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September 1, 2006

Another update on astroturf
Posted by Teresa at 11:21 PM *

These are additional updates to my post, Further instances of astroturf in blogs.

Tsu Dho Nimh, writing in the f.i.a.b. comment thread, observed that

Low-paid AMATEURS 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.

TDM provided a link to Blogophilia, whose proprietor both denounces and embraces cheap, small-time commercial astroturfing. She thinks the point of blogging is to make money fast, but doesn’t understand that other bloggers aren’t going to see it that way. Ms. Blogophilia links to one Sharon Hurley Hall, who describes how she works for an outfit called Blogitive, writing weblog comments for chump change.

This Blogitive-style commercial astroturf is cheesy, low-grade stuff, but if enough people started doing it, things could get messy. For now I’ll console myself with the belief that anyone who has enough talent to make a go of writing plausible weblog comments that work in keywords from random press releases is good enough to get a better job doing something else.

MoreWhat.com linked to my previous astroturf post, and gave additional information on the evil doings of the Rendon Group:

In 1991, prior to the first Gulf War, president George H W Bush signed an executive order directing the Central Intelligence Agency to create the conditions for Saddam Hussein�s removal. So the CIA hired a PR firm called the Rendon Group to run an anti-Saddam propaganda campaign

As part of that campaign, the group founded the Iraqi National Congress headed by Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi. Writing in The New Yorker magazine, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh said the Rendon Group paid �close to a hundred million dollars� of CIA money to the INC.

You don’t ask people to pay out a hundred million untraceable dollars without also giving them a very substantial sum to keep for their trouble. These projects have unreal budgets.

Ann Bartow, writing in Feminist Law Professors, frets about the coming of better-camouflaged astroturf. I talked a bit about that in the previous comment thread:

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.

Which is also not a satisfactory general solution the problem.

Here’s my current thinking on what to do: if I recognize a comment as astroturf, I delete it. If I think it sounds like astroturf, I delete it. If I mistakenly delete a real comment, I’ll apologize. I will not err on the side of caution.

This isn’t like spam, which costs its perpetrators an infinitesimal fraction of a cent per instance. Astroturf is written by human beings, and every piece of it has to be paid for. It’s a cheap delivery system if the comments function as PR, but it’s a bloody expensive way to buy invisible holes in the text where paid-for comments used to be.

Back to Ann Bartow. She links to a substantial article from the Guardian called The Fake Persuaders, about a massive disinformation campaign mounted by Monsanto. The site which reprinted the article, the Norfolk Genetic Information Network, also has an index page of their other stories involving astroturf.

The Center for Media and Democracy’s “PR Watch” maintains a more general index of astroturf-related stories.

One of their stories, about a couple of Australian PR bloggers who’ve started an anti-astroturfing campaign within the PR industry, led me to the Australians’ anti-astroturfing wiki page, which is useful. One of the Australians, Trevor Cook, wrote an excellent take-no-prisoners denunciation of the practice. In the course of it, he mentions a post by Paull Young about the disturbing implications of PRIA (Public Relations Institute of Australia) sponsoring an event where they flew in a speaker described as an “anti-activist activist.”

The incident alluded to by Paull Young was described in considerable detail by Katherine Wilson. Her account is the real prize. It’s also terrifying; but it’s better to know these things than merely suspect them.

There’s a man in Canada who thinks I’m a terrorist. He was in Australia this time last year, presenting workshops around the country. They were titled, ‘The best strategies to win against activists’. On his ad he called himself “Controversial Canadian PR consultant Ross Irvine�.

But a text scan of media around the world revealed no controversy surrounding any bloke named Ross Irvine. Not until he arrived in Australia, where the West Australian dubbed him “Rambo Ross� and ABC Melbourne’s Jon Faine called him “the anti-activist-activist”.

Still, I booked into Irvine’s Melbourne workshop. Held in a plush seminar room at a city business school, it cost A$595 for four hours, payable to the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA). In this workshop, I’d learn how to create bogus community groups, false statistics, and links with “far-right-wing nutso activists”. I’d learn to conflate “activist” with “terrorist” and “security threat”.

Controversial or not, Irvine had pulling power. Filing in to see him was a Who’s Who of powerful industry and government flacks.

(Wilson lists some of the other attendees, who are indeed a highly-placed bunch.)

We’d all gathered to hear a man who claims that proportional representation is “a bizarre thing” and that “corporate responsibility is a weakness. Corporate responsibility is letting someone else set the agenda.” We’d learn that sustainability is “an extremist position”, that science’s ‘precautionary principal’ is “extreme”, and that maintaining biodiversity “turns back the evolutionary clock millions of years and eliminates humans from the face of the Earth! That’s extreme!” Animal protection bodies, we’d learn, really want to “sever all contact between humans and animals!”

Dealing in absolutes (health advocates are in fact ‘immoral!’ Conservationists are really ‘anticapitalist!’), when it comes to convictions, Irvine’s a relativist. Challenged earlier that day on ABC Radio, he admitted, “There’s a little bit of hyperbole in some of this. There’s also a bit of fun.”

You’d hope so for $595. By the time we’d registered, and eaten our roasted eggplant pides, it was clear most of us knew each other. There were twenty-nine of us here, and too many Daves. As well as those from the Coalition camp, there was David Hawkins from the PRIA, a bouncy man who introduced Ross Irvine. Irvine’s trip, he told the group, was funded by the IPA (the industry lobby group) and PACIA (the plastics and chemicals body). Irvine’s background, we learned, was as a PR adviser for the biotech (GM) crop industry.

“Public Relations is war,” Irvine announced, in his curly-r accent. He was wearing an elegant suit coat, a white shirt, and colourful tie. Trim, 50s, clean-shaven, with steel-rimmed spectacles and a pleasant, broad face, he flashed a boyish smile. “Don’t be afraid to attack,” he warned. “If you learn nothing else today, this is the message: ‘Fight networks with networks’.” …

To help us combat NGOs, Irvine referred us to the teachings of the Rand Corporation, a US national security think-tank. This was when ‘activist’ became confused with “terrorist”, “criminal”, “guerilla” and “security threat”. Don’t be fooled, he warned, when activists claim they’re about third world hunger or the environment or public health. “If you’re in business and you support biodiversity,” he said, “beware of what you’re really supporting … look beyond their immediate intentions. Their goal is a much larger concept that business, media and politicians must address!”

Some of us questioned Irvine’s generalisations. Why see activists as the �enemy’ (a word used many times today)? Can’t industry engage with moderate activists? Some people agreed, others shook their heads. No, warned Irvine. Once you cave to one demand, they’ll come up with “a whole bunch” of others. Which will eventually threaten capitalism itself. …

At the end of Irvine’s seminar, we split into groups for exercises. One was challenged to “assume the position of moral leadership”, a lesson from Irvine’s work with the biotech (GM crop) industry. When the GM crop industry faced health, environmental, economic, legal and social challenges, it mounted a higher moral ground campaign: GM crops will save third world children from malnutrition and starvation. The stratagem is to promote not with facts, said Irvine, but values. This, he claimed, is what activists do, and what industry must do better. “There are some real immoral people on the anti-biotech side,” he said. “Activists say, ‘let the kids starve’. That, to me, is totally immoral and amoral and everything. That, I’m sorry, that just brings out, I get really …” he inhaled and shook his head.

Another group was charged with finding ways to discredit activists. “Discredit the ideology and defeat the terrorist,” advised Irvine. The group came up with: “Call them suicide bombers … make them all look like terrorists … tree-hugging, dope-smoking, bloody university graduate, anti-progress …” and “Spot the flake. Find someone who would represent the enemy but clearly doesn’t know what the issue is … find a 16-year-old” and “distract the activist with side issues … and make enemies within the enemy camp so they spend all their time fighting and that helps to deepen their disorganisation.”

Our group was charged with ‘empowering others’ to support a cause. The cause was the Port of Melbourne channel-deepening. Once we had determined who we will ‘empower’ (unions, farmers’ groups, retailers), the PRIA’s David Hawkins suggested marginalising the environmental argument. This could be done with what Bush flacks call ‘the fire hose method’—bombarding the media with issues, information and press conferences so they don’t have the resources to interview alternative sources.

To the suggestion that the case for channel-deepening should be the voice of reason, Hawkins replied, “No, no, let’s be the voice of unreason. Let’s call them fruitcakes. Let’s call them nut—nutters. You know, let’s say they’re …”

“Environmental radicals,” suggested Darebin’s Shannon Walker.

“Exactly. You know … say they represent 0.1 per cent but they dominate, you know, let’s absolutely go for them.”

Our group discussed astroturfing. Named after a synthetic lawn, astroturfing is the creation of bogus community groups or independent authorities who endorse industry practice, recruit lesser-informed citizens, confuse the debate and make the real community groups appear extreme. The Guardian uncovered one case in which one of Monsanto’s public relations companies, Bivings Woodell, fabricated science ‘experts’ and online ‘scientific communities’ who successfully discredited genuine peer-reviewed science reports about the dangers of GM crops. Protest movements were also invented, including one at Johannesburg’s World Summit on Sustainable Development, widely reported as a demonstration by ‘third world’ farmers chanting “I don’t need white NGOs to speak for me”.

The University of Wollongong’s Professor Sharon Beder says ‘astroturf’ of this kind is rapidly propagating in Australia. “You need to know any particular issue very well to be able to distinguish the astroturf from the genuine grassroots groups,” she says. “For example, in mental health there are several front groups funded by pharmaceutical companies but they have a great deal of public credibility. Unless you know the issue well, you wouldn’t be able to pick them.”

Katherine Wilson knows what the real point is:

[G]overnment employees—be they federal or local—have no place in a forum that promotes ways to stop citizens participating in the democratic process, says economist Clive Hamilton. Hamilton heads the Australia Institute, a public policy research body funded by grants from philanthropic trusts and staffed by economists. (The Institute claims to be neither left nor right wing.) Given an audio recording of the workshop, Hamilton responded, “Why a government agency would attend a seminar like this is beyond comprehension. These agencies are owned by the public, yet by attending seminars to learn how to beat citizens’ groups by means fair or foul they are turning on their owners. Only an organisation that has wholly alienated itself from the public would even consider attending an event like this.”

Which is quite true.

The article ends, “A version of this article was first commissioned by an Australian broadsheet newspaper and then killed. Those wishing to obtain an electronic recording of the Ross Irvine workshop held in April 2005 can email requests to wilson.kath@optusnet.com.au.”

By all means, read the whole thing. One so seldom gets to hear the instructions to the troops being broadcast in clear.

Comments on Another update on astroturf:
#1 ::: Mac ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 01:41 AM:

Ugh. That's appalling.

But thanks, nonetheless.

#2 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 01:55 AM:

In the world of false discourse there's also the splog (see The Perfect Uselessness of Warren Whitlock).

We've had a couple of visits from those low-level commercial astroturfer/handmade-spammers.

Sometimes they've been given the benefit of the doubt until they've made their second posts.

#3 ::: Chris Clarke ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 02:04 AM:

For those uninclined to dig, the Bivings astroturf campaign was largely responsible, it seems, for Nature recanting its publication a few years back of work by Ignacio Chapela et al documenting transgenes having been found in Mexican maize land races in Oaxaca. (Growing GM maize is banned in Mexico, which is the global center of diversity for the species.)

The study, for those of you who didn't read below the fold back then, was disavowed over the objections of the study's peer-reviewers, and no party claimed the basic findings of the study were in error. Political pressure, pure and simple.

#4 ::: Chris Clarke ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 02:06 AM:

My careless omission: The Bivings stuff is what Ann Bartow's link leads to.

#5 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 02:09 AM:

Yes. The Monsanto campaign.

#6 ::: Michael Phillips ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 02:53 AM:

I'm afraid that in the related field of viral advertising, your fears have already been made real. There are viral campaigns where the posters are supposed to establish themselves in the community before moving on to the marketing. I'm getting this from the video game community and since I'm not active on the major video game boards, I'm getting it second hand (from Penny Arcade) But it matches well with the amount of effort spend on other viral marketing systems (I love Bees springs to mind as a massive viral project to advertise a video game. I happen to like the I love Bees alternate reality approach much better than the astroturf approach.)

#7 ::: Lloyd Burchill ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 03:01 AM:

Toxic Sludge is Good For You alerted me to the hideousness of the PR industry. It brims with remarkable accounts of astroturfing and infiltration. Shortly before publication, its authors were contacted -- mindbendingly -- by the reps of a sewage-treatment company who sought assurance that the book would not shed unfavorable light on their plans to produce "humanure."

#8 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 03:11 AM:

I don't think the cheap guys are really much of a problem--they're mostly going to be hacks; a lot of them will even turn out to be semi-literate. And people generally see through the likes of Ross Irvine, given enough time; two years after Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings, the majority believed Anita Hill.

But just about any mass-market publication, save perhaps the various union publications (including Consumer Reports) can be pressured into recanting if enough money is spent; the wealthiest publication, even Nature, is no match for the scale of pressure that the wealth of a major industry, political party, or religious group can bring to bear. (I believe I was writing things like this six years ago, sigh. I wish the world would stop chasing me with a tinfoil hat.)

And here I think I will stop. Maybe tomorrow will bring more and happier thoughts.

#9 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 04:03 AM:

Do astroturfers ever get confronted with, "What do you not comprehend about bearing false witness?"

The Soviet system relocated and rooted itself over here it seems (all that maskirova, the retouching experts to change the people officiating at the festivities on May Day in Red Square, the non-truths in Pravada...)

"Godless commies"... I expect that those engaging most egregiously in astroturfing and such mostly consider themselves Good Christians.

#10 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 04:25 AM:

As an ex-farmer, with some scientific education, I have to advise caution on the GM crops issues. Neither side is all that honest. Monsanto just has more money to pitch their spin.

I know our hosts are in a business that depends on selling stuff, but they're still handling a real product. Their Spin, you can go and read and make your own judgement on.

In the GM crops screaming match, both sides pick and choose. Their spin is a scattering of paragraphs and sentences which, even taken together, isn't a complete book.

For instance, the anti-GM movement will tell you that "Roundup-Ready" crops, tolerant to glyphosate, can't be killed by herbicides. There is a technical term we farmers use for such opinions.

"Bullshit!"

Using crop rotations and selective herbicides, which affect completely different biochemistry to the glyphosate-tolerance gene's influence, you can nail those awkward unwanted plants.

And nobody mentions the other problem: the extreme monoculture of large areas planted with a single variety of a crop. Plant diseases really like having tens of thousands of acres of the same crop. If they mutate to overcome one resistance gene they will spread like wildfire. And so plant breeders, and farmers, use different varieties of the crop. They break up that genetic monolith. For some crops, such as wheat, there are also different qualities of grain, for different purposes.

What Monsanto are selling, and what nobody mentions, is a single-variety monoculture. Yes, you'll hear things said about "Genetic Diversity", but the claims are pitched at the level of plant breeding--where will new genes come from--rather than the excessive vulnerability of the commercial cropping.

That experience has led me to the conclusion that both sides are infested with the PR plague. The PR industry is, in effect, the monoculture succumbing to the disease, whether you call it viral marketing or astroturf.

What, I think, makes the difference is that astroturf is a deliberate and sustained lie. It isn't the fake website for the corporation depicted in a movie, which ultimately has to reveal the movie connection. Astroturf is the lie.

#11 ::: Francis ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 05:55 AM:

And nobody mentions the other problem: the extreme monoculture of large areas planted with a single variety of a crop. ... What Monsanto are selling, and what nobody mentions, is a single-variety monoculture.

Your lot may not - but I've heard Friends of the Earth mention it with my own ears. And it's one of my chief objections to Monsanto.

That experience has led me to the conclusion that both sides are infested with the PR plague.

Indeed. But I tracked back the Organic lobby a while ago (not the only group opposed to Monsanto - but one of the major ones). The reason I was doing so was that I'd just discovered that the Organic movememt doesn't ban all pesticides for organic - just artificial ones (because "natural" materials such as Curare, or Hemlock aren't dangerous) and some of the allowed pesticides for organic farmers are tens of thosands of times more dangerous to the environment than Roundup. One of the chief differences is that Roundup is sold by Monsanto - and the pesticides allowed in organic farming are sold by the financial backers of the Organic movement. Those with the money (and hence those calling the shots) are Monsanto's rivals - and they want the same sort of monopoly Monsanto wants - but for their products.

And it's this type of astroturf (a lot of the Organic lobby (most of the members are well meaning...)), the Stop Esso (the UK name for Exxon Mobil) had significant backing from British Petroleum - I could go on - but I'd say that this type of astroturf is even more dangerous than the webloggers. Here's to transparency.

#12 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 07:29 AM:

It's true that in trade publishing we're constantly marketing our books; but if we sell books dishonestly, with hype and false promises, the readers massively resent it. They won't buy another book like that, and they won't buy another book that even resembles it.

I liked Clive Hamilton's formulation of "an organization that has wholly alienated itself from the public" as the prerequisite for really toxic astroturf. It's the same thing I've been saying about Bush & Co.: if they'll lie to you that shamelessly and systematically, they don't respect you, and they don't perceive you as being part of their polity.

#13 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 07:49 AM:

I've had a problem on my livejournal with anonymous commentators posting something facile and seemingly on topic but with a url.

I've deleted some and left some, depending on how on topic they seem, but I don't feel comfortable about them.

I'm not sure what to do about it. It's probably people doing it for $5, do you think?

#14 ::: JohnD ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 09:09 AM:

Re #8: I fear the comparison between the Thomas hearings and Irvine's seminars is apt in more than just the way Randolph mentioned above; people may see through Irvine eventually, but decades later we'll still be stuck with the fallout from his techniques, just like we're still stuck with Thomas.

The killing aspect of astroturf is that it poisons the well of discourse. Before this, you could at least have a degree of confidence that the stupid was authentic stupid. I'm not sure if I can deal with sorting out the fake stupid.

#15 ::: Vassilissa ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 09:17 AM:

For now I'll console myself with the belief that anyone who has enough talent to make a go of writing plausible weblog comments that work in keywords from random press releases is good enough to get a better job doing something else.

Except for unemployment. And the problem of people with talent but not experience, or who have the wrong sort of experience (or record), or who have a problem with reliability, for example, and may not even think *themselves* fit for anything but posting comments on blogs.

I can see a lot of people tempted. For a poor person (who still had internet access,) intelligent but with a lot of barriers to conventional employment... And it's not even illegal, exactly. You'd have to be very committed to real discourse *not* to succumb, I think.

Especially if you didn't already have firm moral or ethical beliefs about the issues, and were already fairly alienated and cynical, and thus not so prepared to recognise real community, real people, when you saw them.

I think we're in trouble. And I think the marks they're paying the five dollarses to might be in trouble too. Because I've just also described the ideal recruit for a cult.

#16 ::: Ann Bartow ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 09:25 AM:

Thanks for this post, and for your attention to this issue. Addressing "astroturfers" raises a lot of complcated questions about privacy and free speech. If you learned that (e.g.) a self-identified feminist blogger who described herself as 50 years old, widowed with five children, undergoing treatment for cancer survivor, was actually a healthy seventeen year old boy, what would you do? Ban comments fom this person, surely, but would you warn other bloggers? How would you go about this? Although in the U.S. there isn't much in the way of law to support this claim, many bloggers believe they have a legal right to be and remain anonymous, and to "role play" by misrepresenting things about themselves in terms of their online personas.

Many companies and industry groups will enthusiastically hire failed or burned out academics from social science fields, because having been teachers, and knowing their fields, they can be very effective communicators for certain viewpoints. Anthropologists are particularly sought after by industry, or so I am told.

Online "persuasion" has been used to manipulate srock prices, to solicit donations for people who are not suffering from the poverty or illness they clalim to be, and of course to "market" good and services.

"Soft persuasion" may be a slightly different phenomenon. I'm sure that some of the people who receive "consulting fees" to help "get a message out there" can convince themselves that they are actually acting for the better good by doing so. When they are "persuading" a group of people who generally dedicated to inclusivity and tolerance of opposing viewpoints, they may obtain a lot of traction.

#17 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 09:45 AM:

I've had a problem on my livejournal with anonymous commentators posting something facile and seemingly on topic but with a url.

I've deleted some and left some, depending on how on topic they seem, but I don't feel comfortable about them.

I'm not sure what to do about it. It's probably people doing it for $5, do you think?

Most of the time, I just delete the URL, and leave the comment. Particularly if it's one of those "This is a great point! Thanks for posting!" sort of inane comments, just because it amuses me to leave them up.

If I'm rushed, though, I'll delete the whole thing. If I get a whole slew, I'll junk the lot. I've had realtively little trouble with spam, though, knock on wood-like pressed board product.

#18 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 10:10 AM:

It's not, at core, a question about speech; it's about competing systems of organization.

Invent writing, get cities.

Invent printing presses, get corporations. (Yes, yes, I'm leaving out about eleven steps, but the causal connection is there.)

Invent telegraph and railroads, get process industry and the modern nation-state and continuous front warfare.

None of this is particular controversial.

Invent the internet, get, well, what we're getting; the greatly expanded scope of discourse and the fight to see if the old systems of organization can encompass this much expansion in the scope of discourse. (Probably not.)

What might be controversial is the recognition that there are multiple ways to do each of those things, making different tradeoffs, and that no matter how good a system of organization is from a personal, participating perspective, it must also be able to defeat the competing systems of organization.

You know that bit in Tolkien's "Music of the Ainur" creation myth, where Morgoth's side of the choir eventually got loud, repetitive, and monotonous?

That's what we're seeing. It's of no value at all to the participants, if you add up all the indirect results, but it's very, very simple. It doesn't have to communicate with itself much, or plan, or do much of anything but be loud, and let people feel that they're in the right.

More complex systems can win; the cost/benefit of being more complicated is potentially enormous, and there's things that organization can do that dis-organization simply cannot.

The tricky thing here is not "what form of organization supports my concern for my individual well being, and acts to promote the greater good?"; that's -- given an actual will to solve it -- a straightforward problem. The tricky thing is the part of the political myth that says the emergent properties of the actions of disconnected individuals is sufficient.

It's not. Not even close.

#19 ::: punkrockhockeymom ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 10:12 AM:

Teresa, thanks. We can always count on you to get all the goods in one convenient spot.

Regarding the Monsanto campaign, and Dave Bell's comment at #10--

Monsanto terrifies me. And that's not to say that the Monsanto-esque controversies don't have two sides. That Monsanto would have a fakey and bs grass roots PR campaign, however, does not surprise me in the slightest.

And, on a more "lighthearted" note (in the laugh to keep from screaming sort of way), it reminds me of Paolo Bacigalupi's short story in the Oct./Nov. 2005 F&SF, "The Calorie Man." What does an antitrust lawyer with a strong tendency to buy into conspiracy theories think when she reads a short story about well-armed genetic seed engineers that take over the world by controlling access to food?

Monsanto, of course.

Teresa and Ann, now I'm even more paranoid about them.

#20 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 10:27 AM:

I've had a problem on my livejournal with anonymous commentators posting something facile and seemingly on topic but with a url.

Set up your weblog to not render the A tag. Most of the link-posting sorts of spammers aren't interested in telling you about the site, they're trying to tell the search engines about the site.

Getting rid of the hotlink means that the various spiders never see them. It may not stop them, but it will at least mean they don't win.

A better option, if you have the time, is to kick any post with the "http://" string into the approval queue -- and if it bears false witness, plonk with IP ban for some amount of hours. Ideal is a three strike system, but then you start asking the question that drove me off RASFF and the rest of USENET -- how much time and effort am I willing to spend to keep this readable? Do I want to come home every day to vet an approval queue? What does this do to conversation, when valuable posts are held up to be mucked out of the spam posts?

There's a huge reason that Making Light's comment section works, and many don't. It is TNH, spending a great deal of time cleaning up the muck. The biggest sites can afford to pay for moderation, the smallest may be able to moderate with little effort, but you hit a point where you're spending hours a week, with no pay, trying to keep your board working.

If the muck exceeds T's willingness, or ability, to clean up, then you either find another answer or you fold.

Multiple moderators often work, provided you have the right moderators. The wrong ones destroy conversation just as fast as the spammers, if not more so, and if you haven't see the glory of a full bore flamewar between the moderators, you haven't /w/a/t/c/h/e/d/ /W/i/k/i/p/e/d/i/a missed anything you really want to see.

Massed moderators seem to work, but not well -- see both the Wikipedia and Slashdot, which not only has moderators, but metamoderators, and if there was a third level, I wouldn't be surprised.

Finally, the rule for a blog owner is this -- you don't have to be fair by anyone's definition but your own. I suggest the baseball umpire's rule -- if you argue ball-strike calls, you're ejected. If you misuse this power, your readers go away, if you use it properly, the only readers you lose are the "Free Speech!" advocates that you really didn't want in the first place.

Personally, my opinion is anyone who tells me I'm censoring them is told yes, I am, suck it. If they don't like that, well, the word used on Metafilter is "Bring out the Banhammer."

(Metafilter works very much on There is One Ghod rule of moderation, except now there are Two Ghods, but that's because the One Ghod had a baby and needed a little help. That's why I think polytheism is more rational -- workload issues.)

#21 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 11:28 AM:

"...Slashdot, which not only has moderators, but metamoderators, and if there was a third level, I wouldn't be surprised."

It does: moderation bans. You can get one for doing something the editors don't like: I moderated one of them down after he posted an offtopic comment, and haven't had moderation points for 3 years now, despite having consistently high "karma". Apparently you can also be banned from metamoderation, but this hasn't happened to me.

#22 ::: meredith ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 12:10 PM:

Jo, the solution is to ban Anonymous commenting in your lj. This involves ticking a checkbox in the "edit profile" section.

#23 ::: Scraps ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 01:18 PM:

Many livejournalers -- meaning "I" -- allow anonymous comments (after screening) because many folks who read our journals won't register for livejournal.

#24 ::: Scraps ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 01:27 PM:

Five dollars per post for this kind of thing sounds like good money to me. I think I could make fifty dollars an hour writing posts like that.

#25 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 04:25 PM:

Jo (#13): I think in many cases your mistake is to assume "people". (Well, it depends how clearly on-topic for that specific page it is.) The spam wars are continuing to escalate and the same networks of bots (remote-controlled virus-infested PCs) that send most of the email spam are being repurposed for blog spamming. I'm sure a lot of work is now going into scripting vaguely plausible response-sounding things that can be pumped by the tens of thousands into high-rated blog comment pages.

Email is getting more and more tenuous as a medium, and god knows how blogs and wikis are going to survive as this kicks into higher gear.

Scraps (#23), you're absolutely right. I just don't register for Livejournal or Typekey or any of the other "shared identity" things. There's something about it I just balk at, even while I sympathise with the effort of maintaining a blog.

#26 ::: Bacchus ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 05:06 PM:

"I'll console myself with the belief that anyone who has enough talent to make a go of writing plausible weblog comments that work in keywords from random press releases is good enough to get a better job doing something else."

Or better yet: if they are that good, they are good enough to blog plausibly about topics of commercial interest, while inserting keywords sufficient to attract search engine traffic. Then monitize the readers and traffic using advertising and affiliate links. I do this full-time in the adult industry, and my compensation works out to one heck of a lot more than $5.00 a post.

I've never understood any of the poorly paid "get paid per blog post" slash "get paid for commenting" schemes. Anybody good enough to do it competently is good enough to do it on their own account, for much better money.

My adult blogs attract a great deal of the human-written spam mentioned above -- short, inane, but on-topic comments designed to serve as a vehicle for transmission of the commenter's link. Like Jo Walton, I strip links when I'm feeling tolerant and nuke the things when I'm in a hurry. Like Teresa, I rely heavily on "ear" to identify them; it works pretty good because most efforts are very lame.

#27 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 06:06 PM:

if they'll lie to you that shamelessly and systematically, they don't respect you

Shades of St. George. Sorry, just thinking of the bit in 1984 that talks about how the Party members, including Winston Smith, truly despise the proles despite all the happy-face lies the Party tells the proles about how it's really all about them.

I'm a bit surprised the asbestos industry hasn't cottoned onto astroturfing more. Or maybe they have and I just don't read the right blogs to notice.

#28 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 07:07 PM:

Teresa wrote,
It's true that in trade publishing we're constantly marketing our books; but if we sell books dishonestly, with hype and false promises, the readers massively resent it. They won't buy another book like that, and they won't buy another book that even resembles it.

Books are human-readable and things that someone can determine for their own criteria whether the books and the claims match or not. Other areas people don't have the firsthand metrics and accessibility.

That is, I have a set of tastes in literature, and see the cover, read the promo stuff on the cover of the book, see the name or pseudonym of the author, the name of the publisher and decide if it looks sufficiently attractive to me to consider investigating further. If it is, I open the book to a random page and read a paragraph or two. If the writing style/content repels me on that page and perhaps one or two more, back on the shelf it goes, as a discard for further attention. If it passes, then I consider reading it, and may go to the start of the book and start reading....

However, there are lots of things I don't get to test/examine firsthand, and don't have a set of metrics "this is good/bad/indifferent" for.

At present there is a dispute in town about Home Depot wanting to go in where a partly-empty mall is, in the center of town. The roads to there are congested and not wide enough for semis to negotiate without things like running over kids on bicycles sometimes (yes, that actually alas happened) who couldn't be seen the way the roads geometry is happening. The property owner wants to tear down most of the mall and put up a building for Home Depot. The construction unions want it. The people who live nearby are opposed to it, and point out things like all the Home Depots in the region are immediately adjacent to highway exits and that they aren't in town centers on highly congested narrow roads.

The construction union wants the jobs, the property own wants the revenue, the neighbors don;'t want the semis on the road and the traffic of pickup trucks and SUVs carrying loads of construction materials added to the already high level of traffic through the center of town and the narrow local streets to get to the limited access highway. But much of the discussion is based on subjective criteria and projections and forecasts, the objective data and criteria and mostly lacking, for how much traffic would be added of what type, how many trips per day of what sized of vehicles when, etc.

Astroturfing can involve issues that people don't have personal direct hands-on tangible experience and metrics for... most people don't have agricultural crops growing next to them, and aren't personally affected directly by GM genes in ag products. Monsanto genes in corn don;t get blown around Manhattan from corn pollen, for example, and even people who are near corn pollen, aren't going to be normally able to tell by inspection if it's got a Monsanto GM gene or not. That book on the rack, though, the person can pick up and immediately start to see for themselves if the contents reflect the blurb (it may take a few seconds, or it may take hours if the person has to read through the book to decide), but the person doesn't have to depend on someone else's opinion to decide if the book matches the hype.

#29 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 07:08 PM:

Hmm, Teresa invented disemvowelling. Perhaps astroturfers should receive inconsonancing, for their pissing around in the blogosphere?

#30 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 07:26 PM:

I believe I saw one of those astroturf blog entries earlier today at FireDogLake. It began with greetings and a warning about being OT, then it did its thing about a rally concerning some bill somewhere, and ended. Didn't read like a regular (or have the name of one), and was wildly OT for that thread. Now I understand....

#31 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 09:11 PM:

I'm one of many moderators on a set of game-related forums. We get our fair share of spam, most of it blatantly obvious and quickly nuked. More recently, there was a little more confusion about a user who signed up, posted to a few different threads, and then posted a new thread talking about this one great new game they'd found, with a link. Semi-literate, but we (alas) have a few users like that, so it wasn't a sure sign of spam; still, it felt a little off.

So I checked what his actual previous posts had been. All of them were in existing threads discussing some game issue and simply said "great idea" or "thanks for the help". The link to the new game? Included a "earn points towards real cash by recruiting other people!" schpiel.

It's not quite astroturfing, but it's not quite spam either. (Either way, it was certainly nuked.) I'm not entirely sure where one draws the line between the blatantly commercial spam and the slightly more subtle attempts to push people towards something that'll eventually put money in the pockets of whoever's sponsoring the pushing.

#32 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 11:29 PM:

Fortunately, I have a really boring blog that almost nobody reads. I do have one post that gets strange comments: the first few were from someone who should have posted on rasfw in response to my post but chose a book review on my LJ instead. The other was from someone who apparently thought the LJ icon I use is current when it's from my 8th birthday.

#33 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2006, 08:27 AM:

I don't want to ban anonymous comments, because there are real people who want to say things who don't have livejournals.

Livejournal doesn't let me edit comments, just keep or delete them.

I don't want to ban urls in comments, because by far the most usual use of urls in comments is people giving me urls to useful things I want.

The sort of thing I mean either does what Chad says and says "great post, great blog. url" in which case I always delete it, or comments inanely. I had a post the other day about what writers owe readers, and it followed up with something like "writers owe readers sensitivity on some issues. url" That isn't a robot, but it could well be a kid earning $5, or $1, per post.

I'll keep deleting them.

#34 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2006, 08:39 AM:

It's the same thing I've been saying about Bush & Co.: if they'll lie to you that shamelessly and systematically, they don't respect you

I tend to see Bush & Co. as mostly being deluded rather than outright liars. That is, they actually believe most of the garbage they've been spouting.

Which tends to be more dangerous than simple lying when we're talking about people with that much power in their hands.

(There is a potential bright side. The tendency to be disconnected from reality seems to have gone far enough that it's even interfering with the political side of the operation.)

#35 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2006, 10:02 AM:

After a bit of reflection, I'd say that the appropriate model for astroturf is not anything to do with any sort of discourse as such, but jamming.

It's an attempt to drown signal with volume, and the primary purpose is more preventing the blog signal than to get their own signal out -- there are other channels for that.

That the entire process isn't automated also suggests that the assignment of source authentication tokens cannot be automated, either. (The way mailing lists work these days; you ask to subscribe, and it sends you email with a crypto string asking you to reply if you meant it is an example of one-time source token authentication.)

Blogs could support some form of per-post source authentication, though, provided the blog owner was willing to be responsible for distributing the authentication tokens.

#36 ::: Scraps ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2006, 10:20 AM:

I think Bush & Co are both deluded and liars. Apart from the outright crooks and thugs who are only in it for themselves -- the full-time shameless liars -- I don't doubt that there are people in the Bush team who sincerely believe in the big picture they're trying to achieve. But even these deluded idealogues lie constantly about the details, and about the methods used to achieve their goals, in ways they cannot be unaware of.

#37 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2006, 10:55 AM:

Bacchus@26: "doing it on one's own account" is not trivial; writing talent isn't necessarily tied to the mental/emotional set needed to try freelancing, especially if someone is offering you money for your talent right now instead of expecting you to start your own business. This also ties in to the sidebar (and comments in multiple threads) about what it takes to get an interesting/well-paying/skill-using job these days; $5/comment can sound pretty good against most of the alternatives.

Michael@34: Bush may be deluded; my guess is that the rest are Orwellian -- i.e. deliberately lying, and to masses they hold in contempt.
Wiscon a few years ago had a panel on how the present is becoming like SF. My prep for this was a bit more general than the proposer intended, and I've kept noticing examples since then, e.g religious tyranny as a solution to chaos (pick your location and compare with "John Christopher" 's Pendulum). (Various authors have included pervasive ads as part of their stories' backgrounds, but I don't recall anyone describing this subtle and extensive a subversion of discourse.) I've been queasily noticing the appearance recently of mainstream-media suggestions that the neocons have deliberately created the situation of Merril&Kornbluth's Gunner Cade (shades of Kornbluth comments on OT#70), in which glory and publicity were invested in the Emperor while the Power Master was the de facto (and vicious) ruler. (I'm sure other stories use the idea, but it was a major discovery in this book.)

#38 ::: "Charles Dodgson" ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2006, 11:10 AM:
After a bit of reflection, I'd say that the appropriate model for astroturf is not anything to do with any sort of discourse as such, but jamming.

In part --- and this applies as well to forms of astroturf going well beyond the bogus blog comments that we're focusing on here. Example: "intelligent design" advocacy. If they can convince people that evolution is wrong, they're thrilled, but they're happy enough to convince people (wrongly) that there is a legitimate debate, and doubly so if they can convince people that there is a highly technical debate and so give them an excuse to tune it out. One could say the same about the oil companies (happy to convince people, wrongly, that there is a debate about global warming), and so forth.

#39 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2006, 12:34 PM:

CHip at #37: Add to that list of books Brunner's Shockwave Rider, wherein the government folk look a lot like the criminals. (Not to mention the off-stage disaster and the online chitchat.)

#40 ::: Bacchus ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2006, 01:33 PM:

CHip, you raise a good point, but I'd argue that the difference between "writing blog posts or comments for someone else" and "writing blog posts for yourself" is close to trivial, because of the extremely low barriers between switching from one to the other. If you can do the first well enough to be commercially valuable, you can do the second at, essentially, no extra cost to yourself, with no investment, no extra hardware, no minimum time commitment, no "job", no nothing. Just do it. And it pays better.

Of course, you have to have the knowledge that it can be done, and the imagination to figure out an angle, and the attitude that you can work for yourself and don't need one of those well-paying jobs in order to be comfortable and happy. I suppose lots of folks could be missing one or more of those details, yet still be able to churn out plausible five-buck astroturf.

But it pains me, because they're wasting time and talent on being somebody else's underpaid stooge.

#41 ::: JohnD ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2006, 02:07 PM:

Re P J Evans #39: The more history I read, the less I can distinguish between most governments and organized crime. I've come to believe that any sufficiently large crime family is forced to take on governmental functions as it grows. There are many parallels between the rises and falls of the major feudal ruling families in Europe and Japan and the histories of criminal organizations in the US.

#42 ::: Daniel Boone ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2006, 03:11 PM:

JohnD, that's why organized crime never really prospers in the long run. "For if it prosper..." we come to call it "government".

#43 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2006, 03:48 PM:

Oh, piffle.

You might want to reflect on the tendency of polities to get the government they can imagine.

You might also wish to find and read Jane Jacobs' System of Survivial; her explanation of the similarity between organized crime and government is that organized crime is what you get when you apply the systems of organization appropriate to government to the problem of making money. There's a lot to be said for that observation.

Actual government, in the peace, order, and good government sense, is indifferent to profit.

#44 ::: Scraps ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2006, 03:53 PM:

Bacchus, I know a couple people who are making a chunk of change out of writing what are essentially quick & dirty blog posts for Associate Content. One of them is an experienced freelance writer; she's doing the Associated Content thing because it's less work and hassle for her -- and she already has connections. The other has no set of credits or connections, and is getting paid for stuff she'd have great difficulty placing with her nonexistent record. I'm seriously considering trying it myself.

I think you underestimate the time benefit in the almost complete lack of hassle in doing this kind of writing, that you seriously underestimate the barriers to establishing oneself in the more lucrative freelance market, and that you have failed to take into account that a lot of this writing is of a sort that no one else is paying for at all -- or for which there are a finite amount of slots that are largely filled at any given time.

#45 ::: Bacchus ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2006, 04:56 PM:

Scraps, you may well be right about the hassle factor -- working for yourself is never hassle-free.

But I'm intimately familiar with the barriers to establishing oneself as a freelance blogger. Because I've done it. The trick is to get over the idea that you're selling chunks of "writing...of a sort that no one else is paying for" and trying to fit pieces of it into other people's "finite amount of slots". This is the internet, where you can make your own slots, an infinite number of 'em. There really aren't any barriers, except perhaps time -- it does take some time to attract an audience.

To be sure, you have to pick a topic that has widespread interest and advertising with a lot of money floating around. I picked sex. Gambling would surely work. Public policy? I don't think I could make a living at it, but there are some bloggers who do.

#46 ::: Dave Langford ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2006, 06:01 PM:

There's a huge reason that Making Light's comment section works, and many don't. It is TNH, spending a great deal of time cleaning up the muck.

I love her -- no, let's be careful -- am fondle of her -- NO HARLAN NO -- greatly appreciate her work in this area. For reasons of personal laziness, Ansible doesn't have an immediate comment option (although interesting emails have a strong chance of appearing in the next issue).

Oh, let's change the subject. Just had an announcement of a series of London sf writing courses run by an author I'd never heard of. But hey, he must be important, because his forthcoming first sf novel (in verse) already has its own entry in Wikipedia!

#47 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2006, 06:55 PM:

=35: Graydon, I like the analogy with jamming, and it's extendible into more detailed electronic warfare concepts,

For example, radar systems can have a "range gate"; when they're "locked on" to a target they'll only listen for echoes at about the right time. "Range-gate jamming" has the target transmit a stronger signal, and gradually shifts the timing. The range gate follows that strong signal, and when it switches off, the target is in the wrong place to be detected.

There's a definite analogy with trolling there, and with astroturf tactics that aim to alter the point of a debate on an issue.

A lot of electronic warfare depends on dumb automation: it wouldn't necessarily fool a skilled human operator.

#48 ::: zuzu ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2006, 12:01 AM:

I've had a problem on my livejournal with anonymous commentators posting something facile and seemingly on topic but with a url.

I've deleted some and left some, depending on how on topic they seem, but I don't feel comfortable about them.

I'm not sure what to do about it. It's probably people doing it for $5, do you think?

Check the ISP. I was getting a number of those, and it turned out they were all coming from Fox News. I did a search on the ISP, and there were different names all coming from within News Corp., all doing the more-or-less-on-topic "Hey, have you seen this?" post with a link to a Fox story. I wound up banning the ISP.

#49 ::: Mark DF ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2006, 11:51 AM:

Reading this made me think of a comment Teresa made at Readercon about humans being "hard-wired for stories" and to a certain extent, I think that's true. As social animals, we like to tell each things, and probably start from a position that what we are hearing is "true." Marketers and PR folks exploit that. It's only when the "truth" crosses that the line to "hey, waitaminute" that the lie is exposed. It happens with products and wars. Unfortunately, not enough people get to that "waitaminute" moment, so it continues and grows. Same reasoning behind spam.

Having said that, that doesn't make it any less annoying.

#50 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2006, 01:04 PM:

Dave Bell --

It's amazing how well the whole thing fits, and how poorly most countermeasure technologies apply to natural language signals.

Mark DF --

There's no inherent mental distinction between "true" and "factual". One of the things most commonly done is to conflate true -- my world picture includes this as accurate information -- and factual -- this can be demonstrated to be how the tangible world is or operates without reference to the contents of anyone's head -- which is almost impossible to get around on your own. (To the extent that this is possible to get around at all, it's the result of generations of effort.)

That relentless conflation is also jamming.

#51 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2006, 01:39 PM:

I think a major goal of a lot of propoganda is not so much convincing the unbelievers as giving the tentative believers internal arguments to use to quiet their doubts. And that's mostly based, I think, on giving them an excuse not to carefully consider some issue. That can be done by offering some facile, apparently rational explanation, but I think it's more common for it to be done by discouraging thought. Some obvious techniques for this are:

a. Wrapping the topic in technical jargon so that most people will conclude that this is a tangle of warring experts that a novice can't hope to penetrate. (And this is often true, unfortunately.) This makes the cost of really thinking about it very high.

b. Appealing to the doubter's identity: People like me don't question things like this. (Good Americans don't question whether our foreign policy is a force for good in the world, educated people like me accept gays and lesbians). Or to an identity the doubter doesn't want (radical feminists are all man-hating lesbians, racists are uneducated trailer-trash).

c. Appealing to some moral argument that some thoughts or questions make the thinker a bad person. (Worrying about welfare mothers having too many kids is blaming the victim, worrying about poor people getting screwed in capitalism makes you a Communist)

The thing that stands out, now that I think about it, is that the thought processes are completely different than the ones you have when trying to critically understand something. A meteorologist dissenting from global warming is doing something fundamentally different than looking for excuses to dismiss global warming from their mind without thinking.

The problem is, I think many sincere people find these internal arguments satisfying and repeat them, not as intentional propoganda, but as memes that successfully spread because they ease psychic discomfort. If I think about US soldiers and CIA agents torturing suspected terrorists, I'll stop feeling proud of being an American. Oh, look, here's a nice argument about how these atrocity stories are being spread by the America-hating liberal media. *Whew*! I feel much better, now.

#52 ::: Alexey Merz ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2006, 02:35 PM:
For those uninclined to dig, the Bivings astroturf campaign was largely responsible, it seems, for Nature recanting its publication a few years back of work by Ignacio Chapela et al documenting transgenes having been found in Mexican maize land races in Oaxaca. (Growing GM maize is banned in Mexico, which is the global center of diversity for the species.)

The study, for those of you who didn't read below the fold back then, was disavowed over the objections of the study's peer-reviewers, and no party claimed the basic findings of the study were in error. Political pressure, pure and simple.

I beg to differ, Chris. It was not so simple as that. There were very real and serious problems with the Chapela paper, and that paper should never have passed peer review. Whether the conclusions were correct or incorrect, the evidence presented in the paper was insufficient to support those conclusions. I read that paper the week it came out, and as I had been using the same techniques in my own research (inverse PCR), I was amazed that the paper had made it into Nature. There was without doubt a huge political component to the brouhaha that ensued, but Chapela's critics were attacking a breathtakingly weak piece of research. And why not? If your goal is to make a scientist look bad in front of his peers, that's exactly what you'd want to do.

I hope that you are not confusing good research with research that supports your views. If that's your game... it's just PR.

#53 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2006, 03:19 PM:

I've had some experience with trying viral campaigning from the marketing perspective. At work we made a series of videos, but as opposed to "changing" or influencing opinion, we were merely instructed to link them on boards where people might already have an interest in that sort of thing. And we didn't have to--nobody was gonna follow up on us and see if we did or didn't. It was more that management realised we, being little web nerds one and all, might participate in communities that would find our videos interesting. If we wanted to pimp our work stuff on those boards, they were going to give us permission and actually encourage us. If not, well, that was okay too.

I've had no experience with astro-turfing on my blog or journal, but then neither is very important right now. Occasionally, and this is not surprising, since many of my friends and family are of ideologically different bents, I have people wander on who want to point out how wrong I am about something....but they tend to be their on their own recognisance. Ambassadors without portfolio, so to speak.

#54 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2006, 10:00 PM:

PJ@39: I know Shockwave Rider but deliberately omitted it because it doesn't fit the model. There's no indication in Brunner's plot that anybody looks up to the government beyond considering some of its more obscene actions unlikely, where in Gunner Cade there is a public and beloved titular ruler and a largely-unseen de-facto ruler. What I've been seeing in the media are suggestions not just that this is deliberate but that some people are beginning to realize it's deliberate.

#55 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2006, 11:07 PM:

#35: Astroturf is jamming, an attempt to drown signal with volume...

So, that feels right, but for some reason, I'm left wondering what, exactly, is the signal? If grassroots organizations are sending out some sort of signal getting jammed by the astroturf folks, what is it?

If some individual takes on a grassroots value because they perform a logical fallacy like "argumentum ad numerum", that if a lot of people support an idea it must be right, then that can be easily "jammed" by pretending to be a large group of people who think the opposite thing is right. Or if they do so because they succumb to an "Appeal to Authority", then that could also be jammed by presenting fake authorities going the other way.

But I'm not so sure that the sincere values of a grassroot organization can be jammed. Maybe. But it just doesn't feel like it. Which would seem to say that grassroots organizations need to make sure their core value is clear, and point to indisputable facts that support what that value is addressing.

The only way I can see it possible to jam a group's values would be to "lower" the level at which the values apply. Like taking "justice" and trying to pull it down into oversimplistic values of "strength" and "cowardice" and similar stuff.

Maybe all posts, and all blogs, and all internet comments will need to contain a pointer to a page which indicates who posted it, and lists any and all sources of income for posting that comment, direct and indirect.

Corps can pay for lying posts, but if all avenues of money must be public, then it's pretty hard to pretend you're someone posting based on their principles.

#56 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2006, 11:22 PM:

Greg --

The thing being jammed is the emergent formation of political and public opinion.

Values can certainly be jammed, in generational time. (This is one model of how culture changes; if external influences get to enough people's kids early enough, you get a cultural disjunction. Very common in immigrant groups.)

In the short term, values have no political leverage if you can't find out that you share them with other people.

One of the much-commented affects of the net is that whole huge bunches of people with rare kinks -- one such person per medium sized town, say -- are able to find out that there are thousands of people like them. (If you don't think that the Pride movement has something to do with improving communications technology, I'd like to know what you think is going on. Hell, third wave seventies feminism has a whole helya of a lot to do with women being able to get their writing published in a mainstream-y way.)

So what's going on is an attempt to prevent a political consensus from emerging which reflects the perception of the population concerning its own best interests, as part of an effort to guarantee an accepted political consensus beneficial to a particular narrow set of interests inimical to the public interest.

#57 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2006, 12:02 AM:

an attempt to prevent a political consensus from emerging which reflects the perception of the population concerning its own best interests, as part of an effort to guarantee an accepted political consensus beneficial to a particular narrow set of interests inimical to the public interest.

First of all, it has been demonstrated repeatedly that people don't vote according to their own best self interest. They vote their values. So, just about every time I see the word "interest" I want to replace it with "hooey". "self interest" is not how people are persuaded. In fact, one might argue that self interest is the least desirable channel to use to persuade someone to do something, since it means (1) you're only trying to persuade them to do something because it benefits you and (2) at some point, a community or social structure based on self interest alone will collapse.

The thing being jammed is the emergent formation of political and public opinion.

But what is the intent of communicating opinion? At some point, the conversation shifts from "I like vanilla" and "I like chocolate" and turns into something more like "I think you should like chocolate". It is this persuasion being jammed. If it were simply jamming of conversations of different opinions, it wouldnt' matter because expressing an opinion, by itself, does nothing but provide a bit of polling data.

And while I think it is the persuasion being jammed, for the jamming to be effective, it would have to use the same frequency that the original communication was using. You can't jam a conversation that has no goals. But if the original conversation had one intent, and the jammer has another intent, and the jammer is actually able to persuade someone to go the other way, then the question is "Why?"

What does the jammer have in common with the original persuader? Appeal to popularity and appeal to authority would both be methods fo persuasion that would work for either. But I wonder if some aspects of persuasion are more immune to jamming. I think values might be more immune.

I'm not sure that we're talking about the same idea of values when you say they can be jammed in "generational time". I'm thinking of values that are brought forward in a conversation between opposing sides. One might apeal to "strength" while the other might appeal to "justice". One might appeal to "clean air", while another might appeal to the idea of "freedom" by invoking the phrase "free market".

The difference is that while appeal to popularity and appeal to authority seem to be relatively equal to both sides, the appeal to values has a direction to it. If one side appeals to one value, the other side almost always has to cast the entire argument in a completely different level, either up or down.

So, if a grassroots organization appeals to the value of "justice", the only way you can jam that value is to pull the argument down into simpler terms such as "strong/weak". Values almost have a rating which defines what level they operate on, and some values are higher than others. "justice" is higher than "strength". And I think any group pushing "justice" is immune to jamming by appeals to "strength" as long as the group points out that "justice" is a higher value than strength.

#58 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2006, 08:20 AM:

Greg, check my comment #47 for one type of radar jamming.

Astroturf is far more than just making a barrage of noise. It's a form of deception jamming.

Consider Operation Taxable, in which 617 Squadron, on the night of D-Day, flew a precise pattern in the sky over the English Channel, dropping accurately timed bundles of chaff (then called Window.) so that the echoes looked like a steadily moving convoy of ships, headed for the Pas de Calais. As part of that plan, the RAF attacks on German radar stations had to leave the right ones operating.

Analogy time: unleash the trolls on some blogs, making them hard to use, barrage-jamming them, and astroturf some others, making it look as though the debate is in a diffwerent place.

And then troll a friendly blog. "Oh, the Wingnuts are attacking that idea, it must be worth supporting!"

And, just as in 1944, they're seeing what the opposition are doing, seeing how they react, and shaping their deceptions to steer the opposition's perceptions in the desired direction.

The technical analogies aren't good, but the thinking about how to use the tools has the same dependence on how people think.

It's the same as a stage magician's sleight of hand, distracting the attention of an audience (and that's why Jasper Maskelyne was working on deception operations). A few dim lights in the right places, one or two moving, and a sudden panicky switch-off, and you turn empty farmland into an operational airfield.

#59 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2006, 11:12 AM:

I can think of all kinds of fun things to do along these lines. The obvious things are:

a. Make it unpleasant to even have some discussions. If someone brings up some topic you don't want discussed, have your trolls do their best to start and sustain a flamewar. The goal is to make that topic more trouble than it's worth, which keeps it from being discussed openly. The meatspace version of this is organizing protests to shut down or disrupt some discussion, conference, speech, etc. If you want to discourage discussion of the mistreatment of prisoners, make sure that anywhere that such a discussion starts, a big name-calling fest kicks up between trolls, or between trolls and normal participants.

b. If you have a target demographic you don't want to pick up the discussion, use your trolls to make the discussion especially uninteresting or upsetting to them. The meatspace version of this is to put provovateurs into a meeting to call for violent action, in order to push the moderates to leave so they don't get caught up in it. An online version is to support the idea you want to undermine, but from an offensive or unsavory perspective. If you want to support Affirmative Action, post messages attacking it from the perspective of an overt racist.

c. Derail discussions that depend on any kind of subtle reasoning. The meatspace version is (I think) commonly called "reframing the debate".) If you don't want to allow a discussion about torturing prisoners, have your trolls start a fervent debate (on both sides) about whether these news stories/revelations should even have been made, whether the reporters publishing them are guilty of treason, etc. The goal is to turn aside the question of "are we really doing this and should we stop?" in favor of the question "should newspapers report this kind of thing, whether true or false?"

#60 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2006, 11:40 AM:

If noise is a major problem, if causing flamewars so as to distract from the original topic, then I think there are simple technical solutions for this sort of thing. I recall reading an article a couple years ago about some people playing around with different structures for email lists, bulletin boards, and other open channels of communication (I think this was before blogs became as popular as they are now). What they found was that small tweaks to the software to structure the conversation could have major impacts on whether flamewars were more or less likely. The changes didn't require subjective judgements to determine whether a post was a flame or not. What they did instead was allow people to do things like ignore a poster within a single thread, create subthreads, and let the flamewar (if it is just that) continue on in a fireproof box.

If each post had an individual "reply to" button, that would automatically create subthreads. So if Alice posts something. And then Jack posts a reply to jam Alice, it automatically goes into a subthread, which all other readers can immediately ignore. Everything is posted publicly as one big thread that everyone can read, but replies to a post are marked as different threads, so that any individual thread can be ignored.

If Jack replies to Alice at the top level to avoid getting subthreaded and making it harder to ignore, that's pretty obvious trollish behaviour.

The other thing that the group played around with was making the "ignore" feature publicly known. So if Alice posted something, and Jack posts a reply to jam it, and then Bob comes along and ignores that subthread, this ignore marks Jack's post. So when Charlie comes along and sees Jack's post, he also sees a number that says "1 person has ignored this thread" or something to that effect. So, Charlie can get that someone else might consider Jack's post not worth the effort.

Which would then completely rob Jack of any jamming power.

It doesn't solve the astroturf organizations that are created by corporate money to appear to be grassroots organizations. But it would solve the problem of people coming into a conversation, being paid to disrupt it. Or at least make it a lot more expensive for it to be effective.

Not everything has a technical solution. But I think some minor tweaks to blogging software would significantly tip the scales to the real grassroots peoples' advantage.

#61 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2006, 02:27 PM:

"First of all, it has been demonstrated repeatedly that people don't vote according to their own best self interest. They vote their values."

Perhaps this is one of the points. People who aren't willing to pursue what they want can't negotiate, and will never be satisfied. And if their values aren't based in something they want, what are they based in, then?

...perhaps something they fear?

#62 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2006, 02:40 PM:

if their values aren't based in something they want, what are they based in, then?

The example I vaguely recall was a large chunk of people living at or near the poverty line voting republican even though the democratic candidate promised to help them if elected. The gist of it was that these people valued something along the lines of "no free handouts" and that's what the republican candidate framed his opposition as doing.

So, it isn't that they aren't basing their values in something they want. It's that they're basing their values in something they want more than a direct personal immediate benefit.

#63 ::: Dermott McSorley ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2006, 03:43 PM:

The long term consequence is scary,astroturfing degrades the general discourse,ie as more people know of its existance,the less people will respect what is being said.As bad as the web is for information,this will weaken it further.And..who
benefits ? 'follow the money'

#64 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2006, 09:11 PM:

Greg @ #57 & Randolph @ #61: "people don't vote according to their own best self interest. They vote their values"
I've heard something similar happened in Britain during Thatcher's incumbency. Many people whose life, health, & prospects were very much worsened by the effects of her government's policies nevertheless voted for her party more than once. Various rhetorical appeals and, of course, the Falklands/Malvinas War were used to explain the dissociation.

#65 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2006, 09:21 PM:

in passing, the stir about ABC's forthcoming 9/11 series, which seems likely to be hard-right propaganda just in time for the elections, makes me wonder why the the right even bothers astroturfing blogs. This is a kilophone; they have a megaphone. What's the point?

Be a better world if people actually took their own real interests as a starting point, I think.

#66 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2006, 08:53 AM:

#60 -- Yes, precisely. Talking about broadcasting instructions to the troops in the clear -- some years ago, I used to do academic typing, and I typed an essay from a guy doing an MBA in which he quoted books directly explaining the technical details of how you do this stuff.

The example that really struck me was along the lines of: If the real issue is "Should we wear cardigans?" reframe the issue as "Green or blue cardigans?" People feel empowered by being given a choice, but you don't really want them to have power, just to feel empowered, so make sure their choices are trivial. Further, if someone raises the real issue during the debate, "Do we actually want cardigans at all?" then argue furiously for either unimportant point and get people really agitated on the green vs blue triviality so the real point will be ignored.

So for the last ten or fifteen years I've known for sure that it isn't paranoia, there really are people out there studying how to manipulate me.

#67 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2006, 01:23 PM:

There have been people studying how to manipulate you for as long as there have been marketplaces, prostheletizing religions, and elections. I think one thing that makes the current stuff a bit creepy is that new technologies often lead to really surprising results. I'd say that radio networks, on average, had a huge impact toward centralizing control in big countries.

In some sense, paid blog posters are a step in the right direction here. Like viral marketing, this is basically a reaction to the fact that most people just tune out all those centrally-produced and -distributed commercials and propoganda messages. If the people trying to manipulate opinion ultimately have to go from buying off or intimidating three broadcast networks and half a dozen newspapers to having to infiltrate provocateurs into thousands of individual online discussions, the opinion-manipulation industry is going to have a much harder life!

#68 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2006, 01:40 PM:

"So for the last ten or fifteen years I've known for sure that it isn't paranoia, there really are people out there studying how to manipulate me."

Isn't this what churches have been doing for a very, very long time? Is the threat of terrorism so different from the threat of hellfire? Problem is, "deceiving us has become an industrial process"; takes, relatively, much fewer resources than before--instead of a whole network of churches and pastors, all that is needed is television, and the loneliness of mass society. So the mass consciousness jumps and spins like a person with attention deficit, as each new manipulation comes on.

#69 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2006, 01:44 PM:

Isn't this what churches have been doing for a very, very long time?

Depends on which church you're talking about.

#70 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2006, 05:26 PM:

Greg, the vast majority of churches in large-scale organized religions, I think, at least some of the time. Jo, further thought: most people are more comfortable with a modest number of choices than a vast number; this is why we keep personal address books. This is one way in which manipulators take advantage.

#71 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2006, 08:57 PM:

Having read about the Rendon Group here, I was a bit surprised to see John Rendon turn up as a speaker in the fairly stefnal Long Now Foundation lecture series.

Topic: "Long-term Policy to Make the War on Terror Short" I haven't listened to all of it, but I gather the San Francisco audience was rather hostile. Catch the podcast, or read the summary. No mention of astroturf or blogging, I think.

#72 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 12:17 PM:

I think this is a good point to mention Edward Bernays, nephew of Freud, who practically invented this kind of social manipulation. His most famous coup was persuading the women of America that smoking had something to do with universal suffrage, although later he went on to manipulate a real coup in Guatemala for the CIA. This is documented in Adam Curtiss' documentary "The Century of the Self", which connects the dots to modern political practice. This is well worth watching, so it's handy that it's online here.

#73 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 03:47 AM:
If the real issue is "Should we wear cardigans?" reframe the issue as "Green or blue cardigans?" People feel empowered by being given a choice, but you don't really want them to have power, just to feel empowered, so make sure their choices are trivial.
Oh, hell, they taught us how to do that in high school drama rehearsals. "Don't ask people whether they want to come to the play. Ask them which night they want to come."
#74 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2006, 04:39 AM:

most people are more comfortable with a modest number of choices than a vast number; this is why we keep personal address books.

This is a quibble rather than an outright disagreement, but we keep personal address books rather than use a large directory because:

1. Search time is vastly improved.
2. The addres book can be carried on the person.
3. Most calls are to a relatively small quantity of numbers. Extras (like your hotel for the trip, the client, and the car renter) can be put in "temporary storage" like a business card pocket.

I really don't think it has anything to do with "large choice" vs. "small choice," though I do believe that makes a difference in many circumstances.

#75 ::: K ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2006, 11:59 PM:

Here's one thought on dealing with paid astroturfers:

Create a posting policy something like this:

"If you receive any compensation for posting here, each post must disclose your full name, the amount you will receive from the post, the name of the company paying you, and the signatory on the checks you receive. For each post you make in violation of this policy, you agree to pay NielsenHayden $1000, and, as an agent of the organization paying you, you further obligate that organization to pay NielsenHayden $5000 for each violating post."

That wouldn't affect any anon posters, and it might not stop astroturfers - but it might make them think twice. And if you did track someone down who was a violator, that would make a nice small claims court case.

#76 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2006, 08:01 AM:

K, it's an interesting idea, but I can already kick them the hell out of my comment threads whenever I want. I don't need a new rule for them to break. Also, I don't want to give them the idea that identifying their backers gives their comments a right to be here. Do want to have to read them? I don't.

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