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Gaming your opinion.

People are normalized into groups based on the cultural and economic atmosphere of their environment. Before the Internet, that meant an individuals local environment. Now, with the Internet, people are able to normalize themselves in relation to a distant group. Online cultures form around common beliefs and practices.Since people online do not participate in face to face communication, the validity of the individuals existence can be questioned.

Social news-aggregation sites use algorithms to determine the validity of individuals. The votes of brand new users on Reddit are not counted as the validity of the account is not yet believed. A user could open 100 accounts and up vote their own article. If a user only links to articles from one website, that also throws up a red flag. The members of the Reddit community sometimes participate in witch hunts in an attempt to figure out if someone is using their account for advertising purposes. This fake-activity pollutes the integrity of the community.

When viewing a community online the validity of its existence is not typically questioned. A large number of avatars are seen interacting and it is presumed there is an individual behind each avatar, arguing their perspective. The validity of an individual avatar might be questioned, but questioning the validity of an entire community is not a natural thought.

If someone stumbled upon the forums of The Flat Earth Society, they may be convinced there are a large amount of people that dismiss the idea of the world being round. The forums are busy with discussion, people asking questions like “What is the purpose of this Conspiracy?” (of a round earth), and people answering. Its silly and tongue-in-cheek, but some people are fooled by it. This poster made a fairly long post outlining why “much on this site wrong”, and other posters argue with him (for fun), pointing out why he is wrong. People are fooled, even by something this ridiculous, because there is such an active community surrounding it.

The hacktivist group Anonymous recently hacked into and released all the emails from HBGary. HBGary is a defense contractor with ties to the federal government, the NSA, and the CSI. One email exchange revealed that HBGary are working on a “persona management” software that would allow one person to seamlessly manage a multitude of online persona’s. These persona’s are designed to emulate real people to an incredible degree.

“Persona management entails not just the deconfliction of persona artifacts such as names, email addresses, landing pages, and associated content.” […] “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.” (From a leaked email, via Daily Kos)

This attention to detail complicates the effort of witch-hunters. Even if  one account is labeled as a polluter there are still many other accounts being controlled and active. This program would make it easy to create a culture of propaganda. If someone reads one dissenting opinion the reader may not be swayed but if 20, 30, or 40 people post in alignment with the dissenters ideals the reader stands to be influenced.

“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 re-post 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 persona’s.” (From a leaked email, via Daily Kos)

If we can look at the Internet as a support on which public spheres can be built, the ability to jump into the conversation in this manor is a toxic pollutant (Hall, p173). The ability to interject in coffee-shop talk with propaganda, in mass, is being developed by defense contractors. Can the Internet be seen as a support for a public sphere if such trickery becomes possible? Does the US want its citizens to have a public sphere where they can discuss, debate and influence each other? It doesn’t seem like it.

One Comment

  1. Eva Marie wrote:

    Loved reading the Flat Earth Society site. There was a great response to a disbeliever who posted to the forum:
    “You give people who believe that the earth is round a bad name. That is quite a large group of people, so that isn’t a trivial accusation.”
    Made me laugh.

    Yah, sabotage is scary but it seems like we always find out about it. Like today it got leaked that the Governor of Wisconsin had considered using fake protesters to start trouble. And the Tea Party thought about sending people with the same intent. Fighting dirty is nothing new it’s just easier to do it on the web.

    Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 5:58 am | Permalink