By Chris Capps 2/18/11
If you've ever been to any social networking site or internet forum you know how passionately people can voice their opinions and how disparate opinions can be from one location to another. But what if everyone on a site full of people was actually just one person? Leaked emails from HBGary have revealed that the military actually contracted software to allow one person in the real world seem like several more people on the internet. But why?
This isn't your run of the mill IP reconfiguration either. The personas from the software were said to allow a person – even one person – to have a full background, history, theoretical location on the globe, a convincing IP address to link them to a specific and consistent location, a facebook account complete with photos likes, dislikes, and perhaps most importantly political opinions.
When news of this contract first made its way over the Internet, immediately several started theorizing that this army of digital citizens would be able to sway public opinion, particularly surrounding developing stories. Such a new culture could flood potentially growing social trends and patterns and immediately make new information far more difficult to defend – particularly if each member was carefully trained in swaying public opinion.
So if this were to happen, how would we know the difference? Scanning popular forums and chatrooms, general opinions around the matter have ranged from "Trust no one and take everything you hear with a grain of salt," to "I think this is a brilliant and admirable tactic the powers that be are implementing." It's enough to make even the most reasonably paranoid skeptic stop for a moment and rescan his contact list, entertaining -if only for a moment- the idea that half the people they know could be completely fabricated digital personas.
One suggestion on how to take this new bit of information into consideration is to consider the fact that internet trolls and spam advertisers have been using similar (albeit nowhere near as advanced) tactics for years. Speech patterns are difficult to change, and while a person may use different words in different situations, their vocabulary will not often change. Those attempting to post as someone else will often make common errors in the hopes of making themselves appear unique. For example, a first post may coma across as carefully spelled out and formulated while the next post may purposefully never use capital letters, hit capslock and leave it on for the whole post, purposefully misspell words throughout the post, or use stereotypical dialect that seems unnatural. Of course this only helps if they use multiple personas to talk about the same subject in the same post. In reality actually determining if someone using social media on the internet is actually a person at all will soon be getting even more difficult than ever. But then again maybe that's the way it should be.