Astroturfing and sockpuppetry: Governments are paying people to fake support

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It’s never been easier to fake it on the internet – as governments across the world are proving

This piece was originally published on Planet Ivy (now Magnific). It’s a tinfoil hat yarn that’s actually true

People – never mind politicians – are always lying to you. Consciously and sub-consciously it’s a natural quirk of communication that us humanoids cannot help but indulge in, for reasons both altruistic and sinister. Most of us have even come to terms with it – we turn it into a mini game of psychological cryptography: “Has she actually read every Game of Thrones book? Or is she saying it banking on the fact that I haven’t either?” You know the sport.

But this savvy of all things shite and untruthful dissipates somewhat when we move into the online sphere. The instinctive reaction is capsized to one of belief – you see something interesting, re-post it somewhere else and then frantically delete it when someone points out: “Err, that’s not strictly true…”

Of course, this being the internet, everybody is lying to you all the time. You can’t even trust the metadata because of all the SEO/dark arts/Harry Potter patter that goes on online. And you especially can’t trust governments. But apart from the eternally hilarious North Korean regime, most governments realise that simple online propaganda is pretty useless. Instead, they are using one of the defining aspects of the internet – anonymity – to come up with a more subtle form of manufacturing consent: online astroturfing.

Astroturfing is the act of masking the sponsors of a message to give that message more credibility. Imagine a mother teaching her potty-mouthed and insubordinate toddler that swearing is bad through a Punch and Judy show.

But how can a government pretend it’s not a government? Well, it would seem that dressing up as a civilian is turning out to be a handy trick. Last month, mysterious tweeter ‘Richard Goldston’ (@RichardGoldston) accidentally offered a sneak peek into an apparent astroturfing campaign run from inside the Rwandan government. The account had been incessantly trolling users who were criticising the Rwandan government or its president Paul Kagame – the usual blend of digital misogyny and laissez-faire harassment that we’ve all become accustomed to when venturing into the darker nether regions of the microblogging site.

kagame

Events took an awkward turn for the Rwandan government when the journalist Steve Terrill revealed the @RichardGoldston account as a shill profile being used by somebody inside the Kagame administration. Unstatesmanlike tweets began tumbling from President Kagame’s official account – in a surreal African reimagining of The Thick Of It, Goldston had accidentally logged into the wrong social media profile. Goldston was clearly no neutral civilian activist – but a government official seeking to covertly influence debate that concerned his President.

Sensing a heroic cock-up, the Rwandan government quickly cleaned up the mess, deleting the Richard Goldston account and explaining that it was the responsibility of a single rogue staff member who had subsequently been “reprimanded”.

Though Rwanda’s ‘lone troll’ ain’t got nothing on the stupendous astroturfing program churned out over in China. You’d expect a country with such an exemplary history of propaganda campaigning to be rather enthusiastic about the emergence of a new vehicle for their blanketed bile and the old communist regime do not disappoint. They’ve hired a whole army of “online news commentators” known as – and I shit you not – ‘The 50 Cent Party’ to infiltrate comment boards. The name isn’t a peculiar homage to G-Unit, rather a reference to the claim that civilians are paid: “50 cents for every post that steers a discussion away from anti-party content or that advances the Communist Party line.” Nice work if you can get it. And you probably can – astroturfing is rife here in Europe too.

Meet Mika Ronkainen. He’s politically active, handsome, 25 years of age – and on the 1st March this year he became a pin-up for the pro-Russian nationalism movement in Eastern Ukraine when, to the delight of a wailing crowd, he raised the Russian tricolour over government buildings in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest city.

Mika

The action symbolised a homegrown desire for Kharkiv – just like Crimea – to ditch Europhile Ukraine and become part of the Russian Federation. Mika became a pin up for the will of the people, for Russian sympathies – well educated, dashing, non-violent.

His video triptych of the flag raising has hit over 100,000 views on YouTube, while the iconic selfie of his beaming face on the Kharkiv government building roof (silhouetted by a deposed Ukrainian flag, a flourishing Russian flag and a crowded main square) quickly found its way into numerous social media cover photos.

But does the young prince actually have royal lineage? The Regional State Administration in Kharkiv is adamant that Mika is not a Ukrainian national. A quick bit of digging by PolicyMic found that he doesn’t even live in Ukraine – he is, in fact, a Muscovite. Which begs the question: why is a non-Ukrainian resident raising a Russian flag over the main square in Kharkiv?

Some have called him an agent provocateur, alleging that he was sent to Ukraine by the Putin administration as part of a propaganda and astroturfing exercise. I asked Mika for his take on this. “This nonsense could think only stupid people tend hoaxes,” [Google Translate sic] he said, “I do not see any reason to comment on that.”

Russia has form in this area – two years ago a slew of hacked emails emerged that suggested a prominent youth organisation, Nashi, were paying journalists, bloggers and civilians to post flattering coverage of Vladimir Putin online and discredit opposition activists and media. In line with Mika’s evasive response to the allegations against him, Kristina Potupchik, Nashi’s spokeswoman, refused to comment on the veracity of the astroturfing story.

Mika does identify himself as a journalist but denies ever being part of Nashi. He claims that he was sent to Kharkiv on the 1st March to shoot videos for his employer, though he does not mention who his employer is. Something reeks, and it’s not the caviar.

Whether us westerners can look down on our more authoritarian nation cousins is another matter; state sponsored internet sockpuppetry is a global disease. Just last month Glen Greenwald uncovered a gloriously tacky powerpoint presentation that GCHQ were using to verse their staff in the arts of manipulating and controlling online discourse “with extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction”.

GCHQPresentation

It’s a fascinating document – a highly classified manual for social engineering delivered like a late 90s marketing pitch. Minority Report it is not, but it does still suggest that the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (the highly secretive GCHQ unit responsible) is using the internet and social media to destroy the reputations of its targets, drawing on social sciences to manipulate online discourse and achieve over-arching operative goals. No doubt this is propaganda and no doubt this is astroturfing – it’s just a lot more sophisticated than the more obvious government operations of Russia and China.

America – of course – also use the document to train their intelligence staff. Slightly scarier is the multi-million dollar contract the US government signed with a Californian tech company in 2011. The deal lays the foundations for the development of ‘online persona management software’ that the government can use to infiltrate online forums and social media. The software will allow a single government operative to set up multitudes of convincing shill profiles, each one furnished with all the mod cons of a bona fide online persona: name, email address, website, social media presence… these fake accounts will even be “pre-aged” and given convincing back-stories to muddy the trails that would-be cynical investigators would use to reveal their inauthenticity. Those amongst you who believe Americans to have an undeveloped appreciation of irony, please consider that the US government are calling their astroturfing program ‘Operation Earnest Voice’.

Israel has its own astroturfing program too, ‘Hasbara’, or the ‘Israeli Citizens’ Information Council’ to you and me. There’s a lot of crap written about Hasbara (David Ike/New World Order gunk), but the organisation itself is resolutely up-front about providing funding for its members to post pro-government comments online with the general aim of spreading understanding of the Israeli condition.

Crucially, there is no mandate in the West that enables governments to astroturf their own citizens. Most Western government efforts (that we know about at least) are focused on affecting foreign websites and targets, the primary aim being to provide a counter-narrative to extremist perspectives. Presumably we all would much rather that than another ill-fated rampage through the deserts of the Middle East.

But there are numerous examples of state mission creep – think the NSA revelations and undercover police officers – and besides, it’s rather hypocritical of us to pillory other states for waging woefully transparent propaganda wars online when we’re busy developing a cybernetic nuclear bomb for our very own brand of state sponsored internet sockpuppetry.

And you shouldn’t trust anything in this article either. I’m probably being paid to astroturf you right now.

Images: Pete Souza via WikimediaCommons, @texasinafrica via Twitter, Mika Ronkainen via VK.com and The Intercept

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