Astroturfing the Spinternet

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Filed under: Co-option (If You Can't Beat 'Em...), Political Challenges, Propaganda and Disinformation, Spin
by Evgeny Morozov
The New York Times Op Ed
March 29, 2009

censorship-200This year”™s report on “enemies of the Internet” prepared by Reporters Without Borders, the international press advocacy group, paints a very gloomy picture for the freedom of expression on the Web. It finds that many governments have stepped up their attacks on the Internet, harassing bloggers and making it harder to express dissenting opinions online.

These are very disturbing trends. But identifying “Internet enemies” only on the basis of censorship and intimidation, as Reporters Without Borders has done, obfuscates the fact that these are only two components of a more comprehensive and multi-pronged approach that authoritarian governments have developed to diffuse the subversive potential of online communications.

Many of these governments have honed their Internet strategies beyond censorship and are employing more subtle (and harder to detect) ways of controlling dissent, often by planting their own messages on the Web and presenting them as independent opinion.

Their actions are often informed by the art of online “astroturfing,” a technique also popular with modern corporations and PR firms. While companies use it to engineer buzz around products and events, governments are using it to create the appearance of broad popular support for their ideology.

Their ultimate ambition may be to transform the Internet into a “spinternet,” the vast and mostly anonymous areas of cyberspace under indirect government jurisdiction. The spinternet strategy could be more effective than censorship “” while there are a plenty of ways to access blocked Web sites, we do not yet have the means to distinguish spin from independent comment.

In China, the spinternet is being built by the “50 cent party,” a loose online squad of tech-savvy operators loyal to the government who are paid to troll the Internet, find dissenting views and leave anonymous comments to steer all discussions in more “harmonious” directions. The “50 cents” in the name stands for their meager pay rates.

Plenty of local technology companies are also eager to help the government with various data-mining programs that identify dissenting views early and dispatch “50 cent party” operators to steer the discussion away from an antigovernment direction.

In Iran, the Revolutionary Guards recently announced their ambition to build their own spinternet by launching 10,000 blogs for the Basij, a paramilitary force under the Guards. This comes at a time when the Internet has become a major force in exposing corruption in the highest ranks of the Iranian leadership.

The Russian government may have found an even more ingenious way of suppressing the Internet”™s democratizing potential: cost. Many Internet users in Russia are still billed on the basis of the frequency and duration of their browsing sessions, and the state-owned All-Russia State Television and Radio Company has floated the idea of building a “social Internet,” where users would pay nothing for state-approved Web sites.

Such an approach is already being tested in Belarus, where Internet users can browse the government”™s favored mouthpiece, “Belarus Today,” for free “” that is, without paying their ISPs for Internet traffic, as they must for the country”™s few independent media outlets.

The rise of the spinternet suggests that the threats that the Internet poses to authoritarian regimes are far from unambiguous; some of these governments have turned quite adept at exploiting it for their own purposes.

So while it”™s important to continue documenting the direct repression of online journalists and bloggers, as organizations like Reporters Without Borders are doing, it is important to remember that there are other ways to qualify as an “enemy of the Internet.”

thanks Don