George Monbiot: Robot Wars II

George Monbiot recently raised the issue of automated online astroturf campaigns, in this article for the Guardian, repeated on For those that don’t know, this involves a special interest group recruiting a team to create and maintain multiple digital personas (Facebook accounts, etc). This army of virtual ghost warriors can then be used to create the impression of mass support (a.k.a. ‘grassroots’ support – geddit?) for a given cause or campaign.

Now, while this might be used for what you or I might term ‘good’ causes, the truth is that as always, those with more money and other resources (usually, the baddies) are more likely to exploit it. If ‘one person: one vote’ is the apex of democracy, then the possibility that faceless corporations or governments (or even NGOs) can use the methods of geniune campaigners to further their aims is distinctly chilling. Especially so when you consider the spread of slacktivism – the tendency for individuals’ political/social engagement to stretch no further than the online petition or the Facebook ‘like’ button..

But… a thought occurred, and I wrote to St. George. Here’s what I said:

Dear George,

read your article on astroturf campaigns with interest – had noticed it going on subliminally, but your article suggests it’s more widespread than I could possibly have imagined. A big problem, especially in the age of slacktivism…

How to deal with it? I had a quick idea, possibly seeded by Blade Runner (which I saw last night):

An online standard, or score, authenticating online personas as real people. Volunteers could specifically query individuals in what would amount to a Turing test; and/or some interaction algorithm could assess a persona’s authenticity. Of course in the latter case interested malign parties could easily (especially if the algorithm was open-source). Why would people participate? Because a

I wonder a) whether it’s worth doing, and b) if it would catch on.

I personally think that anonymity online is a bit of a curse – fine to protect political dissidents from reprisals, but an open door for abusive cowards. More and more of my generation (b:1981) place more faith in identifiable online personas, linked to either personal websites or managed through Disqus, etc.

And of course philosophically it’s an incredible moment if we’ve arrived at a point in history where a majority of human communication is online, but we can no longer even tell human from machine, let alone friend from foe!

Anyway from a quick straw poll of programming friends it seems an interesting idea to explore, so I’d love to know what you think.


Ideas, anyone?

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