Professional trolls*

I've jokingly speculated that in some dark sub-basement of the Heritage Foundation there are rows of computer stations manned by buttoned-down, 20-something interns who spend their days spreading right-wing talking points in the comments of progressive blogs. That's a fanciful conspiracy theory.

But, via Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon, we see that it may not be that far from the truth:

People are reporting that they're getting these comments from … [a] company called Netvocates. The company … will defend your organization's reputation by sending people to fill blog comments with defenses.
She cites some of the firm's promotional materials:
For many organizations, blogs represent an uncomfortable topic. Unlike traditional communication mediums, blogs frequently impact an organization and its products and image in uncontrolled and often unexpected ways. In addition, the sheer volume of blogs, message boards, and other discussion forums makes it difficult for organizations to effectively monitor the activity relevant to them.
And where corporate America's propagandists go, Bush and Co. can't be far behind:
…there's also a group called the Rendon Group that is all about controlling public opinion on government actions that people are reporting on their site meters. Considering that the Rendon Group has contracts from BushCo to spread pro-war propaganda, it's hard to imagine that they aren't also targeting left-leaning blogs, possibly trying to circumvent productive anti-war discussion by bomb-throwing and other nonsense.
None of this is in any way surprising; it's an extension of the same sort of "alternative" advertising that's become so important in a time when Americans are bombarded with too many messages -- political as well as commercial -- to assimilate. Advertisers have turned to viral internet campaigns, targeting teen opinion leaders and all kinds of other nonstandard ways of reaching people. The Internet, with its uncontrolled discourse, poses a real challenge to firms' control over their brand, as well as to governments' control over the terms of our public debates. It's entirely predictable that they'd want to get in there and try, to whatever degree it's possible, to influence the discourse on the net. They certainly have the cash.

So, are any of our regular trolls pros? I've got a suspect in mind, but I'll leave it for your conjecture in the comments.

*My own definition of a troll -- one that admittedly requires some subjective judgement -- is not based on one's ideology. We've had many conservatives come to debate issues and -- on subjects like immigration -- many progressives who have been vocal in their opposition to our coverage. In my book, dissent or difference does not a troll make; a troll is someone who hangs around the other side's blogs not to join in a discussion of the issues but only to insult people with whom they disagree and spread disinformation.

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