February 23, 2011

Sock Puppets, Astroturf, and Persona Management Software

When Nancy Pelosi made her comment about "astroturf" back in spring of 2009 it offended me but did not surprise me in the least. After all, long before 9/11 the DNC paid for websites which existed for no other purpose than to compare patriotic Americans with Nazis. Also, anyone the least bit familiar with the concept of "server load testing" will know how easy it is to create as many "sock puppets" as they feel they need and then direct those sock puppets to post to any server with an IP address. Overloading a Usenet newsgroup or political forum with multiple virtual users all professing to believe the same thing was one of the very first techniques hackers developed back in the earliest days of BBS forums and dial-up modems.

This is old news. A quick search at Sourceforge.net reveals over four hundred Open Source programs for creating, managing, or otherwise manipulating "virtual users". Every modern version of windows allows you to open multiple "virtual desktops" so if your computer has enough memory and a fast enough processor, there is nothing stopping anyone with a copy of Windows XP or later to have three or four completely different social networking accounts open all at the same time, each with a unique identity. Using Macintosh's Leopard software or Linux it is even easier. Under Linux and X-Windows the only thing limiting the number of unique identities a single person can run simultaneously is their ability to tolerate system slowdown. There is no numeric upper limit, making it theoretically possible for one person to pretend to be everyone in the entire world all at the same time.

Yes, every social network in cyberspace is riddled with fake accounts. No, this is not a problem, nor is it some kind of evil PR campaign. It's just the way it is, the way it has always been, and the way it will always be. So as the cry against "fake accounts" escalates over the next few weeks and people clamor for some defense against "fake internet users" manipulating the political process please keep in mind that this is not a new phenomenon at all. This kind deception has been with us from the very beginning and will be with us until the very end. Regulating it through net neutrality or some other government intervention will only make the astroturf harder to distinguish from the genuine grassroots outcry by passionate supporters of all stripes.