Don’t believe the hype: how astroturfing and corporate trolling are rewriting our world

troll pinochio

To paraphrase Werner Herzog, the internet is not good or evil; it's humans. And in the world of humans, money buys influence.

In our last article, we demonstrated how everyday data can be mined in order to hyper-target individuals – for example by using the ever-so-slightly-evil-sounding Facebook dark posts.

Companies can also generate fake grassroots support for their company online, a practise known as astroturfing. The Guardian mentions Forest, a site ostensibly created by smokers, for smokers – yet bankrolled by the tobacco industry.

There's nothing new in selling products through tricksy marketing; nor is there in propaganda.

"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." — Churchill

Now that the internet has completely democratised that writing process, Governments across the world are scrabbling to remain the authors of their own histories.

In China, the state-sponsored internet troll army, or wumao dang employs up to two million people.

Ai Weiwei interviewed a member of this workforce who described a complex system of role-playing on forums. He acts as a range of fictional individuals, directing debates that are eventually resolved by one convincing authoritative voice. "You want to create illusions to attract the attention and comments of netizens."

Russian trolling has received plenty of attention in recent months because of its influence on the US election, but Putin has been paying troops to fight in his troll task force for years.

Documents leaked by a group of hackers describe the 'Internet Research Agency' which employed more than 600 people in 2013. Employees must post on news articles a day and maintain multiple social media accounts with targets for the number of followers and comments they attract. "The internet has become the main threat — a sphere that isn't controlled by the Kremlin," says Pavel Chikov, a member of Russia's presidential human rights council. "That's why they're going after it."

The list of countries using sponsored voices to promote or suppress versions of reality goes on. For many, social media is just another battleground on which wars can be fought.

What's happening now?

Now it looks like Trump supporters in the US are turning their attentions to France in an effort to influence the upcoming presidential election. Members of the American alt-right are creating fake social media accounts to spread pro-Le Pen memes and organise online trolling campaigns.

Platforms like Twitter pride themselves on their commitment to free speech as an embodiment of digital democracy. That idealism begins to look a little wobbly when the loudest voices are those who can pay.

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