Locally, we are used to hearing the term ‘cyber-trooper’. But that term does not seem to be widely used outside Malaysia. Instead, the closest term seems to be ‘internet shill’.
AskOxford says the term ‘shill’ is mainly of informal North American origin:
1 An accomplice of a confidence trickster or swindler who poses as a genuine customer to entice or encourage others: I used to be a shill in a Reno gambling club
figurative: the agency is a shill for the nuclear power industry
1.1A person who pretends to give an impartial endorsement of something in which they themselves have an interest: a megamillionaire who makes more money as a shill for corporate products than he does for playing basketball
I suspect there are two main types of shills: political and corporate. The latter may involve people from public relations department or firms.
Wikipedia defines a shill as follows: “A shill, also called a plant or a stooge, is a person who publicly helps a person or organisation without disclosing that they have a close relationship with the person or organisation.”
It goes on to describe how shills operate on the internet as follows:
In online discussion media, satisfied consumers or “innocent” parties may express specific opinions in order to further the interests of an organization in which they have an interest, such as a commercial vendor or special interest group. In academia, this is called opinion spamming. Web sites can also be set up for the same purpose. For example, an employee of a company that produces a specific product might praise the product anonymously in a discussion forum or group in order to generate interest in that product, service, or group. In addition, some shills use “sock puppetry”, where they sign on as one user soliciting recommendations for a specific product or service. They then sign on as a different user pretending to be a satisfied customer of a specific company.
In some jurisdictions and circumstances, this type of activity may be illegal. In addition, reputable organizations may prohibit their employees and other interested parties (contractors, agents, etc.) from participating in public forums or discussion groups in which a conflict of interest might arise, or will at least insist that their employees and agents refrain from participating in any way that might create a conflict of interest. For example, the plastic surgery company Lifestyle Lift ordered their employees to post fake positive reviews on websites. As a result, they were sued, and ordered to pay $300,000 in damages by the New York Attorney General’s office. Said Attorney General Andrew Cuomo: “This company’s attempt to generate business by duping consumers was cynical, manipulative, and illegal. My office has [been] and will continue to be on the forefront in protecting consumers against emerging fraud and deception, including ‘astroturfing,’ on the Internet.”
How widespread is the prevalence of political and corporate shills? I am guessing there there are a fair number of them out there and I suspect even on this blog, especially on posts where the political or corporate stakes are high or in the run up to elections.
I don’t want to cast aspersions on any commenters here. But if you are reading news websites and blogs and are active on social media (Facebook and Twitter), it might be useful to recognise the possibility of trolls and (paid?) shills in the comments sections. They may try to disrupt any serious discussion (with asinine comments, divisive racial remarks, flames and personal attacks) or shape pubic opinion – while all the time masking their real affiliations. Standard operating procedure.
The best way of handling them is, don’t fall for their bait or attempts at disruption and opinion-moulding. And ignore the trolls.