Back to previous post: Baseball stats

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Tiresome technical issues

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

August 30, 2006

Further instances of astroturf in blogs
Posted by Teresa at 05:43 PM *

See posts in: Sivacracy, Cybersoc.com, Pandagon, Blanton’s and Ashton’s, Dr. Peter Rost, Watch Me Sleep, and Deconsumption (twice).

Sivacracy also comments on posts at Newsrack Blog and Making Light.

Two of the well-paid and well-connected firms who are orchestrating professional astroturf comments on weblogs are NetVocates and The Rendon Group. The latter is scarier.

If you want to get some idea of the resources being devoted to falsifying and suppressing legitimate public discourse, consider that paid professionals are being hired to post agenda-pushing comments on midrange blogs.

Comments on Further instances of astroturf in blogs:
#1 ::: Annalee Flower Horne ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2006, 06:14 PM:

These guys have been taking out ad space in the metro stations around DC. One of our local... ah... 'urban public artists' has taken to 'beautifying' them with accurate information (urls) and graffitee caricatures. A little sharpie goes a long way.

#2 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2006, 06:55 PM:

I'm a little worried about the next round in the arms race: When astroturfers realize that bloggers find it easy to connect them to domains registered to PR firms, I imagine they will hide their postings behind layers of domains, or find other obfuscating tactics.

What would the next response be from those who want to expose astroturf postings?

(And how can we know that this has not already happened?)

Would be interesting to pick the brains of some Net wizards, next time I'm in a con suite.

Another worry: a Gresham's Law of opinion. One's comments can be dismissed as "probably the work of an astroturfer" even if they're not.

When we begin to doubt the authenticity of one another's utterances, it will be harder to take the whole conversation seriously.

#3 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2006, 08:18 PM:

Astoundingly, there exists a "George Bush Fan Club" BlogRing. Apparently they're serious.

They say "this is the George Bush Fan club, if you are even remotely left of center, do not join as i will bomb your mother."

So much for Motherhood. I wonder how they feel about apple pie and America?

#4 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2006, 08:25 PM:

Hmm, the Making Light link for Sivacracy links back to the front page of ML. I was hoping it would link to an actual post, so I could see what these scumbags have been up to here, but I expect it's been deleted.

#5 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2006, 08:43 PM:

There was an article by James Bamford about John Rendon, the founder of The Rendon Group, in Rolling Stone last year.

The word "scary" might not sufficiently convey the extent of the sheer horribleness of these people.

#6 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2006, 08:45 PM:

Try the Sivacracy link again.

#7 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2006, 08:58 PM:

It seems to me that this is another step in the corruption of the republic in the interests of the wealthy.

#8 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2006, 10:08 PM:

The systematic justifications of aristocratic autocracy -- position by conflating birth and merit -- require the servitude of everyone else.

It doesn't make sense from any perspective other than insecurity management for the broken-souled, nithing-hearted scions of better sires, but if it isn't true, well, they're not good people and God doesn't love them, and that's worth anything at all to avoid.

Gwynn Dwyer used to talk about nuclear war in terms of their being nothing on Earth worth blowing the planet up for, as a sort of tautological obviousness, before going on to talk about the systematic traps that could make people argue that sure there was, maybe even blowing it up twice.

It's just that kind of irrationality driving the whole neocon thing; if anybody can argue with them, if anybody can ever call them to account, the whole tissue of lies evaporates, and it's obvious what cheating, lying, criminal, incompetent contemptible fuckups they are.

So no one can ever be allowed to do that, no matter what it takes.

#9 ::: mary ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2006, 10:20 PM:

Graydon, I like the way you write. Are you a writer?

#10 ::: Michael ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2006, 10:23 PM:

#2 Bill (and let me insert here that I'm overjoyed that comments are now numbered here at ML) net sleuthing is nothing new, and obfuscation ain't, neither. My guess is that the posting will continue using the already-existing botnets that are sending out so much of today's spam, or some similar system -- my point being that existing spam support systems can be contracted on the open market, and existing anti-spam techniques could be adapted to filter out comments.

I was active in anti-spamming from roughly 1998 to 2003 or so (from 1999 to 2005 I was solely responsible for the once and future Despammed.com) and there is definitely a whack-a-mole aspect to it, but it's great fun. I imagine it would be extremely fun to get into a technical arms race with comment trolls.

(Ah, my salad days.)

#11 ::: Stanford Matthews ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2006, 10:27 PM:

Still following all the trails left by others. Not convinced but not discounting the possibility at least as regards Rendon Group. My first find on Rendon Group is here:Blog @ MoreWhat.com

#12 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2006, 10:44 PM:

The Sivacracy link now gives me a non-permission link to the Archives.

#13 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2006, 11:40 PM:

Wow: I started out reading about astroturfing and ended up reading about New Coke. Cool.

#14 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2006, 11:42 PM:

Jim (#3), I think they might have trouble bombing my mother -- what's left of her is in Arlington National Cemetary.

#15 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2006, 11:53 PM:

Sorry to go off-topic here, but Open Thread 69 gets stuck in the header of post 182. Same results on 2 different computers (1 PC @ work, 1 Mac @ home, so it's not OS related).

#16 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2006, 01:25 AM:

I'm trying to think of historical precedents for this; the only ones I am aware of were in the Iron Curtain countries and the interwar Soviet propaganda campaigns. Can anyone else think of anything comparable?

#17 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2006, 02:00 AM:

#10 Michael,

net sleuthing is nothing new, and obfuscation ain't, neither.

So can we automate some of the net sleuthing? Tie commenter IPs back to known white or blacklists, publish that kind of backtrack in plain view so readers can use it to assess the credibility of the opinions stated therein?

I'm no MT jockey, but would that work as a plugin, one that does some sort of IP lookup (to what depends on what you want out of the transaction, I guess).

Then you could have another plugin, either browser-based or on MT, that rendered different comments in different colours (f'rinstance, or sizes, or fonts) for an easy, quick visual distinction between the reliable (dark colour) and the probable astroturf (barely legible pale grey).

Or something like that.

#18 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2006, 07:47 AM:

One thing I think many posters are missing here and something I occasionally get to say to myself, "Damn, I could be getting paid to do this?" Or as I say to myself when we as Council open up bids for work we have to contract out, “Damn, chose the wrong career path again.”

As you can see, it’s always one damn thing after another.

#19 ::: Rebecca Borgstrom ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2006, 11:26 AM:

Hm.

My first thought regarding an answer to this kind of thing was respect management/Whuffie systems, but it seems like massive echo chamber stuff would kick in before you managed to stop astroturf.

So---

What are the exploitable differences between reality and manufactured reality that you could use to fight this kind of thing?

Reality has the advantage that you can verify it by going to a certain place and taking a direct sensory observation. I'm not sure if structurally honest math and structurally honest arguments count as "reality", but they are also verifiable with the right toolkit.

As Deconsumption pointed out, manufactured reality has the quality that it's profitable. And there's probably some fuzzy quality regarding "at one of the points of development where it's cheaper to do false advocacy than real advocacy."

. . . but one of the tenets of this kind of thing is to hide and obscure evidence that what you're doing is profitable.

Is manufactured reality sturdier? That is, does the economic interest in a lie change less rapidly than the underlying truths they're lying about? Can one model honesty as likely to produce a certain rate of "oops" or internal contradiction that differs from the oops rate of astroturf? Can one extract enough information about what's profitable to have some kind of strategy of "decide whether to believe a given comment with a probability inversely proportional to the apparent profitability thereof?"

Is there a greater overall economic interest in honesty than deception?

. . . that question is totally ill-formed. :( Does anyone know where I'd look to find a good discussion of economic activity directed at generating wealth vs. economic activity directed at generating/reinforcing power? Basically, what I'm thinking about is the conditions under which society is more likely to bleed spare energy for honesty instead of spare energy for deception, or vice versa, which would be a structural indicator that could flag differences between reality and lies.

I don't know. This was all kind of floundery but I'd be honored if someone had thoughts and pleased if someone had answers.

Rebecca

#20 ::: Rachael de Vienne ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2006, 11:53 AM:

I'm trying to think of historical precedents for this; the only ones I am aware of were in the Iron Curtain countries and the interwar Soviet propaganda campaigns. Can anyone else think of anything comparable?

There are historic examples. Some are honourable and many are not. This is the modern equivalent of the anonymous tracting of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Political parties, religious and social movements all "posted" anonymously. Replies from official parties were often set in the same anonymous guise. Even John Locke sometimes wrote anonymously. It was dangerous to advocate his religious views publicly.

In the Federalist era there were several organized letter-writing campaigns. Today, they'd be Internet postings, though I can't see a collection of net-posts being published as a classic a hundred years hence. ... Unless, of course, they're mine! (Ok, you're supposed to laugh now.)

In the 19th Century political and religious issues were still beaten out in tracts and books. Some of them were anonymous, and many of them were party-affiliated even when there was an attempt to hide the affiliation. Anti-Catholic and Nativist movements in America were especially addicted to this.

In the 20th Century tracting became the province of small, alternative parties. Many of their booklets were still anonymous or otherwise disassociated from their true affiliations. American Fascists and Nazis of all sorts brought anonymous, seemingly unaffiliated, publishing to its rarified though disreputable height. Today we have Chick tracts. .... And the rest has moved to the Internet and Letters to the Editor columns.

As the writer of Ecclesiasties says, "There is nothing new under the sun." People change their clothes, but they're the same inside, and they do the same things over, and over, and over again.

#21 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2006, 12:37 PM:

Mary in #9 --

I have been paid to write technical documentation, but I'm fairly sure that's not what you meant.

#22 ::: Thomas Nephew ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2006, 01:35 PM:

This expands beyond blog-infections (and you may have linked to it elsewhere) but the Center for Media and Democracy "PRWatch" site has a dedicated "astroturf" tag for the variety of cases they've observed and posted about. For example, DuPont got to pay a "fine" to Children's Health Forum as part of a lead paint law suit settlement with the state of Rhode Island earlier this month. Thing is, CHF was founded by a DuPont consultant, and has several board members with ties to DuPont.

(via commenter "Pony" at my post about DDC)

#23 ::: "Charles Dodgson" ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2006, 02:06 PM:
I'm trying to think of historical precedents for this; the only ones I am aware of were in the Iron Curtain countries and the interwar Soviet propaganda campaigns. Can anyone else think of anything comparable?

Well, there's American domestic commercial propaganda --- or, to use the kinder and more familiar name for it, marketing. You might want to look at some of the work of PR pioneer Edward Bernays (known in some circles as the "father of lies"). Among his stunts to promote cigarette smoking among women were to have his secretary and some of her friends crash New York's Easter parade bearing a ciggie as a "torch of freedom" --- which was presented to the press as a spontaneous demonstration. (Bernays' role, and that of the tobacco company that hired him, were not disclosed. In case you're wondering, Bernays also promoted cigarettes to women as a healthy alternative to snacking --- even though the women in his own family were categorically forbidden to smoke).

Bernays did use his techniques for political work on occasion, particularly in "selling" the United Fruit Company's private coup in Guatemala...

#24 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2006, 08:33 PM:

Rachael, was the production of anonymous tracts, specialized to particular groups, a major operation in the 17th and 18th century? What we're looking at here seems a bit larger-scale.

Charles Dodgson--yes, that makes sense. There's clearly a huge overlap between advertising, marketing, and this type of astroturfing.

It occurs to me, thought, that I'm probably looking in the wrong place; major religious groups have been doing personally targeted propagation of their faith for a very long time. Which raises another interesting question: are ideas from religious proselytization being adapted for this kind of political propaganda?

#25 ::: Michael ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2006, 09:00 PM:

#17 abi:

So can we automate some of the net sleuthing? Tie commenter IPs back to known white or blacklists, publish that kind of backtrack in plain view so readers can use it to assess the credibility of the opinions stated therein?

The short answer is: probably. Ha. Seriously -- at least partial automation is possible, especially something with a blacklist kind of setup. I don't know how MT's plugins work, so I can't say anything beyond "probably" on that note.

It'd be fun, though.

#26 ::: Rachael de Vienne ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2006, 11:24 PM:

Publishing a tract was the major way of presenting one's views in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was often done anonymously to avoid prosecution. John Locke's tract on against the Trinity doctrine was published anonymously. Thomas Pain was brave enough to stick his name on his Appeal to Reason.

Most of the tracts were religious, but there was no way to separate religion and the state in that era. If you held non-conformist views, you were suspect, even traitorous.

There are countless tracts from that time that are mere curiosities now. Others are significant.

Want to read some of them? Try here:

http://oll.libertyfund.org/Texts/LFBooks/Malcolm0180/17thCTracts/Frame/ToC.html

#27 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2006, 11:34 PM:

Publishing a tract was the major way of presenting one's views in the 17th and 18th centuries.

I understand (from her obituary) that one of my great-great-grandmothers wrote tracts, apparently of a religious nature, during the late 19th century, in Kansas. (I have no idea what they were about, and I've never seen one. She was Seventh Day Baptist turned more-or-less Methodist.)

#28 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2006, 11:40 PM:

But, hey, the wingnuts think this pack of (said affectionately) faneds and letterhacks with jet-propelled typewriters, otherwise known as the blogosphere, is a real threat, one real enough to spend real money hiring...letterhacks? Good grief! And getting clueless anti-blogosphere editorials in newspapers. I think on balance it works in the favor of the blogosphere. For one thing, it's publicity we couldn't get any other way; I'll bet the wingnut attacks have actually increased readership--most bloggers sure can't crack the editorial pages. For another, it's money that isn't going to other, probably, more effective media.

If we are a threat to people who can afford television airtime, it's only because we are like the little boy who shouted "the emperor isn't wearing any clothes". The wingnuts seem to think we have a shot at the kind of persuasion that they can undertake, with a whole television news operation on their side and rest of the mainstream press befuddled. I think they are wrong and maybe, just maybe, we can turn that thinking to our advantage.

#29 ::: Rachael de Vienne ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2006, 11:42 PM:

Dear P. J. Evans,

Search her name in the Library of Congress Cat. or on one of the book search sites. Try abe.com or bookfinder.com, or addall.com/used/. If they are out there, one of those searches should turn them up.

Not to minimize your relative’s contribution to tract writing, but most tracts fell into instant obscurity. Many are hard to find. Most are un-catalogued.

#30 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2006, 08:30 AM:

On the Internet, nobody knows you're being paid to be a dog.

#31 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2006, 10:38 AM:

Not to minimize your relative’s contribution to tract writing, but most tracts fell into instant obscurity. Many are hard to find. Most are un-catalogued.

About what I figured. I doubt that she signed any of them with more than initials. She seems to have been an unusually forceful, or something, woman: her husband tended to Go Off and Do Things (two years in CA; a year or so in the army during the Civil Unpleasantness; etc), leaving her to run the farm and the family, and at least for a while, the land was in her name, not his.

#32 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2006, 12:10 PM:

Paying money to astroturf blogs means either:

a) We're a danger to them,
b) They've got so much money and so much time (and have already sewed up everything else) that they're down to doing minor and pointless stuff,
or
c) They're totally inept at setting priorities, too.

#33 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2006, 01:32 PM:

Jim, I think "C" is the correct answer, here--they win battles and lose wars; good at media tactics, but not strategy. Think of the Clinton impeachment--they seriously misjudged the public response; when the time came to actually convict Clinton, they didn't have the popular support or Senate votes, and the whole thing went nowhere. I think this is the same sort of misjudgement; they're afraid of even the smallest dissent, even dissent that really isn't much of a threat. I suspect, also, that at least some of their leaders somewhere, in their heart of hearts, realize that they've blown it badly, and are trying desperately to silence reminders of that feeling.

#34 ::: Tsu Dho Nimh ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2006, 08:42 PM:

"paid professionals are being hired to post agenda-pushing comments on midrange blogs."

Low-paid AMATUERS on are being paid to create product buzz ... blogitive.com and others are paying a whopping $5 per post or less to game the search engines.

See this blog.

#35 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2006, 09:56 PM:

I know the astroturfers are going to get better at covering their tracks, but now and for the foreseeable future, I trust my ability to spot them by ear. It's not a satisfactory general solution, though.

Another mechanism that helps is the (view all by) link on every comment that lets you read that person's other comments on Making Light. Until the day the astroturfers are willing to pay minions to post about fanfic, dubious saints, the taxonomic status of Pluto, bizarre video remakes of "Total Eclipse of the Heart", literary pastiche in formal verse, and the problems of domesticating buffalo, just so they'll have credibility when they post about the clients' favorite issues, we'll have a powerful if approximate tool for spotting ringers.

There's an odd thought: Making Light is better defended against astroturf than weblogs that deal entirely in political issues. A significant percentage of our conversations are always going to be outside their areas of interest.

#36 ::: Amy Rye ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 02:21 PM:

#3: They say "this is the George Bush Fan club, if you are even remotely left of center, do not join as i will bomb your mother."

Is that a promise?

#37 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2006, 12:50 PM:

Yeah, but what if you mostly comment about the political issues because they're the ones that interest you?

On one end of this are the researchers who are funded by people who want a certain outcome. (Note that everyone complains about this phenomenon, and almost everyone only finds if a problem when the researchers are contradicting their beliefs. Go look at a discussion on, say, global warming, black/white IQ differences, effectiveness of gun control in decreasing violent crime, dangers of drug use or smoking, effectiveness of the death penalty, impact of affirmative action in education, etc., and you'll find charges and countercharges like this.) On the other are low-paid blog commenters--I had wondered whether these existed, but hadn't expected to see proof so soon.

Reading a posting history can help some, but only some. Am I a passionate defender of my ideas, or a passionate defender of my employer's ideas? How could you really tell? Am I doing a poor job of arguing for some idea because I'm being paid to do it but don't really agree, or because I just haven't thought it through very well?

And linking identity to weblog posts is possible, but if you enforce that, some people lose the ability to post their beliefs freely. Do you want to argue for an unpopular position, and know that the next ten guys who interview you for a job will Google for your name and find out that you want to ban abortions and let gay couples adopt kids, say?

And even with a name, how do you find out, short of investigating everyone who makes a good argument you disagree with, whether the poster is entirely on the payroll, mostly honest but taking money for advocating his beliefs (like Armstrong Williams), or entirely on his own?

Choose:
Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.