|Corporate Puppets - from Eurekastreet|
Then, I stumbled upon some research indicating that Facebook can be physiologically addictive; and then I learned that its designers are seemingly aware of that addictive potential and use it to their advantage, regardless of the psychological problems they may be creating. And then the NSA scandal broke. More recently, there has been a deluge of threatening comments sent to female writers and politicians which has led to me to look deeper into the phenomenon of right-wing trolling on the net. While the people recently charged with threatening to rape and murder female public figures were tweeting their own views, I suspect that they felt encouraged to do so in part because there is so much right-wing trolling on the internet.
Most of you will be familiar with the existence of trolls - yes, those horrid people who continuously spout abusive, right-wing views on forums and comment threads. Until recently, I think I assumed that they were all backwoods yahoos with unformed, uninformed opinions. Their comments tend to be riddled with spelling mistakes, bad grammar and profanity. They tend to be vehement promoters of false 'facts', disproven research and phoney statistics. Very little of the information posted by trolls on the net would stand up to the scrutiny of a drunken pub debate, let alone a court of law. And yet they seem to have vast amounts of conviction, and time, to push their dumbed-down views on us from points all across the web, creating and discarding an endless number of fresh aliases on an endless number of forums and comment boards; waging war on moderators who seem to have their hands full deleting their streams of abuse. It's almost like being a troll is a full-time job. Or like they're getting paid by the post. This may be closer to the truth than you realise.
In 2011, the Guardian's George Monbiot wrote that he'd been contacted by a whistleblower who said 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." Sound familiar? It will do, if you've ever participated in an internet forum. This particular whistleblower told Monbiot that he posed as up to 70 different individuals at a time... which probably helps to explain why different trolls' posts are often nearly identical in tone and content. Bear in mind that this whistleblower was just one employee, from one company providing 'social media management' services to corporate clients. Doubtless there are many, many more out there.
The practice of paying people to post supportive comments for a specific interest group online is said to have originated in China in 2004, where such posters are known as the '50 cent party'. As the name suggests, these posters are paid 50 Chinese cents for every pro-government or counter-dissident post that they write. In 2009, Datamation.com wrote that: "China’s 50 Cent Army is everybody's business. With 300,000 people, you can see how the CCP could easily determine what makes it onto the front page of Digg, and what gets shouted down. They could use Wikipedia, YouTube and Slashdot as their most powerful tools of global propaganda."
That's true if China is the only country that hires right-wing commentators, but it isn't. Throw in the U.S.A., Russia, Canada and Israel - to name but a few of the countries whose governments have hired 'online supporters' in recent times - and the potential to skew public perceptions becomes overwhelming. In 2011 it was revealed that the U.S. military's Central Command, or Centcom, had signed a contract with a company known as NTrepid to 'manage online personas' for its staff. NTrepid's software would enable every serviceman and woman to create and use up to 10 fake online aliases worldwide. The Guardian reported that: 'The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".'
Presumably, the phrase 'sophisticated adversaries' is used here to refer to anybody with an intelligent counter-argument, or an awareness of insidious propaganda machines! Centcom, predictably, has stated that it cannot reveal what these fake online personas are being used for. They say it's classified. In these post-NSA times, that is not a word that inspires confidence.
NTrepid has also run surveillance to keep tabs on anarchist organizations in the past and, as the PrivacySos website points, out that, "The DoD is therefore paying a company that monitors the internet use of anarchists and radicals in the United States to actively interfere with and inject pro-military propaganda into online conversations about politics." How that is any different from China's 50 cent party? Although Centcom claims that its online tool will not be used in English-speaking countries, one is invited to view that claim through a skeptical lens too.
The practice of 'astroturfing' (creating fake grassroots groups to make a fringe cause appear more popular than it is) has also entered the online world, where it's become virtually untraceable. In 2010, Canada's CBC News reported that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade had hired a Toronto-based company called Social Media Group, "to help counter some information put forward by the anti-sealing movement." There doesn't appear to be any record of what this hired help got up to online. Were they clearly identified as government employees? Were they abusive? Did they cite misleading studies or facts? Why do I get the feeling all that information's probably 'classified', too?
The biggest problem with these hired commentators is that they are in a prime position to skew public opinion in favour of groups which already wield a great deal of influence - people who have lots of money or some other form of control over the masses. If these groups are also using 50 cent parties to 'influence' the public opinion, then they are crossing a line into mind control. Governments do not exist to influence our opinions after all, but to represent them. Just as corporations do not exist to tell us what we want, but to listen and provide for it.
If you regularly read any forum that discusses left-wing issues, you have probably witnessed how quickly a troll's reactionary tirade can shut down intelligent debate on any subject. Regular internet users know how to recognise and avoid trolls but for the casual users - those who go online just to read an article or two - the mass of vitriol out there can be disturbing. I wonder how many casual internet users come away from their computer feeling that intolerance is the new norm. And yet it isn't - at least some of that online vitriol is being manufactured by the powers-that-be. You have to wonder what their endgame is in doing so.