Gini Dietrich

Personas Created to Attack and Smear

By: Gini Dietrich | February 21, 2011 | 
147

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.

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147 Comments on "Personas Created to Attack and Smear"

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bdorman264
bdorman264
5 years 3 months ago

I’m all in; I’m with ya baby…………..however, it’s still a loaded gun and you just hope most of the people are using social media for the ‘good’ and not distorting the truth. As far as the government and the intelligence agencies this is probably mild to what they are cooking up.

Bad publicity, bad news, celebrity train wrecks, it seems to be what sells these days. Yes Geni, keep fighting the good fight and and refuse to do business this way…………..I’ll still follow you…:).

sydcon_mktg
sydcon_mktg
5 years 3 months ago
YIKES!!! You are so right that the bad news/publicity seems to be outweighing the good these days. I think it also is in line with the fact that so many people today have no morals, no respect for other people, just posses that “ME” mentality! Until we get away from that, and go back to respecting each other and carrying about the other guy I can’t see it changing. We even see this with kids. It’s scary as a Mom how many times I have read about Facebook pages created by classmates using another classmates name and then proceeding to… Read more »
johnfalchetto
5 years 3 months ago
Gini, some online marketers have already done it. They created fake fans and fake comments, astrosurfing is not new. So called ‘fans’ are often just spam bots. I still think that it is a tough one to create a completly ‘fake’ persona. In the age of video blogging and conferences, how do you get away without showing your face a single time? Especially if you are leading a campaign against someone or something. To make these account credible you would also have to create entire, families, friends, colleagues who are ‘fake’ and who like, RT and recomend each other. Perhaps… Read more »
jeremymeyers
5 years 3 months ago

Lest you think this is new, entertainment companies have been doing this for years.

Theres a company called BzzAgent (i believe) that used to hire hot girls to go into bars and talk up certain beverages.

This is what happens when marketing becomes a self-serving “goal unto itself” rather than something in service to a product in service to the public.

MaureenB2B
MaureenB2B
5 years 3 months ago

Wow – so much to comment on here; Many thanks for sharing it.

Hear hear to your lament about bad publicity.

But also just one more reason why I don’t care about Klout. Real measure of influence is where folks spend their money.

Finally – I’ve gone back and forth re my view of the Wikileaks folks, but I’m leaning more towards feeling like they’re doing us a genuine service.

joey_strawn
5 years 3 months ago
It makes me sad that whenever a new medium arises with the promise of “open and honest communication with peers and markets” it seems the sole purpose of a lot of groups is to find ways to “game the system.” It doesn’t surprise me that as a whole, people seem to have lost faith in advertising, PR and corporate-speak over the years. Especially with more and more stories like the one you mentioned coming out each week it seems. I’m with you, Gini. I’ll help hopd down the fort of good PR and marketing with you as long as we… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 3 months ago

@jeremymeyers Yeah…I know. I had that in my original blog post, but deleted it before I published. It’s not new. But it’s still disconcerting. There are so many of us doing communication in such an ethical and results-driven way, but it’s overshadowed by this crap.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 3 months ago

@johnfalchetto I know…I think the thing that bothers me about this one is that it’s astroturfing (Americans Against Food Tax), bad publicity (Kenneth Cole), and unethical practices (Enron) all in one.

I think that’s the whole point – they ARE creating “families” of personas in order to build consensus. It’s really, really scary.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 3 months ago

@bdorman264 I was thinking about this just the other day – our biggest blog posts for the past 30 days have been around Kenneth Cole and Groupon. The crap does sell and, even though I’m fighting the good fight, the crap is what everyone wants to read here, too.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 3 months ago

@sydcon_mktg I don’t get it, Jen. Has it always been this way and we’re just getting older? Or do you really think it’s worse than in the past? Maybe it’s the same as always, but we see more of it because people and things are so accessible now. Whichever, I don’t like it.

JGoldsborough
JGoldsborough
5 years 3 months ago

I am with you. All I can say is wow. Social media tricks, huh? That’s the part that bothers me the most. Now if we can only figure out a way to BS people in person and make it appear that we are doing things we didn’t really do, we’ll be in great shape.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 3 months ago

@MaureenB2B Did you read my blog post for tomorrow already?! It’s about Klout. 🙂

We certainly wouldn’t know about this instance without Wikileaks. I think there are some things that are treasonous, but this kind of stuff should be exposed.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 3 months ago

@JGoldsborough LOL! If we could figure that out, I’d no longer need a clone AND I’d have global domination by now.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 3 months ago

@joey_strawn I guess it shouldn’t surprise us – people have gamed the SEO system forever. Why wouldn’t they game the social media system?

Speaking of SEO, what do you think about the JC Penney debacle? Think they knew their firm was doing some black hat magic?

bdorman264
bdorman264
5 years 3 months ago

@ginidietrich I can see it now; your next blog post will be to come up w/ a psuedonym for the ‘bad’ Gini. One wk will be good stuff and the next will be the dirt. Of course it can all be done anonymously and blame it on the government when it comes to light…………….

johnfalchetto
5 years 3 months ago

@ginidietrich All paid by your taxes!

AndrewHennigan
5 years 3 months ago

There will always be someone trying to game the system. We have to accept that this will happen but educate people to be aware of the risk and also encourage the development of tools that can unmask fake personae and astroturfing activity. Surely fake activity must have some kind of signature that people can detect. I’d like to see at least a warning that something does not look right.

joey_strawn
5 years 3 months ago

@ginidietrich Well, they say they had no idea who paid for those links to go out, but I’m not sure I believe that. I think they probably got some bad advice and now will pay for in the Google ranks.

For a lot of companies, if there’s black hat magic to be done, it will be done if it helps drive sales.

ShellyKramer
ShellyKramer
5 years 3 months ago

Gini,

This is horrific. And not surprising at all. People are gaming blog commenting systems, in some instances hiring people from overseas to do it at a pittance, gaming online reviews, contests, etc. Sometimes it’s just so incredulous – and in others not hard at all to understand.

I’m with Andrew, and will be on a new generation of tools that can unmask fake personae and astroturfing activity. THAT will be awesome. And can’t be too far behind all this.

Thanks for a great post.

Your Stalker.

Shelly
@ShellyKramer

RichBecker
RichBecker
5 years 3 months ago
Gini, Sadly, this is a trend with some organizations. I caught one they other day by tracing back the initial source of RTed information from a friend (it was a document related to the WI mess). The original source was three fake people removed, with an obvious agenda. But it was clear that the person I knew had no idea that they were being played. I’m also familiar outside of organizations, when I was covering the fan protests related to some television shows. It was not uncommon to see people who wanted to establish more influence play the part of… Read more »
JulieWalraven
5 years 3 months ago

Yuck! Bad enough that social media has given voices to so many people who use it to push agendas and sometimes in a very unkind way. I am also used to bots and spammers but to look real and use all that deception, just is upsetting. It makes me sad.

FocusedWords
FocusedWords
5 years 3 months ago

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The defense industry in general is one of the most paranoid industries around. They have to be. After all, if we don’t have anyone to fear, what are they going to sell?

MimiMeredith
MimiMeredith
5 years 3 months ago
This leaves me sick to the core and a bit frightened…that usually leads to some action on my part, as I refuse to go into fear lock down. Today, what if each of us reached out by phone to connect with at least one person we know only via social media. What if we started moving back to the roots of real realationships that come from knowing the sound of another’s voice. Personas will still exist, but the idea of making a free two-minute cell phone call to someone to say, “I just wanted to introduce myself. It seems we… Read more »
bdorman264
bdorman264
5 years 3 months ago

@MimiMeredith But when you make the call it takes some of the mystique out of social media and the perception you have of your ‘new’ friends. You might be pleasantly surprised or might get a whoa now…………

Plus I have found it much easier to cyber stalk than in person………..damn restraining orders…………….

All kidding inside, what a great idea; an actual phone conversation with a voice and everything, less chance of misinterpreting the message.

BobReed
BobReed
5 years 3 months ago

This isn’t about bad publicity… it’s crass manipulation and deception.

GACConsultants
5 years 3 months ago
Money and power warps the minds of people in both business and government. This mindset has always existed long before we arrived on the scene. It’s just being exposed more significantly by technology and the real time, worldwide communication that used to take place under the radar. Money and power often breeds evil communication which corrupts good manners, good intentions and the ability to possess good moral judgment. You’re naive to believe any different. It’s driven by a means to end mentality that sacrifices people for benefit or purpose of achieving an ultimate goal — the accumulation of more money,… Read more »
jeremymeyers
5 years 3 months ago

@ginidietrich @bdorman264 Well then isn’t it up to you, Gini, to decide whether you want to be slinging “what kenneth cole can teach us about social media”-type linkbait (which may actually have insightful commentary…i havent read your take), or to use this channel with more integrity and be responsive to whats really happening, not reactive to what people will probably click on?

HowieSPM
HowieSPM
5 years 3 months ago
The simplemindedness of the strategy I will say it won’t work. First unless people follow you on twitter or read your blog no one sees what you post. Also if you preach to the Choir does it matter? Meaning how will you get real people to follow and listen without real people actually posting things and working to win friends. Who will you win? Unless you start as a bleeding heart liberal and then switch gears it will be ultra right wing people who friend you (in this case specifically). So if this company only is reaching the people that… Read more »
MimiMeredith
MimiMeredith
5 years 3 months ago

@bdorman264 It was great TALKING to you, Bill! gini dietrich bdorman264 is not a persona ; )! I left a message for @ShellyKramer earlier. Can’t wait to hear if she’s real…ah the joy of human interaction!

bdorman264
bdorman264
5 years 3 months ago

@MimiMeredith gini dietrich @ShellyKramer That was so cool; please tell everyone that was a southern accent and not a hillbilly one………:). I saw the 480 pop up and it put a big smile on my face…………………:) Have a fabulous day!

HowieSPM
HowieSPM
5 years 3 months ago
@AndrewHennigan I was trying to gain some business using a freelancing site called ELance. Some of the job descriptions blew my mind. One wanted 50,000 real facebook profiles set up with real photos and friends within 30 days and the pay was something I think even India wouldn’t go for. I shared this with friends wondering why anyone would want this. But then I saw all the porn links posted on Brand fan pages and then I figured it out. Ever since the dawn of humanity there have been snakes and weasels and its a shame. Because like this company’s… Read more »
HowieSPM
HowieSPM
5 years 3 months ago

@joey_strawn @ginidietrich did I miss something about JC Penny where Everyday Matters?

AndrewHennigan
5 years 3 months ago

@HowieSPM Elance is very interesting, but probably not for the reasons intended. Sometimes I wonder how many of Facebook’s zillion profiles actually belong to real humans. And when I see an article in the Washington Post with 783 comments I wonder if any of the 783 are from real people who are neither paid trolls or bots. Sooner of later we have to fight back or see these spaces become unusable.

johnfalchetto (John Falchetto)
5 years 3 months ago

RT @ginidietrich Personas Created to Attack and Smear | Spin Sucks http://tinyurl.com/4l8xtqc

JGoldsborough (JGoldsborough)
5 years 3 months ago

RT @ginidietrich Personas Created to Attack and Smear | Spin Sucks http://tinyurl.com/4l8xtqc

rustyspeidel
rustyspeidel
5 years 3 months ago

@bdorman264 @ginidietrich Let’s call her Gigi. She can wear a lot of goth makeup and black leather spike heels. Maybe some mesh stockings and a blood-red bodice. She can gossip with impugnity, share false links, write hyper-feminist manifestos, engage in black-hat SEO and write posts for TMZ.

markwschaefer
markwschaefer
5 years 3 months ago

This makes my stomach turn. That is really all I can say and keep it appropriate. What a world. Good job on this Gini.

KenMueller
KenMueller
5 years 3 months ago

Sad, sad, sad. But I think you’re right. I’m sure that there are companies with deep enough pockets who have tried/are trying to do exactly this.

Now the upside of this is that perhaps this company may have figured out a way to game Klout…

AskAaronLee
AskAaronLee
5 years 3 months ago

Now I know where those nasty comments come from. Must be from those accounts. 🙂
Great post… really an eye opener.

JulieWalraven (Julie Walraven)
5 years 3 months ago

RT @ginidietrich Personas Created to Attack and Smear | Spin Sucks http://tinyurl.com/4l8xtqc

rustyspeidel
rustyspeidel
5 years 3 months ago

But at the end of the day, we return to our old friend, Trust. I don’t place much value in a bunch of snarky comments from weird usernames I don’t know. Sure, they can game the technology, but not my sense of trust. That would take too much work. Right?

Marcus_Sheridan
5 years 3 months ago
Great story here Gini. I have strong feelings regarding this topic because I’ve been a victim of fake people on the internet and smear campaigns and all that jazz. I don’t have a problem with poeple of different opinions, I just have a problem with fake identities and ‘people’ who aren’t even real. Have you ever heard of Google’s ‘Humility Algorithm’. If you haven’t, just Google it and it will blow your mind. Thus, Google is as bad a perpetrator than anyone when it comes to promoting junk coming from fake people and/or competitors. I’m actually going to be writing… Read more »
JoyFull_deb (Deb Bruser)
5 years 3 months ago

RT @ginidietrich Personas Created to Attack and Smear | Spin Sucks http://tinyurl.com/4l8xtqc

lazarus2000
lazarus2000
5 years 3 months ago
Howie, this not only can but does work. And its not just someone writing on “your blog” think of a much wider audience. Comments on CNN, Yahoo, NPR, Salon, Huffington Post to name a few. It doesnt take much to side track or completely derail a conversation on an article and sway opinions. Just read any Yahoo! article and look at the comments. They get derailed rather quickly. Easy to draw attention away from the topic in the article by trolling with misinformation, flame wars, etc. On top of this, Ive seen software requests for this where part of the… Read more »
spurdave (David Svet)
5 years 3 months ago

This is astounding and terrifying: RT @ginidietrich Personas Created to Attack and Smear | Spin Sucks http://tinyurl.com/4l8xtqc

tabithaedwards (Tabitha Edwards)

Personas Created to Attack and Smear | Spin Sucks http://tinyurl.com/4l8xtqc via @ginidietrich

RichBecker (Richard Becker)
5 years 3 months ago

RT @ginidietrich Personas Created to Attack and Smear | Spin Sucks http://tinyurl.com/4l8xtqc

wabbitoid (Erik Hare)
5 years 3 months ago

Faking consensus: How the army of sock-puppet commentors will be created. http://tinyurl.com/4l8xtqc #WarOnReality

rustyspeidel
rustyspeidel
5 years 3 months ago

I am also of the opinion that after the first 100 comments, it’s all pretty noisy. So 3,562 comments from spam bots and fake personas does not inspire me to action any more than 50 from a tight community like this one.

mdbarber
mdbarber
5 years 3 months ago

Great post Gini. Unfortunately I saw some of this in action last fall during election season. Since, I’ve noticed Tea Party/conservative groups training their folks on how to do this. It’s rather frightening to see as supporters/followers of this movement blindly retweet and forward information without verifying. It’s also frighterning when you’re on the receiving end of one of their attacks.

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