The Illusion of Public Opinion

Herb, Music Industry Guy ca: 1975

Back in the seventies, record labels used to engage in a practice called Payola. The practice wasn’t anything new, it was just a nuanced form of bribery. The idea was simple: slip a $100 bill or packet of cocaine into a record album sleeve and give it to a radio station DJ in return for a few extra spins on the air. It created the illusion of undue popularity for what was likely a mediocre artist (and there was plenty of mediocrity to go around in music of the seventies). Why the big deal?

  1. It meant that only artists on large corporate labels could realistically get their music heard and it kept other worthy artists on smaller labels off the radio.
  2. It defrauded the public into thinking this was the best music available and fooled them into believing that the amount of airplay meant that the artist must be really good. That undue influence translated into fake record sales for the label.

And the problem was systemic because Label A would think ‘Hey, Labels B, C, and D are doing it, we’d better do it to stay competitive’. So record labels routinely engaged in payola knowing the risk of punitive damages if they ever got caught. The courts eventually outlawed payola under racketeering statutes and fined many record labels for the practice. Many labels looked at the fines as merely a cost of doing business.

Payola never really went away. It just morphed into what we now call ‘promotion’. C-notes are now concert tickets, tour jackets, or other merchandise. Payola even still happens illegally in these times. Sony Records was levied a $10 million dollar fine as recently as 2005 (ironically brought by Elliot Spitzer, then New York’s Attorney General who was likely participating in his own lascivious, immoral, and questionably legal practices at the time).

Of course influence exists in politics as well. Campaign ads, particularly negative ones, are notoriously misleading. Talk radio shows like Rush Limbaugh and networks like Fox News make lots of money peddling influence by playing it loose with the facts. But there’s a new kind of influence going on today courtesy of the Internet that very much resembles the Payola scams of the old days.

We’ve seen many things change with the Internet. Information is readily available and exchanged on a routine basis. The entirety of encyclopedic information is accessible with a keystroke on Google. Nothing is sacred anymore, nor secret. Wikileaks proved that you can’t hide anything. Facebook opened up everybody’s lives to the world. Privacy has become a thing of the past because once it’s out there, it’s part of the permanent record. You might have been passed over for that promotion because someone tagged you in a photo at the Christmas party with the lampshade on your head and cocktail in hand. Governments are toppling because everybody got the tweet to show up. Government secrets are being leaked to expose their real intentions to suppress the freedom of the people. Transparency is the new black.

But something even more sinister is happening with breakdown of technological barriers; fake constituencies.

My pseudonym is Mr. Universe. I write under an alias because I want to have unfettered freedom of speech without it having an influence on say, my employer who might discriminate against me for a differing opinion, or family members who might be embarrassed. Presumably I am human, but how do you know? How do you know that any of the other writers on this blog aren’t figments of my imagination? The answer is: you don’t. You accept it on faith that we are different people with different perspectives. But it could be possible that there are people on the Internet with less than honourable objectives.

The Internet affords us with anonymity that we don’t have in our personal lives. I personally think that the transparency that is bringing about these revolutions, toppling archaic regimes, and possibly revealing corporate and government malfeasance are good things, but I worry that the anonymity is being used against us in sinister ways.


One of the things the Wikileaks team exposed was a plot by the firm HBGary, a counter intelligence cyber protection firm that went after Wikileaks. HBGary threatened to expose the members of “Anonymous,” a group of hackers that is publicly supportive of Wikileaks. Anonymous, in retaliation, hacked into their systems, compromised their servers, and dumped 50,000 of their e-mails onto the Internet. (This brings up an interesting question: do two wrongs actually equal a right if they expose an egregious wrong?)

In one of those e-mails was a plan to create a sockpuppet revolution. In other words, create fake Internet identities with similar opinions. A clone war. They wanted to foster an on-line counter attack to the Democratic agenda. And they planned to do it with software. From an HBGary e-mail:

…by creating an army of sockpuppets, with sophisticated “persona management” software that allows a small team of only a few people to appear to be many, while keeping the personas from accidentally cross-contaminating each other. Then, to top it off, the team can actually automate some functions so one persona can appear to be an entire Brooks Brothers riot online.

Believe it or not, the US Government is using this technique in Afghanistan to <sarcasm> “win the hearts and minds of the Afghans”</sarcasm>.

The danger, of course, is creating a false reality that promotes an agenda of the minority (usually one that stands to profit), data mining, and ganging up on the Internet bloggers and commenters such as ourselves by distorting truth with fake numbers.

Most of us are trusting individuals. We take for granted that whoever is on the other end of is a real person because we are taught to take people at their word. But how can there be empathy with a fake persona? It’s just a carbon copy.

I thought about testing the fake persona on the readers of this blog by publishing a ‘guest’ editorial with completely outrageous and false information, but that made me feel a bit unsettled. Even if you have no evidence to the contrary, I can assure you that I and my fellow writers here at 538 Refugees are real, and we will never lie to you. Cross my digital heart.

There could be others trying to create an alternate reality to influence political thought. In the past, all governments had to do to quash rebellion was to shut down communication. Now, in lieu of shutting down communication it becomes necessary to manipulate communication. For example, could there be people working to create an illusion that public opinion favours defeating unions in Wisconsin at this moment? The Internet has brought about a lot of liberating things but the one thing that has yet to be addressed is how do you know what is real? Does public opinion mirror what the public actually feels? This opens a Pandora’s box of questions regarding Internet regulation and the veracity of the source.

What’s in the box is anybody’s guess.

About Mr. Universe

Mr. Universe is a musician/songwriter and an ex-patriot of the south. He currently lives and teaches at a University in the Pacific Northwest. He is a long distance hiker who has hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. He is also an author and woodworker. An outspoken political voice, he takes a decidedly liberal stance in politics.
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16 Responses to The Illusion of Public Opinion

  1. Chris Rich says:

    Oh Lord, Comment mobbing in newspaper websites, here and nearly anywhere some controversy may roost is GOP staple. It seems to be their only area of innovation.

    I’m firmly on the other side. My web work and general advocacy hinges on me being me. I have yet to make a single sock puppet.

    I’m lucky in that I work for myself and a small family business where the owners could care less if I’m tagged in a pic with a drink in my fist. In fact, I flatly wouldn’t work for douche nozzles who care about my personal life that much. I was offered a tolerable job, a hire on from a temp thing back in Seattle and I said no, I’d rather be a stoner than work for you.

    I often invent my own work and have a bunch of skills. While I have no quarrel with institutions, I’m pretty fussy about who I work for and never cared about a career track. I have that wonderful old fashioned thing… a life. No career for me.

  2. Monotreme says:

    Just a correction: the quote above is from a Daily Kos article by “Happy Rockefeller” (presumably a pseudonym):

    The email itself said:

    Persona management entails not just the deconfliction of persona artifacts such as names, email addresses, landing pages, and associated content.  It also requires providing the human actors technology that takes the decision process out of the loop when using a specific persona.  For this purpose we custom developed either virtual machines or thumb drives for each persona.  This allowed the human actor to open a virtual machine or thumb drive with an associated persona and have all the appropriate email accounts, associations, web pages, social media accounts, etc. pre-established and configured with visual cues to remind the actor which persona he/she is using so as not to accidentally cross-contaminate personas during use.

  3. Monotreme says:

    I just learned a new word: agnatology, the study of manufacturing doubt.

    I would direct the interested reader to this excellent article by someone who calls himself “David Roberts”:

    If step one was crime [hacking into and stealing the East Anglia emails], step two was character assassination. When the emails were released, they were combed over by skeptic blogs and right-wing media, who collected sentences, phrases, even individual terms that, when stripped of all context, create the worst possible impression. Altogether the whole thing was as carefully staged as any modern-day political attack ad.

  4. filistro says:

    @Chris Rich… I have that wonderful old fashioned thing… a life. No career for me.

    Bless you, Chris. In a world full of shadows you are always warm and real, standing on your own two feet, stubbornly speaking truth and being yourself. I think you’re wonderful. 🙂

    I muse a lot about this sort of thing, always have. I can recall being about 10 years old and brooding over whether anything was real, or if it was all just something I was imagining. Nowadays that’s not just juvenile angst, it’s a genuine concern. Not only are we losing track of what is real, we seem to be looking on reality as the enemy. There is a new war on privacy. All of us, media and ordinary citizens, have become heat-seeking missiles programmed to root out people’s most intimate personal details, expose them and destroy those they’re connected with.

    It’s like a war on being human. Maybe the machines really are out to get us. (I’m pretty sure DC believes that 😉

    Somebody in the “Roger Ailes” thread below expressed approval for the new partisan attack media because it exposes things we “need to know” about public figures… things that would once have been kept hidden, like JFK’s adultery. This, to me, is evidence of the sickness at the core of our society… the fact that nothing at all is considered “private” anymore. Who (other than his wife) cares whether a man has affairs, if he is doing his job well? Why do I need to know the names and faces of the women Charlie Sheen lives with, or whether he still has custody of his little boys? What business is it of mine if a politician is attracted to folks of the same sex?

    In a world of shadows, we seek to destroy what is human in one another. And amongst an explosion of knowledge where everything in the world is literally at our fingertips, we are losing touch with wisdom.

    Over 150 years ago, Tennyson wrote a poem called “The Lady of Shalott.” It’s about a beautiful noblewoman who is afraid of life so she lives in a tower with a big mirror on the wall, and spends her days watching the world pass by in the mirror’s reflected images, never actually looking at the world directly. One day Lancelot rides by her tower, looking spendid, and she is so overwhelmed by his image in the mirror that she rushes to lean out the window for a better look. The imapct of reality after years of filtered images is so intense that she goes insane, and soon dies.

    I think Tennyson’s poem was visionary and prophetic.

  5. fili,
    I was with you until this: “What business is it of mine if a politician is attracted to folks of the same sex?”
    It becomes your business when that politician publicly supports discrimination against gays. Sort of like how Strom Thurmond’s supported racial segregation and anti-miscegenation laws while fathering a child with a black woman.

    But that’s the exception rather than the rule.

  6. filistro says:

    @Michael… It becomes your business when that politician publicly supports discrimination against gays.

    Yes of course… but that has nothing to do with a politician’s private sexual orientation, which is never any of our business. Rather, it reveals a tendency to be a liar, panderer and hypocrite… all of which are important things to know about one’s elected representative.

    In Canada it’s just so different. Canadians know very little about the private, personal lives of their politicians. They don’t even WANT to know. I don’t know why this is. Offhand one would say it’s because of Canada’s stuffy British roots… but then Britian has a trashily aggressive, intrusive tabloid press that would never survive in Canada.

    I guess it’s just a national taste… and we all know there’s no accounting for tastes.

  7. Max aka Birdpilot says:


    You are displaying your youth! If you were nearly as old as me you would know that payola goes way back before the 70’s. The payola scandal was pretty contemporary with the game show scandals of the FIFTIES!!!!

    GAWD!!! You and Dana Perrino!


  8. mclever says:

    How did you old people listen to music before you had CDs? I don’t understand. Couldn’t you just download whatever you wanted on your iPod anyway? 😉

    OK, I kid.

    I am concerned about the “artificial consensus” that can be created by flooding internet sites with false personas all parroting the same untruths. Awareness of the problem isn’t enough. We humans are social creatures, and we will feel pressure to go along with the majority most of the time. If we find we’re too far outside the perceived mainstream, then most of us will question ourselves. By creating a false consensus, people who aren’t particularly close to an issue will tend to assume that whatever the majority are saying must be the case. They’ll accept the perceived consensus as truth, because that’s what social creatures do.

    The same thing happens with media monopolies of radio, news, and television. If Disney owns half the TV and radio stations, and it’s in Disney’s interest to have a particular meme become generally accepted truth, then having all of those stations saying the same thing whenever the topic comes up can have the effect of generating the perception of consensus, too. Thinking back to the Ailes thread, this is why media monopolies are dangerous to the public. Even if a media company only owns 30-40% of the airwaves, that’s sufficient to create a significant imbalance in messaging due to the other diverse opinions being divided up.

    It gets back to the political science axiom that whoever controls the meeting agenda has the power. In media, you might as well say, whoever controls the programming agenda has the power. Alternative viewpoints can be stifled by simply not airing them. Controversies can be misconstrued by only discussing one side of the argument. Opinion can be manipulated by focusing on certain stories to emphasize ideological points. (i.e. if you think immigrants are evil, then showing bunches of stories about immigrants getting arrested for various crimes while ignoring any stories about citizens being arrested, even if you quietly note that arrest rates for citizens and immigrants are roughly the same, you can create the impression that immigrants are all criminals without ever explicitly saying so.)

    It’s an illusion of public opinion that doesn’t match the truth.

  9. Mr. Universe says:


    Yeah, I knew about Alan Freed and the courts breaking the management monopoly of the fifties but I had to start somewhere with the analogy and I didn’t want to go that far back.

    I’m not nearly as pretty as Perrino.

  10. Monotreme says:

    I am ashamed of my physical attraction to Dana Perino. Then she opens her mouth and I don’t like her anymore.

  11. Pingback: Fighting the Next War II | 538 Refugees

  12. Monotreme says:

    As a sign of how low we’ve sunk, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls Al Jazeera “real news” as opposed to, you know, the crap we’re handed in this country:

  13. mclever says:

    Wow, Monotreme.


  14. Monotreme says:

    More manufactured public opinion, this time on radio call-in shows:

  15. Pingback: Guerilla Journalism or Covert Patriotism? | 538 Refugees

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