Should the Internet be Protected from Astroturfing and How?

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Image credit: Crispin Semmens, used under Creative Commons license.

Accusations of "astroturfing"—or the creation of fake grassroots movements to protect powerful interests—are hardly new. When I wrote about the topic of astroturfing on the internet previously, I cited George Monbiot's concern that articles on environmental topics appear to be hit particularly hard by commenters intent not on creating meaningful or constructive dialogue, but rather poisoning the discussion into nothing more than a series of meaningless hostilities. Now Mr Monbiot is raising the subject again, claiming that he has been contacted by a whistleblower from a professional astroturfing outfit, and hinting that there will be a deeper investigation to follow:Paid Trolls Exist
As with my original piece on the subject, I'm sure many commenters will argue that such claims are nothing more than paranoia and/or a transparent attempt to silence critics. But Monbiot's claims to have made contact with someone who has actively worked as a professional internet commenter with multiple identities who was paid to disrupt online discussions is revealing to say the least:

"After I wrote about online astroturfing in December, I was contacted by a whistleblower. He was part of a commercial team employed to infest internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients, promoting their causes and arguing with anyone who opposed them.

Like the other members of the team, he posed as a disinterested member of the public. Or, to be more accurate, as a crowd of disinterested members of the public: he used 70 personas, both to avoid detection and to create the impression there was widespread support for his pro-corporate arguments. I'll reveal more about what he told me when I've finished the investigation I'm working on."

Technology Empowers Astroturfing
Pointing to a previous article by the Daily Kos on internet astroturfing, Monbiot also outlines the availability of commercial persona management software which helps commenters create multiple identities, convincing online histories, and even share personas between colleagues.

What Can Be Done About Paid Trolls?
At this stage Monbiot, like most people, seems a little short on suggestions about what to do about it. After all, attempting to put a stop to organized and deceptive commenters with multiple identities runs the very real risk of also silencing people we disagree with—and I often find some of the most intelligent, forthright and thought provoking comments come from people who hold views very different to my own. (Only yesterday I reflected on why it's important to always entertain the possibility that we are wrong.)

But if astroturfing is as prevalent as Monbiot warns (and I am sure it is a practice that crosses the political spectrum), it is something that both website providers and internet users need to be aware of. If for no other reason than to start to distinguishing between real discussion and deliberate attempts to distort the debate.

More on Astroturfing
Can Trolls Be Green? The Roll of Debate in the Environmental Movement
Astroturfing Leonardo: New "Information Campaign" for Diamonds
From the Forums: Organized Effort to Stifle Environmental Debate?

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