April 1, 2011

Operation Earnest Voice

The US military is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.

A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an "online persona management service" that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.

The project has been likened by web experts to China's attempts to control and restrict free speech on the internet. Critics are likely to complain that it will allow the US military to create a false consensus in online conversations, crowd out unwelcome opinions and smother commentaries or reports that do not correspond with its own objectives.

The discovery that the US military is developing false online personalities – known to users of social media as "sock puppets" – could also encourage other governments, private companies and non-government organisations to do the same.

Above is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the Guardian on the 17th of March. Wikipedia has information on it as well. Quite fascinating to see that sophisticated methods of propaganda and outright influencing opinions are not only allowed but made very public as well. Maybe the latter serves another purpose in that it increases the distrust that already lurks in parts of the internet. Some people who disagree with a certain concept or ideology are sometimes already made out as 'disinformation agents' with the common standard reply; 'you're a conspiracy nut!'

Judging from the article it turns out that disinformation agents actually exist. While it is stated that they are only allowed to operate outside the U.S. and in conjunction with (religious) extremism it wont hold the notion back that these operators do their work as well domestically countering undesirable elements in their own society. It's virtually guaranteed to add animosity on the internet where some individuals already adopted a philosophy of distrust. Not without reason I might add. I've been on the internet for some 10 years now and seen a number of instances where an individual creates havoc.

Such individuals are often described as trolls, or you guessed it, disinformation agents. What happens is that on a particular media (like a forum) one person will do almost anything to denounce, distort, downplay or debunk a certain subject at the expense of everyone else. The harmony of that forum is completely disrupted, and often such disruptive elements are removed from a forum only to return later on under a different alias. I've seen this happen on forums multiple times, any etiquette is completely ignored. Is the U.S. military already engaged in false online personalities domestically?

The U.S. military awarded the contract for "online persona management" (a.k.a. sockpuppetry) to a company named Ntrepid. More importantly Ntrepid sells a product named "Anonymizer" and as the name suggests it will hide and scramble ones internet data. You wont be able to see an i.p. number or location if you do a search and that's the whole point of the software. It provides the user with anonymity. While I can appreciate the need for privacy when someone is on the internet, the same software is also possible for abusing the situation as should be clear by now.

Oddly enough, I've already seen some people use the Anonymizer software and what do you know? These people were highly disruptive. I recall one occasion where I uncovered one person on an internet forum who had used half a dozen pseudonyms in the space of 6 months. His philosophy was also completely contradictory to the forum, subsequently he got banned yet kept returning on the forum even pretending to be woman when it was obvious he was a man. I exposed him on that forum pointing out his messages and the dozen or so blogs he ran with opposing views. Within hours I received 2 dozen emails, at first glance from many different addresses and people.

Yet there was something wrong with that. Some addresses (partly) had the word 'anonymizer' in it. Meaning that the sender used the software in question to hide his true identity. While I received different messages with apparent support for this individual it quickly became clear to me that all of the messages were generated by the same individual. Not long after this incident my Yahoo email was also blocked because someone apparently had filed a complaint. I objected to the complaint yet the deletion of my email account was never reversed. Many blogs the person had made also disappeared.

Of course there are people unaffiliated with the military or intelligence services that staunchly and very vocally disagree with a certain subject and there are some folks who get their rocks off making other people feel miserable. The internet holds very few restrictions and doesn't have the normal inhibitions as with a face to face conversation. Yet there are ways to detect those that have a real agenda because they never seem to get tired in driving their message home. As with the person I detected trolling a forum they almost exclusively return to the same position on matters. Their habits and inability to compromise on the subject is also a clear sign.

Even when they are hiding under different names you can still detect them. One is that they have a fixed ideology which is understandable since they have an agenda to follow. Two is there inability to compromise even on an intellectual level and when the argument is clearly on your side. Three, you can detect them by their mannerism. Often they will use similar words and phrases, and with the "disinformation agent" I uncovered they can make repeating typos or grammatical peculiarities which can give them away. Not many people seem to realize that what you type on the internet is what you think. It leaves a detectable psychological footprint. The answer lies in profiling the other person.

Of course it's difficult to prove that there are real disinformation agents operating in your neck of the virtual woods. On the other hand the U.S. military readily admits that they are there, not on the home front of course. And you believe everything the government says.

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