Attack of the 50-foot automated sock-puppets.

Scott Baradell, a Dallas marketing exec wrote Attack of the automated sock puppets, and says that the PR-industry must condemn the massive, automated sock-puppetry. While non-automated sock-puppets are usually found out by simple human error, the stash of emails that Anonymous snatched from HBGary’s networks reveals the use of programs that automate sock-puppetry. Example:

Added: Jun 22, 2010 1:42 pm Modified: Jun 22, 2010 2:07 pmTrack Changes
0001- Online Persona Management Service. 50 User Licenses, 10 Personas per user.
Software will allow 10 personas per user, replete with background , history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographacilly consistent. Individual applications will enable an operator to exercise a number of different online persons from the same workstation and without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries. Personas must be able to appear to originate in nearly any part of the world and can interact through conventional online services and social media platforms. The service includes a user friendly application environment to maximize the user's situational awareness by displaying real-time local information.

Via BNet So, Why Does the Air Force Want Hundreds of Fake Online Identities on Social Media?

The word of warning from Scott can be boiled down to: "this will come back to bite us in the ass". He's right you know.

At the Daily Kos, the concern is that such practices will be employed by right-leaning institutions against “labor unions, progressive organizations, journalists, and progressive bloggers.” As for me, I don’t care who uses it against whom. Manipulating consensus is wrong, unethical, unprofessional and the very antitheses of the transparency and responsibility that are at the heart of the changes sweeping business today.
And, of course, when it’s uncovered (and it will be uncovered), the blame will fall at the PR profession’s feet. As The Kos article so bluntly put it, “This is just one little company of assholes. I can’t believe there aren’t others doing this already. From oil companies, political campaigns, PR firms, you name it. Public opinion means big bucks. And let’s face it, what these guys are talking about is easy.”
Make no mistake. If this gets more common, your honest, transparent communication efforts will be just as suspect as those of the actual bad actors. It threatens to undermine the credibility of every organization participating in the social space.

Update: Gini Dietrich had the same take yesterday, and wants to draw the line right now - Personas Created to Attack and Smear:

I can’t imagine this isn’t happening in other companies, at global PR firms, and within government agencies, but the idea that someone will create personas on the social web to show consensus, is downright unconstitutional.
Companies creating personas to follow you on Twitter, read your blog, friend you on Facebook.
Personas who will group together and voice an opinion to change consensus.
Personas who will read your blog and gang up on you.
Personas who will change public perception because of the sheer number of “people” talking about one side of the argument.
I feel like the world, right now, is all about bad publicity as a means for building awareness. It’s quite disconcerting. It definitely does not help the perception people have of the PR industry.
These things are happening and the only thing we can do is refuse to do business this way. Who’s with me?

I am! hat tip to adgrunt HowieSPM a.k.a @skypulsemedia