The internet is being captured by organized trolls. It’s time we fought back.

Thanks to Mendo Listserv

[This is exactly what some of us experienced this past campaign season when our local cyber-commons was assaulted by wingnut trolls supporting the Wendy Roberts campaign. And because she and her Republican campaign organizers from outside the county refused to disinherit these cowardly attacks, it seemed obvious that these stooges were coordinated. Happily, they were smoked out, identified, and rejected by an alert community. Now, having failed miserably, these democracy-haters are attempting to shut down the listserv itself. -DS]

They are the online equivalent of enclosure riots: the rick-burning, fence-toppling protests by English peasants losing their rights to the land. When MasterCard, Visa, Paypal and Amazon tried to shut WikiLeaks out of the cyber-commons, an army of hackers responded by trying to smash their way into these great estates and pull down their fences.

In the Wikileaks punch-up the commoners appear to have the upper hand. But it’s just one battle. There’s a wider cyberwar being fought, of which you hear much less. And in most cases the landlords, with the help of a mercenary army, are winning.

I’m not talking here about threats to net neutrality and the danger of a two-tier internet developing, though these are real. I’m talking about the daily attempts to control and influence content in the interests of the state and corporations: attempts in which money talks.

The weapon used by both state and corporate players is a technique known as astroturfing. An astroturf campaign is one that mimics spontaneous grassroots mobilisations, but which has in reality been organised. Anyone writing a comment piece in Mandarin critical of the Chinese government, for example, is likely to be bombarded with abuse by people purporting to be ordinary citizens, upset by the slurs against their country.

But many of them aren’t upset: they are members of the 50 Cent Party, so-called because one Chinese government agency pays 5 mao (half a yuan) for every post its tame commenters write. Teams of these sock-puppets are hired by party leaders to drown out critical voices and derail intelligent debates.

I first came across online astroturfing in 2002, when the investigators Andy Rowell and Jonathan Matthews looked into a series of comments made by two people calling themselves Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek. They had launched ferocious attacks, across several internet forums, against a scientist whose research suggested that Mexican corn had been widely contaminated by GM pollen.

Rowell and Matthews found that one of the messages Mary Murphy had sent came from a domain owned by the Bivings Group, a PR company specialising in internet lobbying. An article on the Bivings website explained that “there are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved … Message boards, chat rooms, and listservs are a great way to anonymously monitor what is being said. Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party.”

The Bivings site also quoted a senior executive from the biotech corporation Monsanto, thanking the PR firm for its “outstanding work”. When a Bivings executive was challenged by Newsnight, he admitted that the “Mary Murphy” email was sent by someone “working for Bivings” or “clients using our services” Rowell and Matthews then discovered that the IP address on Andura Smetacek’s messages was assigned to Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri. There’s a nice twist to this story. AstroTurf TM – real fake grass – was developed and patented by Monsanto.

Reading comment threads on the Guardian’s sites and elsewhere on the web, two patterns jump out at me. The first is that discussions of issues in which there’s little money at stake tend to be a lot more civilised than debates about issues where companies stand to lose or gain billions: such as climate change, public health and corporate tax avoidance. These are often characterised by amazing levels of abuse and disruption.

Articles about the environment are hit harder by such tactics than any others. I love debate, and I often wade into the threads beneath my columns. But it’s a depressing experience, as instead of contesting the issues I raise, many of those who disagree bombard me with infantile abuse, or just keep repeating a fiction, however often you discredit it. This ensures that an intelligent discussion is almost impossible – which appears to be the point.

The second pattern is the strong association between this tactic and a certain set of views: pro-corporate, anti-tax, anti-regulation. Both traditional conservatives and traditional progressives tend be more willing to discuss an issue than these right-wing libertarians, many of whom seek instead to shut down debate.

So what’s going on? I’m not suggesting that most of the people trying to derail these discussions are paid to do so, though I would be surprised if none were. I’m suggesting that some of the efforts to prevent intelligence from blooming seem to be organised, and that neither website hosts nor other commenters know how to respond.

For his film (Astro)Turf Wars, Taki Oldham secretly recorded a training session organised by a rightwing libertarian group called American Majority. The trainer, Austin James, was instructing Tea Party members on how to “manipulate the medium”. This is what he told them:

“Here’s what I do. I get on Amazon; I type in “Liberal Books”. I go through and I say “one star, one star, one star”. The flipside is you go to a conservative/ libertarian whatever, go to their products and give them five stars. … This is where your kids get information: Rotten Tomatoes, Flixster. These are places where you can rate movies. So when you type in “Movies on Healthcare”, I don’t want Michael Moore’s to come up, so I always give it bad ratings. I spend about 30 minutes a day, just click, click, click, click. … If there’s a place to comment, a place to rate, a place to share information, you have to do it. That’s how you control the online dialogue and give our ideas a fighting chance.”

Over 75% of the funding for American Majority, which hosted this training session, comes from the Sam Adams Alliance. In 2008, the year in which American Majority was founded, 88% of the alliance’s money came from a single donation, of $3.7m. A group which trains rightwing libertarians to distort online democratic processes, in other words, was set up with funding from a person or company with a very large wallet.

The internet is a remarkable gift, which has granted us one of the greatest democratic opportunities since universal suffrage. We’re in danger of losing this global commons as it comes under assault from an army of trolls and flacks, many of them covertly organised or trained. The question for all of us – the Guardian, other websites, everyone who benefits from this resource – is what we intend to do about it. It’s time we fought back and reclaimed the internet for what it does best: exploring issues, testing ideas, opening the debate.


Thank you for raising an important issue for which there is no current solution. That takes courage.

That said, I just see one more symptom of what Naomi Wolf calls the closing of a society. Her book The End of America, a small but very compelling one, lists ten uniform steps that authoritarian elements always take, in perhaps slightly different form but uniform in effect, to close down a society and regiment it to the purposes of the state and its owners.

Alas, I have given up on being able to have a meaningful discussion about any of the important issues you list in an on line format. I am next to giving up on the possibility of having such discussions face to face, for that matter. It seems like the powers-that-be have either thought of everything or have hired demented genius to think of it for them.

That is why I currently refer to myself as a happy doomer. If doom is our only hope, we need not be made sad by things over which we have no control. The final stages of concentration of power are under way and fantastical extremes are becoming ordinary just as history shows happens in such cases. In the final analysis we might as well enjoy these interesting times and do ones best to help those around one as disaster heats up. The worst outcome, and the one sought by the Disaster Capitalists (read Naomi Klien’s Shock Doctrine), is destruction to the point of making society completely helpless against the looting and brutality. It will take a really big collapse to dislodge these depraved from their citadels of power. Hopefully h. sapiens will survive and have learned about the dangers of listening to artificially constructed authority.

The entire world population has been conned by this small group of depraved folks. Confidence games can be seen as education for the naive and clueless. In the case of the globalization con the tuition for the lesson is going to be unbelievably ( as in “if we could have believed how bad it would become we never would have gotten here after all”) steep.

Why are we not sitting down face to face and all discussing these things? Because the propaganda machine has manufactured world of zombies programed to sabotage any discussion of importance is my guess. That was always the winning hand of oppression – make the people complicit in their own slavery.


How to get folks to use their heads and think independently has always been a challenge. Unfortunately, human evolution is both uneven and incomplete. Ken Wilbur estimates that about two thirds of the population is still stuck at the developmental level of inter-tribal rivalry. Not a happy evaluation or sunny prognosis there, but it seems accurate enough. So we do what we can and help each other as the situation permits. Internet or no internet, there’s still a long, rough road ahead.

“stuck at the developmental level of inter-tribal rivalry.”

The field of evolutionary psychology is a dangerous morass. I read extensively in this area and, while there are some important ideas floated about, it is also a favorite playground for BS aficionadi. For instance, a common sense idea like intergroup rivalry, something we all continuously observe, can be easily put into service in an anti-human rant. I enjoy reading Wilber as an academic who also enjoys speculating on the meaning of insufficient data, but I am distressed when I see these ideas taken out of context and misapplied to our current, real life challenges. A little knowledge is not only dangerous at times, but also embarrassing.
I remain a die hard fan of our species which, need I point out, has a long, long history of successful adaptation and cooperation with nature and with con-specifics. One of the least known revelations of modern archeology is that our species had it together much, much better than we see modern, domesticated, “civilized” humans haveing it together.
The problem is not in our genes, but in the elevation of a class of mental defectives to positions of power and authority. Essentially, modern, scientific research has revealed that scale itself is the chink that allows sociopaths to have their way with us. Social units of less than a couple of hundred people behave VERY differently than larger groups which become destructive and predatory on other humans under the control of hyper-comptetive sociopaths.

The message is nothing more than that we need to deconstruct “civilization” at its roots and replace it with a biologically sensitive system or see our species perish from the earth and join the latest, and geologically speaking, the greatest mass extinction that has been initiated by these cancerous social agglomerations that afflict us with constant war and environmental destruction.

Welcome to the anthropocene.

Happy holidays,

Dear Dave,

Flattery is fine, but engaging in meaningful debate is what I want for Birth of the Most Famous Political Martyr celebration.

The best for you and yours no matter the season.

Curmudgeonly yours,