George Monbiot, on AlterNet writes about paid internet trolls posing as private citizens, using comments on internet sites to sway opinion and create an illusion of popular demand. First, in China…
Anyone writing a comment piece in Mandarin critical of the Chinese government, for example, is likely to be bombarded with abuse by people purporting to be ordinary citizens, upset by the slurs against their country.
But many of them aren’t upset: they are members of the 50 Cent Party, so-called because one Chinese government agency pays 5 mao (half a yuan) for every post its tame commenters write. Teams of these sock-puppets are hired by party leaders to drown out critical voices and derail intelligent debates.
And here in the US, where the Supreme Court’s ‘Citizens United’ decision opened a flood of corporate money into political campaigns, it’s still good strategy to work undercover…
I first came across online astroturfing in 2002, when the investigators Andy Rowell and Jonathan Matthews looked into a series of comments made by two people calling themselves Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek. They had 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 explained that “there are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved … Message boards, chat rooms, and listservs are a great way to anonymously monitor what is being said. Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party.”
There’s more in AlterNet. It’s short and packed with information– read the whole post here.
And backing up AlterNet’s point, Talking Points Memo captured an ad on Craigslist for an internet commenter paid to create ‘buzz’ on multiple sites.
AlterNet is covering the use of social media by corporations for advertising, PR, and political lobbying. Back in 2007 we covered the ‘astroturf’ efforts of the Bush administration in ‘Ministry of Truth Tells Us All We Need to Know’.
I’ve had many face to face discussions about the President, and I know that discouragement and disillusionment are real. I think that history will show that Barack Obama did much to keep the economy from crashing into another Great Depression, and I hope that health care reform is a beginning, since it’s so far short of the universal health care we need. It’s the job of citizens to keep tabs on the people we elect, and hold them accountable.
Still, some of the trashing of Barack Obama from almost day one on progressive sites like AmericaBlog and BuzzFlash makes me suspicious. Check the source. Check it on the ProJo editorial page too. They use a lot of very partisan writers, and RW organizations like to use bland names like Club for Growth.
The net news sites also use a lot of content that should not be read uncritically. This week there’s an article in the ‘sexual health’ section of Yahoo News called ‘The Pope, Condoms and HPV–What Pope Benedict XVI May Not Know’ that was written by free-lance writer Sheryl Young, whose bias is clear if you check out her site.
She’s surely entitled to her opinion, I only wish that article was labeled more clearly as opinion. (It’s tagged ‘commentary’, but placed in ‘sexual health’, not ‘op-ed’) Ms.Young is not a doctor, nurse or health educator, but she uses a lot of medical information to back up her preference for ‘abstinence-only’ sex education.
She cites one study to support her argument. The students in the study were 12-13 years old and followed for 2 years. It is appropriate to tell children that age to say no to sex. They’re not even of legal age to consent.
The children were randomized into groups and different teaching programs were tested. The ‘abstinence only’ group reported less sexual activity than a control group that got general health teaching. The ‘comprehensive sex education’ group also measured better than the control group.
Would a program that delays sexual experimentation for 12-year-olds work for 16-year-olds? That’s the next question. Sheryl Young cites a reputable study, but it doesn’t ‘prove’ that abstinence-only sex education is better than comprehensive sex education.
All the sex education programs were more effective than the control program of general health information. I would conclude from this study that it is good to teach children the facts of life in middle-school and not leave it to the Fox network and the Kardashians.
Long digression. But consider the source. Look up the source. It’s hard enough to sift through conflicting opinions, even more when it’s so easy to create an image on the net. And there are those who try to game the net.
I just read a book on ‘Urban Legends’. These are the stories that you heard at work that had to be true because they happened to the boss’ brother-in-law’s neighbor. Remember the Choking Doberman? Urban Legends were very big in the late 80’s. I started to be able to recognize them by their format. I wonder if they were some kind of CIA experiment? To track the spread of misinformation? Did I just start an Urban Legend? Can I make money off it?
No. But I can be bribed with blog hits. Nobody’s pure.