tisdag 15 mars 2011

Astroturf robot wars


Internet is great, and nowadays (with web 2.0), Internet has become not just the greatest library the world has ever seen, but also a social space. It is now possible for ordinary people to spread information and discuss any and every issue with like-minded people (or with people whose opinions differ from yours). It has been said that "freedom of the press is limited to those who own one", but nowadays anyone can own their own printing press in the form of a computer with an internet connection. Any person can thus set out and attempt to become an opinion leader by starting a blog or a podradio show of her own.

The possibilities for open discussions, honest attempts to weigh different sides of an argument and to deliberate and reach a conclusion have never been as good as they are now. But not everyone plays by the rules. In any issue where large organizations or corporations are involved, where partisan interests are present, and where commercial interests are at stake, it might not be in everyone's best interests to encourage open discussions on the Internet. It might in fact be in the interests of some actors to derail such online spaces in order to control, manipulate or shut down a discussions where the answers seem to go in the "wrong" direction (for example threatening large commercial interests).

One way to manipulate the public discussion is to jumpstart an astroturf campaign, i.e. a "fake grassroots movements" that is paid for by some corporations with an interest in affecting the public opinion. Andrew Roswell's writes in "Green backlash: Global subversion of the environment movement" (1996):

Since its inception in 1983, the Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain has spent over $7.5 million attempting to defeat acid rain legislation, without a sensible citizen in sight, just some large electricity companies.

Other examples of organizations and networks that try to steer public discussions in pro-corporate directions are organizations such as the "Information Council on the Environment" (funded by among others the National Coal Association) and "The Climate Coalition" (funded by Exxon, Shell, Texaco, BP, Ford, GM, DaimlerChrysler).

The definition of certain key terms are not totally clear in this thesis specification, i.e. that is something that you would need to think some about yourself. Several terms overlap such as "astroturfing", "spam", "trolling", "denial-of-service attacks" (DOS). Furthermore it is not totally clear what the most salient (and dangerous) characteristic(s) of astroturfing is; what exactly makes astroturfing immoral and dangerous? Is it the fact that people get paid to pretend to be "ordinary citizens"? Or that the activities in question are systematic? Or instrumental (instead of "authentic")? Or that the goal is to silence and supress discussions or certain opinions?

The background and description above could result in several different directions for a thesis in this area. Here are two examples, the first being more oriented towards technical issues and the second being more oriented towards content issues:

Astroturfing through persona management software
Map technical tools and software that is nowadays used to impersonate an army of "ordinary citizens" to create the impression that there is major support for an opinion (that for example a corporation "might happen" to hold). Not much is known about the "persona management software" that is used and the questions are thus many, for example:

- What kind of technical knowledge and technical infrastructure is needed to create and run persona management software?
- How do these tools actually work?
- What kind of firms (PR? Computer security?) offer services in this area?
- What services do they offer more specifically?
- Does cloud computing already provide all the services needed?
- Are dynamic IP addresses sufficient, or are other technical services or measures needed to reduce the "traceability" of these efforts?
- How can websites "defend" themselves against "cyberspammers" and astroturfers who use persona management software? Or can't they defend themselves with anything less than a de-anonymization of Internet?

Astroturfing in action
Analyze a corpus of material and try to discern systematic efforts to control the public exchange of opinions. One example is the Swedish-langauge energy, economy, climate and ecology site Ställ om that was run by the Swedish Television (SVT) and was active for a period of 10 months. The site produced 300 articles but was unfortunately "infested" by a relatively small group of vocal opponents who questioned anything and everything about each and every article, as well as the very site itself (including its very existence).

- Were these people "ordinary citizens" with strong opinions or were they payed off to patrol and "kill" the discussions on the site?
- What indicators of a systematic approach can be discerned in the more than 5000 comments that were made over the better part of the year that the site existed?
- Are there reasons to believe that the sustained effort was the result of high-tech "spammers"?
- Are there other sites or movements in Sweden or elsewhere that can be linked to Astroturf campaigns and funding from corporate interests?

Four shorter columns by British journalist and author George Monbiot are a good starting point for reading up on the subject:
--- On astroturf robot wars and software for impersonating an army of "ordinary citizens" on the web (Feb 2011).
--- On astroturf campaigns trying to control who and what is being heard in the cyber-commons (Dec 2010).
----How the tea party movement was jump-started by fossil fuel lobbying seed money (Oct 2010).
--- On systematic disinformation that is spread by corporations with political agendas and money to spare - but hiding behind innocent-sounding organizations that do their dirty work (Dec 2009).

- A Daily Kos article about "persona management software".
- A Guardian article on US military use of such software.
- A long article from The New Yorker on the Koch billionaire brothers "covert" political operations and a more general portrait of David Koch and the family's history.
- On China's "50 cent army" of Internet commentators (so named for the small kickback they receive for each post they make).
- (Astro)turf wars. A documentary movie and a companion website.
- An early (2004) text from Wired about "content spammers".
- A well-formulated example of (yet another) blogger who succumbs and turn the switch on (some) commenters who comment in "bad faith" and who might be paid to spam his blog.

- On the ethics of attention: On tweetbombing and a follow-up blog post about using Twitter bots to affect/manipulate public opinions (rally for civic engagement).  

- Beniger, James (1987). "Personalization of mass media and the growth of pseudo-community". Communication Research, Vol.14, No.3, pp.352-371.

- The Atlantic (Oct 2013), "Russia's Online-Comment Propaganda Army"
- The Guardian (April 2015), "Salutin' Putin: inside a Russian troll house"
- Climatecrocks.com (blogpost, Oct 2013), "Trolls R Us: How Fox News Sock Puppets Spam Comment Threads"
- The Conversation (Oct 2013), "Astroturfing the climate wars: five ways to spot a troll"
- The Guardian (July 2009), "Climate denial 'astroturfers' should stop hiding behind pseudonyms online"

In Swedish:
- A blog post about a relatively awkward attempt by a political party to Astroturf an issue. The blog post also refers to the successful Swedish PR firm Studio Total who have pulled off Astroturf campaigns that mix commercial and "artistic" ambitions to "tell stories" (or to confuse the general public). One example is the Black Ascot blog. The PR firm in question, Studio Total, was portrayed in a longer article in the magazine Filter (#17, Nov 2010).
- An article from Expressen, "Dold lobbying bakom fejkad folkstorm" and a good comment about "Cyberbalkaniseringen i kommentarsfältens kloaker".
- A text about how to recognize astroturfers; " 'Alliansens vänner' inte gräsrotsarbete utan astroturfing".
- A text on Astroturfing at SVT (Swedish Television)
- A short but right-on-spot analysis of pro-nuclear astroturfing.

- "Republic.com 2.0" by Cass Sunstein argues for the danger of being able to filter out opposing points of view.

This thesis topic has also been published on the national thesis pool ("Nationella Exjobb-poolen").

Contact person:
- Daniel Pargman, pargman(a)kth.se

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