Beyond the Death of Digital Democracy: Online Astroturfing and Emotional Contagion

The term netizen refers to a person who regularly engages in internet commentary. A portmanteau, it combines the words internet and citizen. To the extent such a group can be generalized, netizens advocate for government reform, open access to the internet, and freedom of speech. If you are reading this, you are probably a netizen, also commonly referred to as a cybercitizen.

It was once thought that these modern day intellectuals heralded a rebirth of civil society. Turning ideological hegemony on its head, netizens reveal a bottom up framework for the dissemination of ideas. Leaving the broadcast model behind, this new world of connections, it was thought, would perfect democracy by creating limitless opportunities for grassroots mobilization. In retrospect, the notion was a naive fantasy.  As it turns out, netizens can be checked in a manner all too familiar to traditional activists: government and corporate sponsored astroturfing.

Astroturfing is heavily incentivized  public activism, often a campaign originating within the elite masquerading as a mass movement. The tool is effective at changing perceptions in favor of business interests and the government. An astroturf campaign sways popular opinion by drowning out criticism and through the influence of groupthink. Nevertheless, professional grassroots lobbying consultants often fail because they are not transparent and fail to partner with constituencies on the ground.

Internet astroturfing is nothing new, it is estimated that one-third of all consumer reviews online are fake. Increasingly sophisticated personae management software is being developed to create fake social media accounts. Bogus, pre-aged, profiles have elaborate back stories and can automatically update. By implication, it was only a matter of time before the rise of organized troll armies. Likewise, it was inevitable that governments would attempt to exploit the technology.

The wǔmáo dǎng is an army of political commentators deployed by the People’s Republic of China. Pejoratively known as the 50 Cent Army, the commentators can sign on to any number of social media profiles and are paid 50 cents of Renminbi for every online post that obscures criticism, or advances the agenda of, the Communist Party. Qualifications for a fifty center include the “need to possess relatively good political and professional qualities… have a pioneering and enterprising spirit… and [the ability] to react quickly.” President Hu Jintao of China called the global program “a new pattern of public-opinion guidance.”

China is not the only government in the world to employ mass cyber sock puppetry. Ed Snowden exposed a British program known as Online Covert Action. The government-corporate joint surveillance program targets bloggers, activists, journalists, social event organizers and anyone else deemed to be a “emerging leader” or voice in the public arena. Operation Earnest Voice is a planned astroturfing campaign by the U.S. government and Ntrepid, a web-based corporation, that aims to spread pro-American content on social networking sites outside the United States. A researcher at RAND, however, argues that it will be very difficult to insulate the U.S. audience.

Unfortunately, the implications for these developments don’t just threaten the netizens but the more traditional form of democratic participation as well. Much has been made of the Facebook study on emotional contagion and the rise digital gerrymandering. It is well established that Facebook, through manipulating the emotional nature of the content it delivers, can effect voter turn-out and decide elections. This means that Facebook has the power to pick your leaders and tweak your mental state, and all without leaving a trace.

But this is not the end of it, because if emotional contagion can be brought on by changes to your Facebook newsfeed, it can be done through software that creates an army of content creating trolls. As such, the government, political consultants, labor unions, and the corporate world are now in a position to wield massive influence not just over your democracy, but over your psychology. The technology gives all elites, not just Facebook, the power to encourage unrest and suppress voter turn-out; the collateral effect on your mind being an afterthought. If current trends continue, the netizen rebirth of civil society will be strangled in the cradle.


About Daniel Sterling Lamb

Daniel is an attorney in Orange County, California. A conservative activist born in Anaheim, he is driven by his dedication to fiscal responsibility and transparency in local governments. "Government does not solve problems—it subsidizes them” Ronald Reagan, first said in 1967 and used many times as governor of California and while campaigning for president of the United States. He loves that quote! Follow Dan on twitter @DanSterlingLamb