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.
Leaked emails from Aaron Barr, CEO of a federal subsidiary for HB Gary, disclose the latest efforts and technology used underhandedly for “ganging up on bloggers, commenters and otherwise ‘real’ people to smear enemies and distort the truth.”
This phenomenon was first reported by Happy Rockefeller over at Daily Kos.
ClimateProgress is following this issue, particularly when it comes to the online discussion about climate change, noting that readers joke about pre-programmed ‘denier-bots’ and “how the same arguments and phrasings keep cropping up in the comments’ section of the many unmoderated news sites on the web.”
While proof that some of our democratic debate is artificial may come as a revelation for some, and be unsurprising for others, the implications are significant. It is increasingly difficult to know with any certainty whose comments are real, and it is undeniable that some readers are susceptible to bandwagon mentality when they see large amounts of comments and ‘support’ for particular interests. The Koch Brothers with their many campaigns of disinformation are master manipulators of debate and are merely one, albeit a high-profile example, of human and media manipulation.
The following excerpts come from Happy Rockefeller’s discussion:
…HB Gary people are talking about creating “personas”, what we would call sockpuppets. This is not new. PR firms have been using fake “people” to promote products and other things for a while now, both online and even in bars and coffee houses.
But for a defense contractor with ties to the federal government, Hunton & Williams, DOD, NSA, and the CIA – whose enemies are labor unions, progressive organizations, journalists, and progressive bloggers – a persona apparently goes far beyond creating a mere sockpuppet.
According to an embedded MS Word document found in one of the HB Gary emails, it involves creating an army of sockpuppets, with sophisticated “persona management” software that allows a small team of only a few people to appear to be many, while keeping the personas from accidentally cross-contaminating each other. Then, to top it off, the team can actually automate some functions so one persona can appear to be an entire Brooks Brothers riot online.
Persona management entails not just the deconfliction of persona artifacts such as names, email addresses, landing pages, and associated content. It also requires providing the human actors technology that takes the decision process out of the loop when using a specific persona. For this purpose we custom developed either virtual machines or thumb drives for each persona. This allowed the human actor to open a virtual machine or thumb drive with an associated persona and have all the appropriate email accounts, associations, web pages, social media accounts, etc. pre-established and configured with visual cues to remind the actor which persona he/she is using so as not to accidentally cross-contaminate personas during use.
This is an excerpt from one of the Word Documents, which was sent as an attachment by Aaron Barr, CEO of HB Gary’s Federal subsidiary, to several of his colleagues to present to clients:
To build this capability we will create a set of personas on twitter, blogs, forums, buzz, and myspace under created names that fit the profile (satellitejockey, hack3rman, etc). These accounts are maintained and updated automatically through RSS feeds, retweets, and linking together social media commenting between platforms. With a pool of these accounts to choose from, once you have a real name persona you create a Facebook and LinkedIn account using the given name, lock those accounts down and link these accounts to a selected # of previously created social media accounts, automatically pre-aging the real accounts.
In another Word document, one of the team spells out how automation can work so one person can be many personas:
Using the assigned social media accounts we can automate the posting of content that is relevant to the persona. In this case there are specific social media strategy website RSS feeds we can subscribe to and then repost content on twitter with the appropriate hashtags. In fact using hashtags and gaming some location based check-in services we can make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise, as one example. There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personas.
There is no solution to this sort of third party and vested interest manipulation, but certainly making more people aware that this is a major issue is a great start to ensuring our conversation is real, and not overrun with denier bots.