractors Plotting To Hack Progressive Organisations.

byron smith said...

XKCD: Precisely.

byron smith said...

SMH: Astroturfing corporate trolls are the new spam.

byron smith said...

Links to more stories.

Monbiot (2006): The denial industry.