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On the Internet, no-one knows you’re a dog

February 23, 2011

So the (now rather old) joke goes. In fact, this joke is now often seen as an example of how people early on in the history of the Internet misunderstood it. People, the argument goes, are just people on the Net, pretty much the same way they are in real life. No technological determinism here, no siree.

However there is increasing evidence that this new ‘common knowledge’ is dead wrong, but it isn’t necessarily individual ‘dogs’ pretending to be humans online, it is whole organised packs (don’t worry, I won’t take this metaphor any further). Various sources have been reporting the development call by the US military for software development to create artificial posters on Internet forums, chatrooms, and news sites. The US state it seems has woken up to the possibilities of what is often called ‘astroturfing’, the creation of fake grassroots movements, with fake members.

George Monbiot, a leading British investigative journalist with The Guardian newspaper knows about astroturfing more than most. He frequently writes about climate change denialists, and the comments under his stories are always filled with pseudonymous critics who seem to pop up every time the word ‘climate’ is mentioned and their responses often appear to be scripted and organised. He’s been digging deeper, and while his investigations are still ongoing, he has provided a useful summary of recent development here.

As well as the corporate interests (tobacco, oil, pharma etc.) it’s also worth pointing out that other states are far ahead of the US on this. China notoriously has its so-called ’50-Cent Party’, students and others who are recruited by the state and paid by the message to counter any anti-Chinese or pro-Tibetan, pro-Taiwan or pro-Uighur sentiment. Their early efforts were laughably obvious, but are becoming more and more subtle. Israel is open in its backing of such ‘online armies’, and advocates the use of a particular software tool, called Megaphone, which enables its users to respond quickly and widely to any reports or discussion seem as against the interests of the Israeli state.

Anonymity is also used by these organised groups as a form of individual intimidation through other ‘open’ channels, especially of those who lack the resources and sometimes the low cunning to be able to respond effectively. One is Freedom of Information legislation. In the area of climate change denial, we saw this with the systematic and organised petitioning of the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, in which FoI requests were really a form of harassment. More recently, as I have just heard from Chris Parsons, two professors from Ottawa, Errol Mendes and Amir Attaran, seen as ‘liberal’ and critical of the Canadian government, have similarly found themselves the subject of a huge upsurge in FoI requests, many of which seem to be deliberately requesting very intimate information. This would appear to be Freedom of Information as intimidation.

There are several responses one could have to this. One would be to withdraw from more public and open forms of interaction, to batten down the hatches, retreat into extreme forms of privacy. This would be a mistake: it really would, as some of the more alarmist reports have proposed, mean the death of Web2.0. The other would be to take the Anonymous route, to ferret out the spies and the fakes. This could be done with better forum and comment software, but would mean a lot of hacking effort and knowledge. How is a chatroom supposed to go up against the power of states and corporations? The real risk with this, as with more low-tech forms of ‘exposure’, is that we help create a culture of suspicion in which moles and spies are everywhere, and genuine political interaction is chilled. It may be coincidental, but it is not unrelated, that we are seeing a growing attention being called to this kind of thing just as we have seen the power of social media in the uprisings across the Arab world. In this area at least privacy is not the answer, a more radical political openness and transparency may well be required to facilitate the kind of social trust that can keep Web2.0 growing and changing in a positive direction.

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