This week I specified and published a thesis topic concerning "Astroturf robot wars" together with a colleague of mine (Hannes). Astroturf in this context refers to "fake grassroots movements" that are paid for by someone with an interest in affecting or controlling the public discussion. The background to my interest in the area is:
1) my own experiences of hanging out on forums that are invaded, infested and overrun by vocal pro-fossil fuel anti-global-warming denialists (etc.) who seemingly show up the very second someone has posted something, and who never give up. I have several times tried to understand who these people are and how come they stay around and continue to post messages no matter how unwelcome they are and no matter how many times their arguments are refuted. Don't these useful idiots have other things to do rather than to post the same things for the XXth time? Are they in fact paid by someone to wreak havoc on the forums?
2) I think the latter view might not be that unfeasible after having read a number of texts on that topic by British journalist and author George Monbiot:
--- On astroturf robot wars and software for impersonating an army of "ordinary citizens" on the web (Feb 2011).
--- On astroturf campaigns trying to control who and what is being heard in the cyber-commons (Dec 2010).
----How the tea party movement was jump-started by fossil fuel lobbying seed money (Oct 2010).
--- On systematic disinformation that is spread by corporations with political agendas and money to spare - but hiding behind innocent-sounding organizations that do their dirty work (Dec 2009).
From reading these and other texts, I now realize that it might be the case that these persons are not private citizens at all, but rather paid-off employees working for (for example) a PR or computer security firm. Since it would be too expensive to pay a highly educated (but amoral) person for posting a handful of blog comments every day, they need better tools and these have now turned up in the form of for example "persona management software".
It is on the basis of these developments that I and Hannes specified the "Astroturf robot wars" thesis topic which can be found here. That text contains a better introduction to the topic at hand as well as actual suggestions for what could be done by a student and references to materials to read up on.