Creative Commons License photo credit: oatsy40

Last week, Conscious Life News posted an article titled, “I Was a Paid Internet Shill: How Shadowy Groups Manipulate Internet Opinion and Debate.” Joe Anzalone pointed me to someone who had copied and pasted the text of the post, which I Googled and found on a forum, with a post date in the spring of 2012. Here is a cache, since the post has now been removed.

If you don’t want to read it, I’ll summarize: the poster claims that he was hired by a company who specialized in “influencing people’s opinions” by participating in forums, chat rooms, social networks, etc. and further a particular viewpoint. The viewpoint he says he was hired to further was “to support Israel and counter anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic posters.” More or less, he was paid to manipulate opinion online.

Now, the reason I suggest that you take a moment to read it is that it gets quite sensational from there. There is talk of dossiers of online communities with information on moderators, the history of the site, popular posters and how to “push the physiological buttons” of them. It’s highly creative and while we can’t be sure, I’m not inclined to give it any credibility, especially because of the sensational way it is written. This leads me to believe it was written in this manner so that people would eat it up, similar to the style gossip sites often have.

However, this type of thing definitely happens. Whether or not this particular one is true, it doesn’t matter, because people do try to do this and we (that is, people who have been managing online communities for a long time) all know it, because we’ve probably seen it. We do the best we can to weed it out, but if they’re really good, it is tough to be caught because they essentially represent a viewpoint and people are allowed to express viewpoints that don’t violate our guidelines.

That’s the challenge: sorting out the manipulators from the honest people. I tend to think that in many cases, these people get too greedy and they slip up, like Sports Legends Challenge did. They were sloppy and made mistakes and I unraveled it and called them out.

But, many won’t make those mistakes and even if we have a suspicion, we generally need more. We can identify patterns, if they present themselves, and we take action when they do. If you see something that may be a pattern, as a member of the community, most of us want you to report it. But, also, don’t be disappointed when you don’t see any action taken. As good as your or our own intuition might be, we don’t like to guess when it comes to banning someone. We like to be confident.

We’ll never tell you to believe everything you read in our communities. In fact, we’ll caution you against it. And this is one of the reasons why. Because we know that these people exist, we know that the tools we have are limited and that you are, at the end of the day, responsible for your own life and decisions.

It’s best to just be honest about things like this, rather than trying to deny it or say that it’ll “never happen in my community.” Yes, it happens. Yes, we know it happens. Yes, when we have clear proof, we act on it swiftly and harshly. Together, maybe we can get rid of some of these people. But it’ll never end and there will always be more. Where opportunities exist to exploit, people will attempt to exploit. Proceed with caution.