Photo by Mario SixtusAstroturfing: How “Persona Management Software” is being Used to Drown the Voice of Democracy Dianne Dyslin – MSPC 3050 – April 25, 2012
• In this course, we’ve celebrated the many ways in which social media gives power to the people. We’ve talked about how it was instrumental in launching the Arab Spring and how it gives the everyday person a chance to be heard.• But there is a much darker side to social media that robs it of its potential to be a forum for exploring issues, testing ideas, and opening debate. It is known as “astroturfing” and it is the Darth Vader of the Internet.
• AstroTurf is the bright green artificial grass used in some sports stadiums and playing fields. The term “astroturfing” is wordplay based on grassroots democracy efforts, i.e., truly spontaneous undertakings largely sustained by private persons, as opposed to politicians, governments, corporations, or public relations firms. Thus the term “astroturfing” refers to imitating or faking popular grassroots opinion or behavior. 1
Astroturfing’s techniques usually consist of a few people attempting to give the impression that mass numbers of enthusiasts advocate some specific cause. The term is said to have originated with former US Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas in 1985, when he was quoted by the Washington Post as saying, “A fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grassFormer Treasury Secretary LloydBentsen in 1995.Mike Theiler/Reuters roots and Astroturf,” when describing the “mountain of cards and letters” he got promoting what he saw as the interests of insurance companies. He said, “This is generated mail.” 2
• Astroturfing can take many forms, but with regard to social media, it refers to conversations and reviews expressed within online communities that are coming not from legitimate, sharing consumers, but rather from hired imposters, who don’t disclose their connection to an organization. 3• Most astroturfing takes place on the forums and comment sections of blogs and newspaper websites. Here, individual astroturfers can leave comments under numerous identities with little fear of discovery. 4
• Message boards, chat rooms, and listservs are a great way to anonymously monitor what is being said. Once you plug into this world, it’s possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party. 5• This deception is most likely to occur where the interests of companies or governments come into conflict with the interests of the public. 6
Where is interest in Astroturfing the greatest?
Examples of Astroturfing• Examples of astroturfing abound, but British blogger George Monbiot of The Guardian provides a couple of particularly good ones. He writes that he was first introduced to astroturfing in 2002, when two investigators, Andy Rowell and Jonathan Matthews, looked into a series of virulent comments made by two people calling themselves Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek. They launched ferocious attacks, across several Internet forums, against a scientist whose research suggested that Mexican corn had been widely contaminated by GM pollen.• Rowell and Matthews found that one of the messages Mary Murphy had sent came from a domain owned by the Bivings Group, a PR company specializing in Internet lobbying. An article on the Bivings website at that time explained, “There are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved . . .”
• The Bivings site also quoted a senior executive from the biotech corporation Monsanto, thanking the PR firm for its “outstanding work.” When a Bivings executive was challenged by Newsnight, he admitted that the “Mary Murphy” email was sent by someone “working for Bivings” or “clients using our services.” Rowell and Matthews then discovered that the IP address on Andura Smetacek’s messages was assigned to Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri.• There’s a nice twist to this story: AstroTurf™ -- real fake grass – was developed and patented by Monsanto. 7
• Monbiot provides his second, and far scarier example of astroturfing, in a recent February 23, 2011, column. He writes that in December 2010, he was contacted by a whistleblower, who had been part of a commercial team employed to infest Internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients. His job was to promote their causes and argue with anyone who opposed them.• Like other members of his team, he posed as a disinterested member of the public. Or, to be more precise, as a “crowd” of disinterested members of the public. This gentleman used 70 different personas, both to avoid detection as well as to create the impression that there was widespread support for his pro-corporate arguments. 8
How is this possible?A real person using the Internet. Unfortunately we can no longer assume what we are readingis written by one of these creatures. Photograph: Jeff Blackler/Rex Features
• Emails obtained by political hackers from a US cyber-security firm called HBGary Federal suggest that a remarkable technological armory is being deployed to drown out the voices of real people.• The foremost weapon of this high-tech arsenal is known as “persona management software,” which multiplies the efforts of each astroturfer, 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, i.e., a name, email accounts, web pages, and social media. Essentially, 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 reposting 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 retweeting 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 person 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 that we can use to add a level of realness to fictitious personas.” 9
A PDF of a federal contract from the 6th Contracting Squadron at MacDill Air ForceBase, located south of Tampa, Florida, dated June 22, 2010. Other sites listed as “placeof performance” for the contract were Kabul, Afghanistan, and Baghdad.
• In this same article, Monbiot provides an even more disturbing revelation. The US Air Force has been tendering for companies to supply it with persona management software. He doesn’t say for what purpose, only that the USAF would like it to 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 provides its astroturfers with “randomlyselected IP addresses through which they can access theInternet” (an IP address is the number which identifiessomeone’s computer), and these are to be changed everyday, “hiding the existence of the operation.” The softwareshould also mix up the astroturfers’ web traffic with“traffic from multitudes of users from outside theorganization. This traffic blending provides excellent coverand powerful deniability.”c. Create “static IP addresses” for each persona, enablingdifferent astroturfers “to look like the same person overtime.” It should also allow “organizations that frequentsame site/service often to easily switch IP addresses tolook like ordinary users as opposed to one organization.”
• As Monbiot so astutely observes: “Software like this has the potential to destroy the Internet as a forum for constructive debate. It jeopardizes the notion of online democracy. Comment threads on issues with major commercial implications are already being wrecked by what look like armies of organized trolls . . .”
• He continues: “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.” 10
Conclusion• This is incredibly insidious stuff and goes well beyond some company stacking the deck with favorable comments about a new product launch on its FB page. Persona management software threatens the very roots of our democracy, because it obscures the line between dealing with a person and dealing with some kind of “bot,” whose only function is to manipulate our opinion. Sadly, we can’t tell the difference, and it appears to be a situation that will only get worse.
• Stephen C. Webster, senior editor of Raw Story, comments: “Persona management software” can be used to manipulate public opinion on key information, such as news reports. An unlimited number of virtual “people” could be marshaled by only a few real individuals, empowering them to create the illusion of consensus.
• Furthermore, it creates: . . . the potential for military-run armies of fake people manipulating and, in some cases, even manufacturing the appearance of public opinion. 11
• So what does this say about Li and Bernoff’s groundswell (2008)? 12 How much power can it really have for getting out the truth and being a tool of grassroots democracy when the illusion of the latter can be so easily manufactured and manipulated?• The prohibitions put in place by professional organizations, such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), 13 to inhibit astroturfing are totally ineffectual when dealing with behemoth organizations like the US Air Force, which could care less if they are excommunicated from the member body. Theirs is a form of stealth marketing so powerful and pervasive that it totally sidesteps any sanctions that traditional PR organizations have to offer.
ReferencesText References1 Astroturfing. Wikipedia. Retrieved April 4, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astroturfing2“Linguist List.” Retrieved April 22, 2012, from http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0403E&L=ads-l&P=15473 Pugh, M. (2010, September 20). Social media increases astroturfing, brands risk losing customers, surveyshows. Retrieved April 5, 2012, from http://socialmediatoday.com/matthewpugh/182608/social-media-increases-astroturfing-brands-risk-losing-customers-survey-shows4Bienkov, A. (2012, February 8). Astroturfing: what is it and why does it matter? The Guardian. Retrieved April23, 2012, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/feb/08/what-is-astroturfing?CMP=twt_gu5Monbiot, G. (2010, December 13). These Astroturf libertarians are the real threat to internet democracy. TheGuardian. Retrieved April 12, 2012, fromhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2010/dec/13/astroturf-libertarians-internet-democracy
Text References, cont’d6 Monbiot, G. (2011, February 23). The need to protect the internet from ‘astroturfing’ grows ever more urgent.The Guardian. Retrieved April 23, 2012, fromhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2011/feb/23/need-to-protect-internet-from-astroturfing7 Op.cit., Monbiot, G. (2010, December 13).8 Op.cit., Monbiot, G. (2011, February 23).9 Ibid., (2011, February 23).10 Ibid., (2011, February 23).11 Webster,S.C. (2011, February 18). Revealed: Air Force ordered software to manage army of fake virtualpeople. The Raw Story. Retrieved April 24, 2012, from http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/02/18/revealed-air-force-ordered-software-to-manage-army-of-fake-virtual-people/12 Li, Charlene, Bernoff, J. (2008). Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies. Boston:Harvard Business Press.13 Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Member Code of Ethics. Retrieved April 24, 2012, fromhttp://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/CodeEnglish/
Photo and Graphics ReferencesSlide 1 – The Write Blog (2012, March 20). Astroturfing: The icky side of social media marketing. Retrieved April 20, 2012, from http://www.thewritersforhire.com/blog/copywriting/astroturfing-the-icky-side-of-social- media-marketing/ Photo by Mario Sixtus.Slide 3 – Gibbs, M. (2012, April 14). Astroturfing cold fusion: Making the promise seem real. Forbes. Retrieved April 20, 2012, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/markgibbs/2012/04/14/astroturfing-cold-fusion- making-the-promise-seem-real/Slide 5 – Rosenbaum, D.E. (2006, May 24). Lloyd Bentsen dies at 85; Senator ran with Dukakis. New York Times. Retrieved April 22, 2012, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/24/washington/24bentsen.html?_r=1 Photo by Mike Theiler/Reuters.Slides 8 and 9 – Astroturfing. Google Insights for Search. Retrieved April 23, 2012, from http://www.google.com/insights/search/#q=astroturfing&cmpt=qSlide 13 – Monbiot, G. (2011, February 23). The need to protect the internet from ‘astroturfing’ grows evermore urgent. The Guardian. Retrieved April 23, 2012, fromhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2011/feb/23/need-to-protect-internet-from-astroturfing Photo by Jeff Blackler/Rex Features.Slide 17 – Webster, S.C. (2011, February 18). Revealed: Air Force ordered software to manage army of fakevirtual people. The Raw Story. Retrieved April 24, 2012, fromhttp://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/02/18/revealed-air-force-ordered-software-to-manage-army-of-fake-virtual-people/ Federal contract PDF, retrieved April 24, 2012, from http://www.rawstory.com/rs/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/personamanagementcontract.pdf
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