Propaganda online: Welcome to the war on comments

Published: April 4, 2011
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Who would bother planting agenda-driven comments on a news website you ask?

Who would bother planting agenda-driven comments on a news website you ask?

Working for an online news desk with a liberal comments policy that allows visitors to voice their opinions on all articles is not without its hazards.

The recent debates surrounding the Raymond Davis saga, Indo-Pak talks and other geopolitically sensitive issues tends to generate a rather unusual surge in visitor comments with a particular slant, forcing comment moderators to question whether this is the result of an expected surge of polarized public opinion, or whether there is a concerted effort being made to shape or create a perception of public opinion by groups with vested interests in the issue at hand.

Who would bother planting agenda-driven comments on a news website you ask?

Well, for starters, as The Times reported in 2006, the Israeli Foreign Ministry ordered trainee diplomats to track down anti-Israel websites and chatrooms to aid thousands of Jewish activists in placing pro-Israel comments. The effort was coordinated using ‘megaphone’ software which directed Jewish online activists to sites, polls and chatrooms where they could post contrary viewpoints and dictate the direction of the online debate on the Israel-Palestine issue.

Let’s not even look that far into the past.

The Guardian last month reported that the US military is “developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.”

The contract for this software, commissioned through the United States Central Command (CentCom) states that these “fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations “without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries”.

More interestingly for local audiences, the report further states that the languages in which the “interventions” are conducted will be Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto.

With reports such as these circulating online, it is not hard to see why conspiracy theorists are having a field day.

Recent blogs such as that by Pakistan Cyber Force, a group which claims to “actively participate in cyber combat activities” claim that there are now thousands of “foreign cyber troopers” visiting local websites and “bombarding our cyber networks with anti-Army and anti-ISI messages and trying to divert the whole responsibility of Raymond Davis’ release towards ISI and army.”

Looking deeper, the multiple conspiracies theories online deteriorate into a series of half-truths (and some delusions) about US cyber armies, Israel-Indian online nexus’ trying to malign Pakistan and the practice of intelligence agencies running online war games. Still, logic and realpolitik dictate that one cannot be blind to the possibility.

While it would be nigh impossible to sift the truth out of the muck, there is no denying that the internet has become a very real, very potent playground for the shaping of public opinion, and while much has been written about the “freeing, democratic” nature of the net, very little has been said on the equally valid viewpoint that the internet can be used to misinform, malign and manipulate.

The very first level of running a propaganda campaign online is to create false, manipulated content slanted towards a certain goal using bogus columns, false expert opinion, propaganda-based blogs, mislabeled, false videos etc. However, the more subtle, and arguably equally important arena to wage the propaganda war is in the dialogue taking place i.e. online chat, public forums, comments on websites.

Assuming the popular ‘hive theory’ to be a fairly accurate social model of how people interact online, it only takes four or five busy bees to plant the seeds of an idea in a comments section. The rest of the work is done by the rest of the naïve hive, which picks up on the idea and runs with it — and remember — for every one article that goes online with a particular viewpoint, there can easily be four, five, even ten contradictory views in shorter, more digestible form in the comments section below.

Yes, the role of a comment moderator on a news website can be a hard one, especially when it comes to answering the question: what is propaganda and what is personal opinion? Would it not then be better to just close down the pernicious comments section on sites? Or would that be trampling upon freedom of speech and vital insight into the minds of the readers and society at-large? These questions are hard to answer, and will hopefully be addressed as the war on comments grows — for with every war, there is inevitable rebellion and resistance.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April  3rd, 2011.

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Reader Comments (14)

  • Zain s
    Apr 4, 2011 - 3:13PM

    If they can do it, they will do it. Don’t know why people are so incredulous. Vote manipulation in electronic voting systems is a fact, so comments are no biggie. Recommend

  • John
    Apr 4, 2011 - 6:29PM

    Comments sections are the new FIFTH Estate. Hitherto the news were created, dominated, and disseminated by the traditional four estates, and people were only a consumers.

    Now the people also participate in the important functioning of democracy. As usual, the traditional estates are afraid that they are no longer in control of the news.

    This is 21century with twitter and social media and text messaging and the news travels faster than the web moderator can keep up with.

    The best thing the moderator can do is to edit the foul language containing comments and leave the rest to the people. People are smarter and they can discern the truth. Recommend

  • Mustafa
    Apr 4, 2011 - 7:04PM

    really….you have just lost one viewer of express 24/7 :@Recommend

  • Zee
    Apr 4, 2011 - 7:08PM

    I worked for a major Pakistani news website and was initially taken aback by vitriolic comments calling for violent jihad against India – until I noticed these were originating from Indian IPs! There’s definitely lots of mischief-making and baiting taking place… Recommend

  • Talat Haque
    Apr 4, 2011 - 7:30PM

    Let’s see the slants the propagandists make! ………… being aware is being smart …………… soon the intelligent mind will spot the differences ……………. if it’s a war, then lets see the enemy moves! Recommend

  • Babloo
    Apr 4, 2011 - 11:46PM

    I post my comments regularly on Tribune and admire their comments policy. Its as fair as at any Indian or Western sites like Washington Post or NY Times. Occasionally there will be a bad apple but 99% of posters are just expressing individual opinions and are a good barometer of public opinion and perception.Recommend

  • junaid
    Apr 5, 2011 - 3:14AM

    @John:
    how smart….!did you ponder what the author actually means???or do you want to say that moderators should leave everything and a 5th state should also have govt that should be ruled and hypnotized by the big fish??given the times report of 2006 and the us military report i am very keen to hear from you!Recommend

  • Qadir
    Apr 5, 2011 - 3:27AM

    Oh….you are doing same like Geo. Now you have just lost another big fan of express news :-(Recommend

  • Ansa N
    Apr 5, 2011 - 6:37AM

    This is so shocking. :/ I really do not know how I feel about this.

    Depending on the site you visit, it really reflects the kinds of visitors that are on it. I was once reading an article about the May 25 incident (Ahmadi mosques attacked) on a Christian-based website run by some Church…and the comments on it appalled me. They were all Islamophobic… and I mean ALL…not a single one spoke of Muslims in a positive manner. Whereas, where I read other articles on the same topic and people from all areas around the world commented – some Islamophists, etc. but majority of them not. Recommend

  • Ansa N
    Apr 5, 2011 - 6:38AM

    And oh my point is that, you really do begin to start reading into things and wondering. Clearly, the majority opinion sticks to you a little bit. So this propaganda stuff can be highly dangerous!!Recommend

  • Manoj
    Apr 5, 2011 - 11:04AM

    comments policy of ET is best in India + Pakistani media. It has provided a great platform of communication between common citizen of two countries. Many of the opinion based upon wrong information fed by the vested interest in two countries has now demolished. We are in a better position to appreciate each others view point and it also helped us to moderate our view in many subject like secularism. for me secularism was part of life, nothing to be proud of. but when I started reading the views of our pakistani friends, I came to know that secularism is the real gift by our constitution maker to us, which has helped us in having a libral, open and unprejudiced mind.Recommend

  • John
    Apr 5, 2011 - 7:06PM

    @junaid: Yes. Have heard this before, nothing new.

    The Govt all over the world try to manipulate the dissemination of information. They did it with newspapers, and in TV era they successfully managed it with edited clips.

    The IT age changed everything and this is the one route they do not control, yet. Instead they try to manipulate the comments, but have not worked so far. The moderators sometime cross the line and their moderation becomes censorship of views.

    All Govt in the world tried and are still trying to muzzle the information dissemination in the name of national security, imminent danger of foreign threat etc. It happened in US, in PAK, and in India and still happening in China.

    There are moderators who deliberately like to manipulate the comments to keep it sensational and present only biased view also. In certain news sections of ET one can easily see that.

    That is why you tube and twitter means a lot in 21 century where the news dissemination and consumption is by the people. Those who manipulate these media with false info have to compete with the truth and fortunately there is more truth than a few false info disseminators-Govt or individuals. Just pick any controversial topic that does not bias with your own opinion and try your own research. Recommend

  • Cautious
    Apr 5, 2011 - 8:44PM

    Wow – Muslim blogger writing in a country that is the capital of “conspiracy theories” writing about a conspiracy where Jews/USA are conspiring to influence the World by making comments on internet forums. Whats next – BBC in Urdu – oh yeah – they have that already.Recommend

  • S. Asghar
    Apr 12, 2011 - 10:31PM

    @Cautious: I reckon, just like the writer of this article, you simply do not know the most organized online propaganda group; which even ‘pays’ its members.

    Welcome to ‘Jewish Internet Defense Force‘ — Official link of JIDF – http://www.thejidf.org/ — 16000 ‘dedicated bloggers’
    (Feel free to move around, and understand links like ‘Take Actions’)

    40000+ fans @Facebook [ JIDF on Facebook
    50000+ Followers on Twitter [ JIDF on Twitter

    ‘Hum Aah Bhi Bharte Hain To Ho Jaate Hain Badnaam
    Woh Qattel Bhi Karte Hain To Charcha Nahin Hota’Recommend

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