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The Gentleperson's Guide To Forum Spies (cryptome.org)
147 points by lifeguard on July 22, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 57 comments

=== How To Be A Paranoid Conspiracy Theorist And Make It Impossible For Others To Criticize You ===

1) Make a list of all the methods people use to criticize you. Such as demanding evidence, questioning your motives, calling you a conspiracy theorist.

2) Rename the list, "How to Control an Internet Forum, Rules of Disinformation, Techniques for Truth Suppression"

3) Mix in some legitimate methods so your agenda doesn't seem too obvious.

4) Publish list on the internet under the disguise of looking like you just want to help forum owners foresee and prevent trolling problems.

5) Watch as unknowing innocent people submit and upvote your propaganda thinking they're helping the community.

Read between the lines and you'll see it. And it was written in such a way that you can't criticize him in any way without breaking one his "Rules for Truth Suppression" or "Disinformation". Cleverly written in such a way that doesn't allow you to criticize obvious things or demand evidence. Thus making the author win no matter what. I live with a conspiracy theorist father who uses some of these himself. Not to mention I was a religious fanatic myself and am well trained in spotting the same bullshit I used to spread. Sorry man, nice try, pretty clever though.

  > Make a list of all the methods people use to criticize
  > you. Such as ... calling you a conspiracy theorist.
Should we really encourage Ad Hominem as a valid criticism of an argument? If your only criticism of someone's statements is, "you're just a conspiracy nut," then your argument doesn't hold much water.

Yes you're right about Ad Hominem but that's not exactly what this is. This is "Classification". And classifying someone is just one of the many things a person uses in judging weather or not someone else is biased or open minded, weather their statements are more likely to be evidence or agenda based. And weather or not to further research their evidence and argue with them or just write them off as close minded, unchangeable, stubborn, and not worth dealing with. When someone tells us a statement, we don't immediately go out and start researching it to see if it's substantiated or not. If they seem like an open minded person and their statement seems well thought out and backed up by evidence, we accept what they say as truth and move forward with the conversation. If they come off as one sided from the perspective of [conservative, liberal, religious, atheist] without taking into consideration other view points or universal truths then why not call them what they are?

I know in politics classification is used to easily and cheaply attack someone unfairly but I can't help but think that in it's own way, it is a valid criticism.

When we say things like: "Of course you'd want to regulate everything, you're a liberal" and "Of course you'd want to deregulate everything, you're a conservative". What we're really doing is telling the person, "I think you're biased and you're not thinking outside of your own point of view". Is that not a valid criticism?

If a Christian extremist says to me "You're going to hell because you haven't accepted Jesus Christ as your savoir" and I reply with "of course you'd say that, you're a Christian extremist." Is that not a perfectly valid criticism and a very true statement?

It's not the best way to engage in a debate but not everyone has 2 and a half hours to argue with others. Sometimes you just need to remind someone that they're lost in their own lala land quickly and effectively. Nothing accomplishes that better than classification.

The problem with this is that it assumes that the only (or main) source of disinformation, propaganda and manipulation is the government. These techniques are used on a daily basis by people on all sides of every issue. Is it possible that some of them are paid government "spies"? Sure. However, it's likely that the vast majority of them are just independent trolls, skillful manipulators or bad arguers who've discovered that the techniques in question are an easy way to manipulate the discussion so that they can get the validation that they crave.

I think that the document itself merits some analysis when it comes to manipulation and disinformation. If you take the document at face value, the author's intention is to give information to other activists so that they can protect their communities from government manipulation. However, I think it's also possible that the list of behaviors is meant to be used by leaders to purge communities for (internal) political or personal reasons. Given a long enough posting history, you could use this list to accuse almost anyone of being a spy. I suspect that whatever the author's original intentions, the latter interpretation is going to end up being much more common. It's already easy enough to dismiss people who disagree with you as "government shills", and this will simply make it even easier to justify.

Even so, it seems like a valuable collection of things that new and old forum posters should be aware of; similar to how HN's vigilance regarding logical fallacies raises the level of discourse.

To some extent this community already employs countermeasures against some of these attacks through reply cool-downs, pun down-voting, and hell-banning. However, until now I wasn't aware that a ontology of these attacks existed. Given a common vocabulary to describe these activities, we should be able to point them out as easily as we do ad hominem.

The best single rule I have found, useful for academic disciplines as well as internet forums is "Everybody overstates the accuracy, applicability, universality, precision, or other some other aspects of claims they have made." Anybody who actually cares enough about something to go through the trouble of writing it up, unless they are being paid by the word (which has been noted elsewhere has its own problems), is going to be emotionally invested in their work and writings. So my best advice is to assume from the beginning that it is overstated, and consider a weaker version, or a charitable interpretation, of their claims.

Given the limited amount of information available in an online post, a charitable interpretation is even more warranted online than in a book.

In light of the claim that everyone overstates their case, I've wondered if one would be well served by deliberately exaggerating to counteract the "charitable interpretation" you mention.

It's a cycle. The more people exaggerate to counteract "charitable interpretations", the more charitable interpretation is necessary to get back to the truth, and so on. The end result is a dysfunctional "discussion" where both sides are just repeating the most extreme views they can come up with in hopes that it will draw attention to the kernel of truth they started with.

The potential for a runaway positive feedback cycle is something I wanted to mention in my original post[0], but didn't due to sleep deprivation. I guess your mention of the cycle gave me the mental starting point necessary to put my thoughts into these few words.

In my childhood I had people take seriously things that I exaggerated or made up (they were silly things like made up names of plants), and as a result I gradually developed a desire to be as level and honest as possible. I frequently wonder whether I'm deluding myself into believing that I'm not overstating my case (in which case I think my positions must be very weak indeed), or doing myself a disservice by avoiding the exaggeration that most listeners expect.

[0] I hate making comments that sound like a retroactive reinterpretation of an earlier comment to make myself appear to have been more insightful or correct than I actually was; it reminds me of Adam Sandler's "me too" character from the SNL skit in which Jerry Seinfeld plays a distraught history teacher.

I had problems reading all of this because the tin foil hat I'm wearing kept slipping down over my eyes.

Seriously, guys, simply because you can describe something does not mean it exists. There are a LOT of ungrounded premises here. As an example, simply because somebody begins an argument with a weak premise doesn't mean that there's an organized effort at "consensus cracking". Sometimes people just make weak arguments.

There is a danger here, and it's the same exact danger as folks face that get caught up in lists of logical fallacies. The danger is that they believe that human conversations should follow a strict set of almost mathematical rules towards a logical and inescapable conclusion.

Got news for you: people are not robots. Conversations among people are messy, emotional, many times fruitless, and non-linear. Most every topic involves incomplete information, and the soul of rhetoric is emotive persuasion. The purpose of learning things like fallacies is to prevent them from being used in a careless, overt manner such as to shut down communication. It has nothing to do with eliminating them from speech or somehow perfecting the discussion. Intelligent people just make more subtle and persuasive fallacies, which makes sense when you realize decisions must be made on incomplete data. In the same manner effects such as these should be seen on all sorts of forums -- whether or not somebody is employing a tactic or not. The author is looking at this backwards.

That doesn't mean that such techniques aren't being used or wouldn't work -- although I have my doubts that you could constantly "own" a board through using them. Seems to me you'd just end up being cast as a manipulative asshole.

This article was just a little too much on the paranoid side for me. I'm not sure it belongs on HN, or that it contains any useful information at all. The problem is that these "principles" are presented more or less as simple supposition. It would be like reading a list of "wonderful" ideas for a startup. The only value some article like this would have is if it were somehow presented with empirical data of value provided. Of course, how you could actually produce value in taking a conversation off the rails is beyond me -- how do you know that by using one of these techniques you're not actually assisting somebody in understanding a topic or gaining value from the forum? From what do you measure?

It's just speculative unsubstantiated paranoid bullshit held together by an intelligent mind and cogent essay. I'm not flagging it because in some sense I guess you could call it hacker art. Very Hari Seldon.

I think your post could do with a less harsh tone.

If you want empirical evidence of groups and organizations employing these tactics it might be better to simply ask or search for it, than to paint your debaters as paranoid bullshitters.

I think you don't get it if you ask: what value is there in derailing a conversation?

Ask instead: what value was there in spamming a certain religious Usenet channel? What value is there in getting a Wikipedia article deleted or locked? What value is there for a reputation management company in pushing away negative, but legit, search results for a client? What value is there in employing trolls to counter terrorists online? What value is there in the 50 cent army? What value was there in the Wikileaks slides, where it was opted that journalists would be smeared or false information would be leaked as to discredit Wikileaks? What value is there in persona management software and upvote squads? What value is there in controlling virality?

For humor, I started to read responses here on H/N to see how they match up.

> I had problems reading all of this because the tin foil hat I'm wearing kept slipping down over my eyes.

From the article: "5. Sidetrack opponents with name calling and ridicule. This is also known as the primary 'attack the messenger' ploy, though other methods qualify as variants of that approach. Associate opponents with unpopular titles such as 'kooks', 'right-wing', 'liberal', 'left-wing', 'terrorists', 'conspiracy buffs', 'radicals', 'militia', 'racists', 'religious fanatics', 'sexual deviates', and so forth. This makes others shrink from support out of fear of gaining the same label, and you avoid dealing with issues."

Overall, well-done on this post.

In support, I would say that it is fairly easy, depending upon your perspective, to apply most of the various "rules" in this article to about everyone's post.

I read that piece more in the sense of how one could go about using disinformation and other techniques to disrupt a conversation in a hostile manner, rather then whether someone aka "the Government" actually were. To me it is at least arguable that there are powerful incentives today to do exactly this, disrupt discussion and tone down activism, making them look like lunatics on the fringes. Given such a situation where someone is inclined to do this, isn't it also arguable that these techniques might be of some effect?

The thing that I find interesting is whether these techniques might be countered. I mean, along the lines of building a better platform for discussion that is more robust towards this kind of manipulation from an hostile minority. Now that is something that's interesting for the HN crowd to discuss, isn't it?

As a counterargument, if one is able to get past their own internal paranoia about why other people are doing the things listed here, the information laid out is quite good for what makes a bad poster bad, how to avoid them, and how to not be a bad poster.

You could argue that this stuff shouldn't be framed in the conspiracy theory idea, but then it wouldn't have gotten as much attention, which could start a discussion about the most direct way to present this information, but then if you don't give it some controversy how is it going to get the necessary exposure for people to read and listen? You might have a better manual, but if nobody reads it, it's useless.

On that note, who else wants to try writing a better manual than these guys? Is it even worth it? After all, the most important thing is to get people thinking on the right track, and stuff like this is at least a step in the right direction.

Yes, it's a helpful article when we put aside the mention of "spooks and feds" and humorless tone. Because it does discuss common problems. Like: "By implementing continual and non-related postings that distract and disrupt (trolling) the forum readers they are more effectively stopped from anything of any real productivity."

I've frankly often imagined that government agents just amuse themselves by passively watching activists infight online. (In fact, intervening would probably be discouraged because it ruins bets on who cracks next.) There's more than enough hobbyist trolls, entryists and egomaniacs to add that single drop of blood into the water, to get the carnage started. Many wisely exit the forum, while those who remain have their time and energy stolen forever.

Virtually all (or at least most) of these problems are easily preventable ailments. Sensible moderation goes a long way.

(Of course, activist groups are commonly infiltrated, and those infiltrators may prod people into doing foolish things. One joke is that social movements would collapse without infiltrators, because they're the only ones paying dues on time. Just important to take sensible steps, rather than overreact.)

I wonder how many groups end up with only infiltrators in them, like in G.K Chesterton's "The Man who was Thursday". There was a case I heard of few years back (although I cannot find a reference) of UK and French police importing drugs to the UK entirely by accident as each thought that the other group was the actual criminals.

I believe that when Anonymous hacked into HBGeary's email server they found software products being pitched to businesses and government agencies that was designed to support astroturfing forums.

I'm not sure exactly what the intent of the OP is, but it is clear that the US government is employing these tactics, or similar ones. How do I know? They've explicitly said so! There was an article a few days ago on wired.com about this very issue. The program is called "Viral Peace", and aims to "annoy, frustrate and humiliate denizens of online extremist forums."

I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned this, as I was sure I had read the the wired article via HN. In any case, here it is:


> I'm not sure exactly what the intent of the OP is

I saw the link on cryptome, read it, and decided to test hacker news with it. I feel like a pt. whore, but I am pleased with the results:

# my submission was not censored (far from it!)

# I learned some of the history of this meme

# People honestly discussed a variety of dimensions to the issue

# The community that thinks about these challenges expanded

Thank you all.

You're welcome.

Nice try, obvious CIA forum influence suppression operative

The fact that it's hard to prove is what makes it so effective. People blatantly post CIA-created propaganda on HN all the time, and even then it's virtually impossible to prove that they actually work for the government, so imagine how much harder it is when people are actually being more subtle.

Could you give some examples of "blatantly CIA-created propaganda" here on HN? If it's virtually impossible to prove, how are you so sure?

Examples of CIA doing 'impossible' things:



I acknowledge this is not proof of shinanigans on HN.

Citing economic data from the CIA World Fact Book isn't exactly propaganda.

Ever wonder why it is that the CIA says that the US has a 99% literacy rate, despite the fact that this is vastly higher than the Department of Education estimates?

To quote from Jonathan Kozol's book Illiterate in America, "For one hundred years, starting in 1840, the census posed the question of the population's literacy level in its ten-year compilations. The government removed this question from its survey in the 1940 census. The reason, according to a U.S. Census Bureau publication, was a general conviction that 'most people [by this time] could read and write ...'

In 1970, pressured by the military, the Bureau of the Census agreed to reinstate the literacy question. Even then, instead of posing questions about actual skills, the census simply asked adults how many years of school they had attended. More than 5 percent of those the census reached replied that they had had less than a fifth grade education. For no known reason, the government assumed that four fifths of these people probably could read and, on this dangerous assumption, it was publicly announced that 99 percent of all American adults could read and write. These are the figures which the U.S. government passed on to the United Nations for the purposes of worldwide compilations and comparisons."[1]

In short the CIA world factbook is basically propaganda in order to make the US look like the best country on earth in order to justify a foreign policy based on subjugating people of 'inferior races'. I'm not saying that every single person who cites it is either a government shill or a white supremacist, but where there's smoke there's often a fire.

[1] http://eserver.org/courses/spring97/76100o/readings/kozol.ht...

I have no dispute with the idea that statistics have biases.

However, the fact is that most of the time the parts of the CIA World Fact book quoted on HN are GDP, GDP/capita, life expectancy etc. There are often biases in these figures as well, but the CIA World Fact Book is really just acting as a convenient aggregator of these numbers.

Again, with emphasis added:

Citing economic data from the CIA World Fact Book isn't exactly propaganda

The beauty of US-style propaganda is it isn't done through state organs, but by covert infiltration of private organizations. Elements of propaganda are introduced this way into otherwise legitimate content. The propaganda exists as a parasite on a host of legitimacy and ends up being unwittingly spread by citizens themselves. By influencing popular media, the propaganda elements influence the tone of culture.

If there is one thing I hate about conspiracy crackpots, it's that they could not, in their wildest dreams, imagine that somebody simply disagrees with them, even if their life would depend on it. No, he must be a 'shill', paid by the CIA, the Mossad or some other evil entity.

The crackpots are the shills, and they effectively discredit the idea of shills, thus allowing shills to operate effectively at lower levels.

Reading the list of 25 tactics at the bottom, the average forums troll is a master of the great majority. It makes you wonder what qualifications the people hiring for a position like this are looking for...

  * How many boards have you been banned from
  * What's the largest flamewar you've ever incited
  * Can you describe an instance that you've caused a respected community member to break the board rules in frustration?

It sure does seem like catnip for message board addicts that the government sees those people and their boards as so important that a coherent and documented strategy is needed to disrupt them.

The media not-so-infrequently points out that the CIA monitors terrorist recruitment forums. Suppose those reports are true, would it make sense to develop a plan for disrupting such sites?

I do not doubt that someone somewhere got allocated money for a project to troll potential terrorists off recruiting boards.

DHS monitors a huge list of sites with forums and comment sections via automated software. They have a big list of terms, like a threat zeitgeist.

There's a big difference between aggregate monitoring what folks on the Internet say, and actively attempting to subvert the discussions on one particular message board.

The former is something that every large consumer company does with tools like Radian6. The latter is the realm of grandiosity bordering on paranoid schizophrenia.


Revival of contelpro techniques, in startup form. There's a recent HN discussion on it, but I can't seem to find it right now.

edit: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4267490

The majority of these tactics would not work in the wild without huge amounts of work. For example, "forum sliding" would be noticed on a forum slow enough that it's needed: on a forum large enough that it would go un-noticed doesn't need such behaviour. Any forum small enough for this to work is going to have active staff members that will notice a string of crappy posts.

If a forum is small enough (and has staff that don't care) for any of these techniques to be effective then the people that you're "converting" to your cause are going to be such a drop in the ocean that it's a complete waste of time. That might work on an issue with only 100 people that care about it, but global politics or anything that really matters it won't.

True but I suppose if you assume something like a negative political story, the major sites would be the target. a large team of people could try to flood all of the major discussion sites. Obviously it doesn't go away, but we all get distracted with shiny things and the original story quietly goes away.

I have no doubt that groups are trying to do this. How often they succeed is the question.

Topic dilution:

Ubuntuforum moderators pounce on that in the main support categories. They also like to merge threads on similar technical issues. The tendency is towards long threads about an issue e.g. sound problems on a new release with certain sound cards. You have to trawl through a lot of posts, but you do get all the context. More leeway for opinions in the non-technical categories.

CentOS forum moderators use quite a different approach in the release specific categories. They seem to like a 'post=support ticket' style. They strongly discourage posting a similar problem on the end of an existing issue, they prefer a fresh post. Produces short threads each with a specific issue; clarify the issue, achieve a resolution, then out. You rely on post subject headings to spot a pattern. As CentOS changes less quickly than Ubuntu, this is probably manageable.

Any 'spying' (e.g propaganda against open-source development &c) is hard on these forums. Potential spies would need to clock the different styles.

FFS, not that crap, not again, not here.

It's not "crap". If a group of people made a concerted effort to apply these principles to almost any discussion forum out there, they could very effectively control it. And it's a bit naive to assume they already don't.

Setting paranoia about you being one of them aside, and asking you to set aside your kneejerk reaction to being against this being posted, would you care to elaborate? I've never seen this before and it seems quite interesting.

Before ending up featured on HackerNews by way of the illustrious Cryptome, the various components of this document had a rich life of their own.

For example, the first part was spotted 3 years ago on http://www.infoterror.com/ . More recently, it showed up on EncyclopediaDramatica https://encyclopediadramatica.se/Forum_COINTELPRO_Techniques

Even more recently, it was the subject of a great many enlightened and thought provoking discussions on reddit: http://ww.reddit.com/r/Anarchism/duplicates/v7abp/

The lineage of the other four parts can be found easily by googling representative sentence fragment. For example, https://www.google.com/search?q=fall-back+positions.+Using+a...

For extra-credit, enumerate all the techniques from the linked document that could be construed to apply to my post.

Thank you for this post explaining the background of some of this.

I submitted it here after stumbling onto it at cryptome. I wanted to see if it would be suppressed -- it has not been!

Sorry to annoy the oldgs

Yea, they have an entire army dedicated to nothing but trolling the brave enemies of the state who converge at places like www.abovetopsecret.com and dailypail.com. FFS. Those places are a pit of back stabbing, turf wars, elaborated socket puppetry and so on because they attract a crowd that is borderline crazy, and a few trolls preying on them.

If you build a place for destructive and often psychotic people, you would need a dedicated three letter agency to prevent them from going on each others throat.

The point that's being made is that it's not that hard to disrupt a functioning online community, so you wouldn't even need an army. You could probably do it with a staff of a dozen or less, and honestly looking at how places like reddit and slashdot have transformed over the years I really wouldn't be surprised if there was at least some influence by government agencies(how do those same 5 military propaganda images keep getting to the front page? I'd also be curious to see how those getting to the frontpage compares to recruitment needs for the military. Not saying that it's a conspiracy, but it would be an interesting thing to examine). The tone of those places has changed, and any intelligent, valid criticism of the status quo is consistently ignored and rallied against. I don't know if it's just because people are by and large impulsive and unable to handle criticism, or because of a conspiracy, but the former lends itself to control by the latter.

It would be a bit naive to rule it out completely, but it would be pretty silly to say for certain that it's a conspiracy.

The author simply observes some negative tendencies in online communities that can easily explained by simple social dynamics and asserts that sinister cabal is responsible. That is his whole point, and he doesn't argue very good. For the love of god, look at the first point! FORUM SLIDING my ass. To make that work, you'd have to fake a dozen threads to drown a real one. And you'd have fake them convincingly, or they would simply be ignored.

I don't want to get overly confrontational, but your lament about reddit's decline goes into the same direction. That community has grown by a thousandfold. It's self image of a salon for educated and cultivated discourse is a sick joke. You don't need a conspiracy to explain how those pictures show up on the front page. They carry a simple, emotional message. Reddit's user base likes them, as they like rage comics, pictures of cute animals, stupid memes and rape jokes.

>how do those same 5 military propaganda images keep getting to the front page?

I don't subscribe to the front page reddits anymore, could you tell me what images you mean?

Your second point undermines the first. Essentially, you are making the case that the government should monitor and attempt to pacify groups of crazies.

The number of low karma accounts posting below is suspicious in and of itself.

subtle troll is subtle

Guys... Companies and other groups have been doing this for ages. It's very easy to disrupt public forums like HN or Slashdot and it has been shown to occur in Digg. I'm quite surprised it doesn't happen more often.

I hope the Tech Evangelists (shills) don't get a hold of this document. Give this a read, the good stuff starts at Page 3. http://techrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/comes-3096....

Developers, developers, developers? NO! MICROSOFT, MICROSOFT, MICROSOFT!

Does this remind anyone of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks? The way the legitimate investigations (9/11 commission, etc) were trammeled and the way the "truther" movement was marginalized?

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