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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. (more…)