Gini Dietrich

Personas Created to Attack and Smear

By: Gini Dietrich | February 21, 2011 | 

I woke up on Saturday morning to a tag on Facebook with an article from The Daily Kos. The article, which has leaked information about a program from HBGary, describes astroturfing, bad publicity, and downright unethical public relations all bundled in one.

You know that gets me going!

The story.

HBGary is a defense contractor that works with the government (think Department of Defense and CIA) whose website doesn’t give you a lot of information. I guess when you work with the government, and you’re really good at your job, your site doesn’t need to say anything.

Neither here nor there.

Apparently Anonymous (the hacker who is responsible for a lot of the tightly secured information leaked to WikiLeaks) got into HBGary servers, discovered they are mounting an attack against WikiLeaks, and leaked a bunch of files. There is a lot of scary stuff in there, which I guess you would expect from a security company working with our government’s largest security agencies.

But the leaked documents that are interesting to me are the ones that talk about how they are creating personas to “attack” journalists, bloggers, commenters, and real people to “smear enemies and distort the truth.”

From some of the leaked materials:

To build this capability we will create a set of personas on twitter,  blogs, forums,  buzz,  and myspace under created names that fit the profile ( satellitejockey,  hack3rman,  etc ) .    These accounts are maintained and updated automatically through RSS feeds,  retweets,  and linking together social media commenting between platforms.    With a pool of these accounts to choose from,  once you have a real name persona you create a Facebook and LinkedIn account using the given name,  lock those accounts down and link these accounts to a selected  #  of previously created social media accounts,  automatically pre-aging the real accounts.

Oh, but wait! It gets better. Another document describes how they use automation so one person can represent a lot of different personas, doing the work of many with the stroke of a key.

Using the assigned social media accounts we can automate the posting of content that is relevant to the persona.  In this case there are specific social media strategy website RSS feeds we can subscribe to and then repost content on twitter with the appropriate hashtags. In fact using hashtags and gaming some location based check-in services we can make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise, as one example.  There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personas.

The PR Perspective

I can’t imagine this isn’t happening in other companies, at global PR firms, and within government agencies, but the idea that someone will create personas on the social web to show consensus, is downright unconstitutional.

Companies creating personas to follow you on Twitter, read your blog, friend you on Facebook.

Personas who will group together and voice an opinion to change consensus.

Personas who will read your blog and gang up on you.

Personas who will change public perception because of the sheer number of “people” talking about one side of the argument.

I feel like the world, right now, is all about bad publicity as a means for building awareness. It’s quite disconcerting. It definitely does not help the perception people have of the PR industry.

These things are happening and the only thing we can do is refuse to do business this way. Who’s with me?

(Before you go to the comments, head over to our Facebook fan page to see who won The Now Revolution contest!)

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.


I would find this hard to believe if I didn't have an internet troll following me around for 8 months doing this, using proxy servers, commenting on Forums just to discredit me, using different names, reposting things I wrote in one forum in another forum under an alias and just last week stealing my kids picture off my blog and using it as an avatar on a forum. Thankfully now the forums I still go to won't allow anyone using a proxy server to post. All because of one sick twisted troll who has fixated his attentions on me. The idea that I am this fascinating and important to this person I have never met or had any dealing with is just astonishing.


I think that is very scary! Kind of defeats the whole pupose of having comments and a community when you don't know what is real...

Negative comments can be good and productive if they are real... Makes me wonder if people can figure out where this is going on? I know that some blogs and forums have so many posts/comments, that it might be hard to see it, but hopefully most sites can rectify this if it happens to them!

I think I'd kinda be pissed off if I found out I was arguing with a 'robot' :) Maybe get in an endless loop of "Am not", "Are too"? HA- sorry, silly today ;) xox

OH - and Gini - I read in a comment below Chicago and VAIL are your favorite places? FYI - Vail is by far my favorite place to ski! #FYI #FileThatKnowledgeAway ;)


Startling, and it goes without saying, terrifying.

And yet, the premonitory warnings came long before the technology. Orwell foresaw the rewriting of history, the control of our media, while Huxley intuited our demise by entertainment with his essay on "Entertainment for the Masses" and the subsequent book, "A Brave New World", and alluded to in this quote:

"There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution."

It will take an ever increasing vigilance to ensure what we are reading is real or true. A vigilance that the average American citizen has no time for.

Ok, stepping off the soapbox now. :)

ginidietrich moderator

@Verilliance Oh that's easy - Chicago! If you'd said Chicago or Vail, we'd have a problem. :)


I agree, I mean you said it--vigilance we have no time for. My point, maybe poorly stated, is that the barrier to satisfaction is high and the barrier to abandonment is low. I would argue they are not duped by, but more indifferent to, these tactics. There is so much to choose from every day that the hooks have to be pretty big to snag our attention. If the information is not interesting, easy to react to, easy to share, easy to assimilate, or does not ring true for us, we bail FAST.

I'm less swayed by how they "ought" to behave, but how they do, or don't behave, in reality. And in all my years designing and managing user experience and community I have found that "expected" user engagement and enthusiasm are usually grossly overestimated. I wonder, then, if our concern about the likes of HB Gary might be equally overstated.


@rustyspeidel @ginidietrich Is it really true that they "can't be bothered"? How we frame this is important. Many of us have opinions about how people "ought" to behave, and we're not alone. Philosophers, political theorists, economists have all had their "ideal" theories about how people ought to behave. Political theories from Democracy to Socialism all base their models on how people should behave, not how they actually do based on evolutionary and brain sciences.

If you look at new theories coming out of decision science and behavioral economics it is easy to understand how the "average" citizen is duped by these tactics, and more importantly how it is not a matter of conscious choice (or ignorance).

I think the average consumer CAN be bothered if given the right information to equip themselves.


@ginidietrich And any woman who demonstrates potent business and leadership skills such as you is at the top of my list. :) (I'm working my way there.) The only question is, Chicago or Massachusetts?

ginidietrich moderator

@Verilliance Anyone who sends me New Yorker articles and quotes Huxley quickly climbs my list of people I want to meet, stat!

ginidietrich moderator

@Verilliance Whoa. "A vigilance that the average American citizen has no time for." This is the most true statement I've read all day. It's sad. It's scary. And it is terrifying.


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