Are Climate Deniers and Front Groups Polluting Online Conversation With Denier-Bots?

There appears to be an increasingly sophisticated and planned effort by conservatives and polluter front groups to use “persona management” software to pollute social media outlets and website comment forums with auto-generated sockpuppet swarms designed to mislead and misrepresent real people.

Leaked emails from Aaron Barr, CEO of a federal subsidiary for HB Gary, disclose the latest efforts and technology used underhandedly for “ganging up on bloggers, commenters and otherwise ‘real’ people to smear enemies and distort the truth.”

This phenomenon was first reported by Happy Rockefeller over at Daily Kos.

ClimateProgress is following this issue, particularly when it comes to the online discussion about climate change, noting that readers joke about pre-programmed ‘denier-bots’ and “how the same arguments and phrasings keep cropping up in the comments’ section of the many unmoderated news sites on the web.”

While proof that some of our democratic debate is artificial may come as a revelation for some, and be unsurprising for others, the implications are significant. It is increasingly difficult to know with any certainty whose comments are real, and it is undeniable that some readers are susceptible to bandwagon mentality when they see large amounts of comments and ‘support’ for particular interests. The Koch Brothers with their many campaigns of disinformation are master manipulators of debate and are merely one, albeit a high-profile example, of human and media manipulation.

The following excerpts come from Happy Rockefeller’s discussion: 

HB Gary people are talking about creating “personas”, what we would call sockpuppets. This is not new. PR firms have been using fake “people” to promote products and other things for a while now, both online and even in bars and coffee houses.

But for a defense contractor with ties to the federal government, Hunton & Williams, DOD, NSA, and the CIA –  whose enemies are labor unions, progressive organizations,  journalists, and progressive bloggers –  a persona apparently goes far beyond creating a mere sockpuppet.

According to an embedded MS Word document found in one of the HB Gary emails, it involves creating an army of sockpuppets, with sophisticated “persona management” software that allows a small team of only a few people to appear to be many, while keeping the personas from accidentally cross-contaminating each other. Then, to top it off, the team can actually automate some functions so one persona can appear to be an entire Brooks Brothers riot online.

Persona management entails not just the deconfliction of persona artifacts such as names, email addresses, landing pages, and associated content.  It also requires providing the human actors technology that takes the decision process out of the loop when using a specific persona.  For this purpose we custom developed either virtual machines or thumb drives for each persona.  This allowed the human actor to open a virtual machine or thumb drive with an associated persona and have all the appropriate email accounts, associations, web pages, social media accounts, etc. pre-established and configured with visual cues to remind the actor which persona he/she is using so as not to accidentally cross-contaminate personas during use.

This is an excerpt from one of the Word Documents, which was sent as an attachment by Aaron Barr, CEO of HB Gary’s Federal subsidiary, to several of his colleagues to present to clients:

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.

In another Word document, one of the team spells out how automation can work so one person can be many personas:

Using the assigned social media accounts we can automate the posting of content that is relevant to the persona.  In this case there are specific social media strategy website RSS feeds we can subscribe to and then repost content on twitter with the appropriate hashtags. In fact using hashtags and gaming some location based check-in services we can make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise, as one example.  There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personas.

There is no solution to this sort of third party and vested interest manipulation, but certainly making more people aware that this is a major issue is a great start to ensuring our conversation is real, and not overrun with denier bots.


George Monbiot reports on the use of this technology by denialists:

In that article he mentions that the US Air Force is doing the same:

I doubt that “there is no solution to this sort of third party and vested interest manipulation…”

Using wikis instead of threaded blogs, for one thing, makes it very hard to automate or add insincere human edits. Anonymous edits are quite simple to support, with appropriate policies like Wikipedia’s, and the material may even be strengthened when counter-evidence is provided and examined. However using worthless blog technology, any thread can be swamped with questionable posts that nonetheless might be a real human or provide a link that is relevant if not credible, so moderators are legitimately inhibited against hiding stuff from sight.
“Ranking” doesn’t work for a long list of reasons including cliques and the need to pay attention to material to rank it in the first place.

There is really no excuse for not running wikis for important material of long term value, especially now that mediawiki-format-compatible ones are available and easy to run, Jamwiki being the most obvious of these

Obviously other simple-minded tactics like requiring verified logins will *NOT* work, as it’s quite easy for the bots to make email addresses and answer such verification email. And especially easy for a bot-human combination to do it. It creates a net advantage for the bots. I had to go through a *LOT* of hassle to post this comment, and almost didn’t bother, because of the stupid “log in to comment” policy.

I won’t be doing it again. Let me know if you want to run a real wiki. Non-wiki knowledge base is generally not worth contributing to.

Interesting timing on this article; I’d just had a Facebook conversation about this, when I came across the desmog blog. A woman named Meg Howe replied to a post about climate change, claiming she used to work in “Government Climate Change”, and since examining the scads of science, eventually came to believe that humans do not play a significant role in climate change. I very politely challenged her views and asked for her to share some of this “compelling evidence.” She posted several links of videos associated with the Heartland Institute, Exxon’s corporate think-tank. I pointed out the conflict of interest in the links and asked if she had any more credible information. She then retreated from the conversation, with a flurry of contradictory statements and basic questions left unanswered, despite her initial very patronizing, all-knowing tone. Wanted to copy the conversation here for others to reference; however it took place on a friend’s wall and he has since deleted it for reasons unknown to me. My overall impression was that the comments she offered, as well as her profile, seemed entirely too generic and contradictory to be authentic. What kinds of experiences are others having with Denier-Bots?