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Corporate-Funded Online 'Astroturfing' Threatens to Destroy Open Public Discussion on the Internet

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Every month more evidence piles up, suggesting that online comment threads and forums are being hijacked by people who aren't what they seem to be. The anonymity of the web gives companies and governments golden opportunities to run astroturf operations: fake grassroots campaigns, which create the impression that large numbers of people are demanding or opposing particular policies. This deception is most likely to occur where the interests of companies or governments come into conflict with the interests of the public. For example, there's a long history of tobacco companies creating astroturf groups to fight attempts to regulate them.

After I last 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 that 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.

But it now seems that these operations are more widespread, more sophisticated and more automated than most of us had guessed. Emails obtained by political hackers from a US cyber-security firm called HB Gary Federal suggest that a remarkable technological armoury is being deployed to drown out the voices of real people.

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