In the age of continuous surveillance in a post-9/11 world, it’s no secret that government forces trawl the web to gain intelligence on terrorist organizations. The overarching malaise associated with it even became a meme personifying everyone in the country’s personal FBI agents. Information is so limitless and vast that even normal individuals can become fighters in conflicts halfway across the world, launching strikes on real targets through social media.
It shouldn’t be at all surprising that governments could take the personas of online individuals. Social media is the focal point of this internet age, and it’s not far-fetched to believe that individuals online aren’t who they seem. After all, before Facebook there was the overarching fear that the person in the chatroom wasn’t who they claimed to be. Is it really that far-fetched to suggest that instead of someone being a criminal, they’re instead either a corporation or a government?
Legally, Operation Earnest Voice allows the U.S. government to go on international websites and attempt to change the opinions of users. Although it sounds complex and menacing, this boils down to government workers, being paid with federal taxes, acting with fake online personas to achieve their goals. As stated, operations are formally restricted to media outside of the United States. However, if the government violates this rule, there is nobody to be held accountable, since the entire operation is behind closed doors. Therefore it’s not inconceivable that the government could be operating wherever they want on the web.
The idea of a nation-state calling people names over the Internet is not far-fetched. The greatest and most widely popularized instance of this appears in The People’s Republic of China. It was revealed not so long ago that the Chinese Communist Party has paid individuals that act like normal netizens, attempting to entrap the nation’s own citizens in honeypot schemes, versus interacting with individuals outside the country. In practice, having government infiltrators in online discussions has led to a reaction where anyone online is believed to be an undercover agent. The effect on the average individual is a feeling of restriction on the Internet, an area once popularized as a digital Wild West for any man or woman.
Not only do the governments of China and the United States have these sorts of operations in place, many governments most likely have either factual or secretive groups that are paid with tax dollars in order to drum up specific opinions through sockpuppeting. Sockpuppeting is the action of pretending to be a different person on the Internet, usually used in astroturfing (creating a fake grassroots campaign). These tactics are utilized both online and in real life. In many cases, online campaigns are used to promote products as part of a wider marketing strategy. Offline examples include the campaigns of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Government, corporate, and individual forces utilize sockpuppets as well as astroturfing in order to build support for their various causes, akin to large-scale advertising.
This is obviously important in an era where most social change comes through online interaction. Most notably, the Arab Spring took place when people were able to connect on US-owned social media. It’s not out of the question to assume that at some point, a US-owned sockpuppet could have influenced individuals in a foreign country.
The effect of an undisclosed and innumerable amount of sock puppets littering the Internet is a greater distrust of fellow internet users and a self-regulated censorship in what was thought to be a bastion of freedom on the internet. No longer can people share what they want, or have anti-establishment leanings in plain sight. With fake individuals representing various agencies, corporations, nations, ideologies, and elusive funders, the conversation will inevitably be regulated by those with the most money to hire users, or even create the most effective bots. In conjunction with Internet regulations being passed in many nations, this seeks to choke off the final bastion of anonymous free speech. Either that, or eventually it’ll just become advertisers advertising to advertisers.