It was only a matter of time before trolls got automated. Last week, George Monbiot in the Guardian pointed out a U.S. Air Force tender for something called “persona management software” — in other words, a system that would let an online operative appear to be someone they aren’t. In fact, to appear to be 10 people they aren’t.
Here’s a chunk of the tender: “(The) software will allow 10 personas per user, replete with background, history, supporting details and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent. Individual applications will enable an operator to exercise a number of different online persons from the same workstation and without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries. Personas must be able to appear to originate in nearly any part of the world and can interact through conventional online services and social media platforms. The service includes a user-friendly application environment to maximize the user’s situational awareness by displaying real-time local information.”
Online personas are the way you appear on your Facebook profile — it’s online personas, more often than real people, who sign off on the comments at the bottom of this column and on other comment sites, telling you that the author of the story they’re commenting on is an idiot or a Tory or a Liberal. Or whatever.
Comments are often nasty and brutish, but writers can console themselves with the thought that people who can’t even bother to sign their own names don’t actually have much courage backing up their convictions.
Now, writers can stop and wonder not only who they are, but if their critics are even actually real people.
Editorial page editors, of which I am one, are used to manufactured letters. I get them from the anti-seal hunt industry regularly, and what makes them particularly comical is the people who feel so deeply about the issue that they can’t even be bothered to string together a few of their own words, rather than relying on the cut-and-paste of someone else’s boilerplate letter. Lately, there’s also been a series of earnest letters from “real” Canadians across the nation, concerned about the CRTC allowing billing for excess Internet bandwidth: problem is, 25 or so of those earnest letters were exactly the same, except for the names on the bottom.
This fake grassroots support for an issue in letters to the editor is often described as “astroturf.”
Now, astroturf is going Internet.
The fake Internet commenting business involves companies going high-tech enough to rotate their messages through several dozen IP addresses, and to companies that actually design and maintain long-term “sleeper” commenters who appear to have been posting on a variety of topics for months, and then can be released on a specific issue at the behest of the latest customer who needs to manufacture a little online support.
Now, Internet manipulation is nothing new. All you really need to do is to watch the way VOCM’s poll of the day can suddenly be hijacked by tens of thousands of “voters” supporting some government initiative or other — I can only imagine how boring it must be to the political employee assigned to pressing “return,” “return,” “return,” for as many times as you possibly can in the run of an afternoon.
Just as parties have dragooned supporters to call open line shows to announce their undying support, it’s in no way surprising that companies would harness the Internet to do exactly the same thing.
What’s surprising is that it could become such a technological process — and that it would be worthwhile, and even necessary, to win the hearts and minds of other Internet users by dint of the equivalent of technological sleight of hand.
I wrote this. My name’s on it, and it’s even my real name — unless, of course, I am some sort of corporate persona developed to meet some other kind of nefarious end.
And you — who are you, really?
Russell Wangersky is the editorial page editor of The Telegram. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.