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Astroturfing: In manual mode

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Manipulation (from the Latin manipulatio) involves a set of techniques that influences people to change their behaviours or perceptions. People manipulate others in order to control them to their own advantage.

Manipulating opinions is as old as humankind. In ancient times, manipulators typically exploited people’s fears—virtually anything could scare an uneducated, illiterate person. Promises that thunder and lightning signalled disaster were, perhaps, the first examples of manipulation.

As humanity has matured and become more educated, those seeking to manipulate others must devise more sophisticated techniques. With the emergence of the Internet, it’s possible to manipulate people on a massive scale. Millions worldwide can be affected simultaneously; state borders are meaningless! The fact that English has become the new international language has made the job of manipulators even easier.

Astroturfing (from Astro Turf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to resemble natural grass) is one manipulation technique. Its name implies that the presented information only appears genuine, while in fact it has been fabricated.

This social engineering technique is used to create the impression that there is credible public support for something, without revealing where any of the information shared originated. Astroturfing is typically used in politics and brand promotion. Thousands of accounts controlled by those involved in astroturfing are used to create the impression that there is large-scale support for a cause. They may also encourage people to purchase goods and services under a certain brand or discourage them from doing so.

Special software programs are used to hide the true identity of the people behind the posts. The programs provide all the necessary personal information including names, email addresses, and social networking accounts (these are maintained by posting messages repeatedly or sharing links, so that it looks like a real person exists behind the web page). When necessary, astroturfing is used to provide negative feedback about a publication and provide facts that contradict those provided by its author. Ordinary users can hardly ever tell that an author has been attacked not by real people offering feedback, but by astroturfers trying to manipulate opinions.

The most typical example of an astrosurfer attack was the huge volume of messages posted by Chinese users who were paid to refute reports that children in China had been poisoned by dairy products. At the time, 300,000 people were involved in the campaign, and they were paid 50 cents per post.

Dr.Web recommends

As an expert in information security, Doctor Web strives to provide Anti-virus Times readers with information that will increase their awareness of security issues and help them avoid threats and pitfalls on the Internet. Another reason we publish these issues is because we never want our readers to be manipulated by hackers, spammers, or astroturfers, or become entangled in their unlawful schemes through a lack of knowledge or carelessness.

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