POLITICAL operatives are secretly campaigning for the federal seat of Corangamite online, posting political messages under fake names.
An internet user or users from Parliament House Canberra’s computer network has pretended to be at least nine different people while making pro-Labor comments online.
The comments, posted online under Colac Herald stories about Colac Area Health cuts, all come from the same internet protocol address, a specific computer server’s code.
The comments all praise Labor Party policies or belittle the Liberal Party but fail to identify the writer’s political links.
The false names included a fake Colac Area Health employee and a fake Barwon Health employee.
Community lobbyist Laura Cook said she would prefer to see political staff working to fix Colac’s hospital crisis rather than “spamming” people.
“I’m absolutely gobsmacked,” she said.
“What a complete utter waste of time and resources.
“They’re best fixing it rather than spamming people.”
But Ms Cook said the behaviour was a part of online life.
“I think it’s probably just the day and age we live in,” she said.
“It could be anybody talking to you; you don’t know it’s the actual person.”
University experts refer to the practice of using fake online personalities to try to create an impression of grassroots support as “astroturfing”, or fake grassroots.
Monash University politics lecturer Dr Zareh Ghazarian questioned the ethics of the “cynical” tactic to influence voters before the 2013 federal election.
“This is clearly concerned with trying to change grassroots voting intention,” Dr Ghazarian said.
“It’s often very difficult to discern who is a partisan actor and who is a non-partisan observer,” he said.
“It’s very easy to write what you like online, the checks are quite limited.
“The problem is while you can’t really verify them, people do read them and do absorb them.”
But Dr Ghazarian said political staff had been pretending for a “long time” to be grassroots voters to push a political message, usually on talkback radio and in letters to the editor.
“It goes part and parcel with the sorts of things that go on in a campaign year,” he said.
“It’s just an extension of modern campaigning; it’s the new battleground for parties.”
Dr Ghazarian said astroturfing could backfire on the political operatives responsible for the practice when people caught them out.
“It’s far more risky to engage in this sort of practice in the digital realm,” he said.
“You’re going to leave digital fingerprints all over things.”