Astroturfing, sockpuppets, and SCO

When politically motivated conservative bloggers back tracked some Palin smear videos circulating via internet sites like youtube, they found key executives at a major international public relations business with their hands deep in the cookie jar - and I couldn't help but see what they had done as a logical evolution on what happened when SCOsource first lifted IBM's AIX license.

As most Zdnet readers undoubtedly know, a number of conservative bloggers responded to a recent set of internet smears aimed at Sarah Palin by digging deeply into the record to discover who had produced and released them.

The record of how this was done for one particular case includes back tracing the account ids used first to upload and distribute the video, and then to cover the attempted deletions once the account holders were publically identified.

Fox news had an interesting summary segment on this:

You might think, as I did at first, that this is just politics as usual and really has nothing to do with IT - but that's wrong, and for two related reasons: first I believe that those of us who work in IT have a collective responsibility to ensure that the tools we develop and deploy aren't used destructively; and, second, there's a lot here to remind us of the initial campaign against SCO.

That campaign built SCO's current image in the Linux community as stupid, greedy, and manipulative money changers out to gut Linux when, in reality, the actual character and motivations of the people involved have nothing to do with the issue and the actions they took were directed against IBM, not Linux.

As I said some time ago, I greatly admire the way groklaw has mobilized a significant fraction of the Linux community to support its perspective, and thought then that this would become a model for other people to study and copy for their own purposes. Unfortunately, as both the community perspective on SCO and the recent astroturfing attacks on Sarah Palin show, these methods have grown dangerously powerful in large part because it's so hard to tell truth from falsehood, and sources deserving of belief from sources deserving only of scorn and ridicule.

Wikipedia has become, to cite a more widely known example than SCO, an important source of reference information if for no other reason than google's decision to place wikipedia hits at the top of any search results list containing them - but wikipedia can't be trusted, in large part because its apparent standard of truth is the self-interest of its contributors. Thus the top two hits google lists on the search "SCO Linux IBM" are hardly models of objective reporting - but you'd have to know quite a lot about the issue to see that, and not only would the previously uninformed arriving at either wikipedia article come away thinking the case a slam dunk for IBM, but it's hard to see how such a reader would not be influenced by the editor's apparent contempt for the SCO side of the dispute.

So what can we do to reduce the risk of acting, or deciding, on disinformation? I wish I knew - I mean, in the longer run some combination of technology and regulation will evolve to make the internet harder to abuse for political or commercial causes; but I don't know what that solution will look like, and I don't know when it will appear. In the meantime I think that the only thing we can do is to express increased cynicism about anything we read or see by consciously asking ourselves what wider realities might apply, and what the writer/producer's real agenda might be.