Take the increasing importance attached to social networking and its ability to influence the political world. Add in a tradition of wanting to influence the public and other governments. Turn down your ethics meter. Shake together and what do you get? This:
The US government is offering private intelligence companies contracts to create software to manage “fake people” on social media sites and create the illusion of consensus on controversial issues.
The contract calls for the development of “Persona Management Software” which would help the user create and manage a variety of distinct fake profiles online. The job listing was discussed in recently leaked emails from the private security firm HBGary after an attack by internet activist last week.
According to the contract, the software would “protect the identity of government agencies” by employing a number of false signals to convince users that the poster is in fact a real person. A single user could manage unique background information and status updates for up to 10 fake people from a single computer. (Examiner.com)
As David Betz on Kings of War (the Department of War Studies, King’s College London blog) commented,
It is irksome on two fronts, for me at any rate. One, I think that the ‘war of ideas’ really does matter, and that … we are more likely to win the day if we let ideas find their own level. We should be pushing the freedom of the networks, enabling people to say what they think not messing about with the content and playing tricky games…
Two, if you are going to actively manipulate opinion in this manner could you please do it covertly? … I mean if you’re preparing to do something which looks an awful lot like messing with public discourse in a way that is bound to put people’s backs up why put it out to public tender?
In many ways this contract is a logic extension of the numerous methods by which the US and other governments already seek to covertly influence public opinion. And it would certainly make a change from fake profiles promoting flat stomachs, larger appendages and Nigerian financial riches. Though if the security failure over the leaked emails is anything to go by, it may struggle to match them for effectiveness.