This 6/14/06 post ”Get Out Your Tinfoil Hats” by Blogenfreude of Agitprop over at DailyKos has been making the rounds for some time now (The 1984 film still is a nice touch!). Basically, a company called NetVocates offers to monitor what blogs are saying about its clients. Fair enough. But it doesn’t end there. The site cyberbersoc.com found that in addition to monitoring and analyzing blogs, Netvocates also deploys commenters. As NetVocates describes on their site:
NetVocates then recruits activists and consumers who share the client’s views in order to reinforce those key messages on targeted blogs – and rebut misinformation when appropriate.
While this may not necessarily translate into “trolling,” it does involve paid shills, and obviously such commenters will not identify themselves as such. Movie studios and other corporations have hired people to hype up their products before on website forums, and likely will continue to do so. Cigarette companies have actually gone back to hiring “cigarette girls” to work a club and shill their product – but these employees do not identify themselves as such (I know someone who encountered a couple of “average guys” pimping Red Bull). While all this is not cause for unbridled paranoia, it is a reminder that whatever one reads online should be read critically. It reminds me of a great science fiction short story where citizens are bombarded even while they sleep and brush their teeth with advertising!
I suspect when it comes to political blogs, most “trolls” are likely unpaid, real people with strong beliefs, intentionally coming to hijack a thread and “flame-bait” their political opponents. Still, I would not be surprised if a few were paid shills. On Crooks & Liars, one of the sites where I comment the most often, there are some well-known conservative posters who may have predictable views, but they are mostly civil and some site features, such as C&L’s Late Night Music Club, allow for any partisan divisions to drop. However, there also have also been a few persistent trolls, and in some cases a troll will appear for one thread and one thread only, generally posting very early in the thread, typically expressing a very rightwing, Coulter-esque viewpoint. In other words, the poster unreflectively parrots even the most ludicrous GOP talking points and uses their specific terminology, expresses hostility and derision for all other posters, refuses to concede even the slightest, most obvious point, and typically does not back up any of his or her assertions with studies or facts. It’s quite possible some of these trolls were banned, or they grew bored, only to be replaced by new trolls. But there has been a familiar pattern, especially for some subjects such as the minimum wage. Since arguments on better threads rise and fall on their merits, I’m not overly concerned, but I do find it interesting.
I remain grateful for taking a unit course on advertising techniques in my seventh-grade English class. I believe everyone in the world that is similarly bombarded should receive at least that much training — how to read an ad, which of the basic approaches it employs, how to read an ingredient label, and so on (I’d also love it if more people were trained to recognize the classic bad argument patterns, such as the false dilemma, straw man, and equivocation). Advertising and public relations work really is everywhere. The Center for Media and Democracy , the folks that publish PR Watch, have an excellent site to peruse many of the latest gambits as well as study some of the classic tricks. Of particular use is the Astroturf section, covering organizations that pretend to be grassroots but are funded by corporations or wealthy individuals (“astroturf” is a fantastic term for these organizations, and would make Orwell smile). The section on video news releases, or VNRs, is especially timely, because corporations produce ads masquerading as news segments and then feed them to local news stations desperate for content. Several commenters have observed that it’s naive to think that VNRs will entirely disappear, but it’s completely unethical for them to air as disinterested, objective news pieces when their source should be clearly identified.
I am so very, very far down the totem pole of blogs I’d be shocked to get any NetVocates attention or anything similar. I have received an e-mail asking me to review the DVD release of an old film, but no money was offered, I didn’t review the DVD, and if I had I would have disclosed the solicitation. Before I enabled the word verification feature for comments, I received spambot comments pimping a few companies’ websites, but I imagine everyone using Blogger has experienced that. I don’t envy the site monitors on the larger sites.
The only certainties in life are death, taxes, BS, and that corporations will seek out new consumers and new ways to entice them. While the blogosphere contains more than its share of BS, the best sites have a good track record of exposing BS and honoring valuable work over the disingenuous. The existence and attention of entities such as NetVocates suggests the blogosphere — well, the liberal blogosphere, at least! — is doing something right.
(This post was brought to you by Powdermilk Biscuits— Heavens, they’re tasty!)