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Astroturf Couture by {platinum}.Does the internet expand the possibilities for political freedom? Or does it actually allow oppressive regimes to take more and more control of the flow of information in society?

I learnt a new verb yesterday: to astroturf. This means, apparently, to add comments onto blogs and social networking sites, in the hope of influencing the discussions and the whole cultural environment – all the time disguising your real identity and subversive intentions. I presume the reference is to the inherent fakery of getting rid of your real mulchy soil and grass and replacing it with plastic turf.

Bryan Appleyard writes about all this in the Sunday Times. Here are the key passages that recount the progressive ways in which the internet can become hijacked by those in power:

There have been three phases of state control of the internet. First came the “great firewall” of China. You simply block access to sites regarded as sensitive. But everybody knows you’re doing it.

So phase two involves selective blocking — known as “just in time attacks”. A site may go down as a protest is being organised. It’s a network problem, claim your goons. Also in phase two are vague regulations that allow your police to press charges no one quite understands. And there’s the blackmailing of internet companies — basically you push them out of business unless they block sites or hand over information. More crudely, as in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, there is the threat of prison.

Now, it’s phase three, which is much more sinister. In China this phase is represented by the so-called 50 cent army — people who, for a tiny sum of money, go out and “astroturf” blogs or Twitter.

Astroturfing means placing comments while concealing who is behind them. So pro-Chinese comments and posts are frequently placed by government proxies. The freedom of the internet is used against itself. Even in liberal democracies this means internet content may turn out to be pure propaganda. It cannot be a replacement for old-fashioned politics.

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