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The Sockpuppets of Public Opinion

If the whole HBGary Federal fiasco wasn’t bad enough, there is more bad news coming out of their leaked emails.

It turns out that one of HBGary’s “products” is sophisticated software to allow public opinion to be manipulated. The software allows a small number of hired employees to impersonate a large number of fictitious citizens who then inundate social media sites.

Are you seeing widespread outrage against some political issue on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media site? That outrage can easily be manufactured and paid for, while appearing to be coming from a grassroots uprising. Have you seen a blog post that reveals something unflattering about some powerful institution, only to see a swarm of commenters show up making ad hominem attacks and unsubstantiated accusations against the blogger?

As the HBGary Federal CEO puts it:

To build this capability we will create a set of personas on twitter, blogs, forums, buzz, and myspace under created names that fit the profile ( satellitejockey, hack3rman, etc. ). These accounts are maintained and updated automatically through RSS feeds, retweets, and linking together social media commenting between platforms. With a pool of these accounts to choose from, once you have a real name persona you create a Facebook and LinkedIn account using the given name, lock those accounts down and link these accounts to a selected # of previously created social media accounts, automatically pre-aging the real accounts.

The software creates a large number of “personas” who appear to be real people but are really sockpuppets.

This is a well-known propaganda technique called “Bandwagon” that takes advantage of people’s strong need to go along with the crowd. When a politician says something like “The American People are speaking out against healthcare / illegal immigrants / etc.” they are trying to convince you that there is a consensus about some issue and that you should join that consensus.

What is really frightening is that companies like HBGary, Berinco, and Palantir — who are supposed to be computer security firms — are building sophisticated software like this whose sole purpose is to lie to you, to attack opinions their clients don’t like, and distort reality. And even more frightening is that our own government is using the same software.



  1. ebdoug wrote:

    I got on Facebook because a client asked me. I found two lost relatives. I’m now off. Every day I learn something new about why I’m glad to be off.

    Friday, February 18, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink
  2. Bard wrote:

    Not too surprising. Have you ever looked at Yahoo comments on just about any story about Obama? You can upvote and downvote comments, and somehow all the anti-Obama comments have almost as many upvotes as the pro-Obama comments have downvotes.

    Friday, February 18, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink
  3. Sammy wrote:

    My guess is that 98% of “grassroots” movements are manufactured by decidedly non-grassroots interests.

    Friday, February 18, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  4. PatriotSGT wrote:

    I second your guess Sammy 🙂

    Friday, February 18, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  5. Iron Knee wrote:

    cough Tea Party

    Friday, February 18, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  6. Patricia Andrews wrote:

    Bard, you are SO right! Looking at Yahoo comments without that knowledge is a recipe for falling on the proverbial sword if you are of a progressive bent. What a great way to foment a civil war! How can we find a way to hear from real people instead of ‘Bots?

    Friday, February 18, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  7. Jeff wrote:

    PA, there are ways that sites have tried in the past to keep out bots. A lot of them require you to retype some word or phrase written in a way that a computer alone wouldn’t recognize. But these aren’t just computers. There’s a human at the end of this chain, using the internet’s own technology to spread their message through the blogosphere and beyond.

    In a way, the deliberate act of these posts makes it that much more reprehensible. If it were just some computer mainframe in an office throwing out comments, I don’t think I would be as upset about it.

    Friday, February 18, 2011 at 8:47 pm | Permalink
  8. Andrea wrote:

    That is really creepy! Although the band wagon thing won’t really work on me, as I have so many UNPOPULAR opinions it’s not even funny. So I’m used to feeling outside the mainstream anyways.

    Friday, February 18, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Permalink
  9. Bard wrote:

    actually yahoo requires no Captcha, and allows you to thumb up/down comments on the same IP as long as you sign into different accounts.

    Saturday, February 19, 2011 at 2:04 am | Permalink
  10. Welcome to the dystopia, fellas. Better get used to it.

    Saturday, February 19, 2011 at 2:21 am | Permalink
  11. Dan wrote:

    1984? War is Peace, Slavery is Freedom, Ignorance is Strength.
    Seems what we have here is creeping Fascism, or as some like to call it… trickle down economics.
    Pesonnally, I’ve always wondered why “likes/dislikes” were so slanted. This is actually good news (in a way) and gives me refound hope.
    Go hackers go!!!!

    Saturday, February 19, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  12. Bert wrote:

    I wonder what this is doing to us as a whole. This kind of behavior should, I think, train people not to trust unknown groups of people, leading further to a disintegration of our society.

    Sunday, February 20, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  13. Robbi wrote:

    It would seem there is no truth anymore. I fear where all of this deception is leading us.

    Friday, July 29, 2011 at 6:03 am | Permalink

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] a snippet from Political Irony […]

  2. Political Irony › Bought and Paid for News on Sunday, February 20, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    […] Friday, I posted an article about how powerful organizations manipulate public opinion by inundating social media sites with fake people. But why stop at social media sites? Why not just make up stories and get them printed as […]