Sockpuppets and astroturfing in disruptive political blogs

In case any one misses it, I’d like to point out that blogs like hillaryis44 and pumapac are full of sockpuppets. I gave a two hour long talk at SXSWi on the ethics of false identity on the net. It looks like the time is ripe to talk about ways of detecting falsity in blogging.

If you see a blog with 600 comments on every post, even the most trivial, try taking a look at the commenters, the pattern of their chatter, and their identites on the net. Only a very few of the commenters on pumapac, for example, have histories going back further than June and July 2008. Some of those are constructs and fewer are real people. Most have no traceable internet identity; they have empty profiles dating back to July 08, set up on a couple of social networks. So, one method of detecting sockpuppetry or large scale astroturfing on a blog or networking of blogs is to record the commenters, then spider for their internet presence, its depth and longevity. The footprints of many different blogs and forums could then be compared.

The pattern of interaction in comments can also reveal sockpuppetry. For instance, times and rhythms. A typical post on pumapc is made at 11pm Eastern Standard Time. The comments on pumapac are made about one per minute, and keep going until about 3 in the morning. I would guess they are written by a single poster. They’re strange in their rhythms, like a fictional chatroom – almost musical in structure. Commenters A, B, C, D, and E talk for the first few minutes, then a couple more will chime in, then A, B, and C will sign off for the evening only to be immediately replaced by H, I, J, and K, who go back and forth with each other, occasionally hitting a note from further back in the structure; only to sign off themselves and be replaced by a new batch. It is not a realistic pattern. Who are these women logging in and hitting reload every 10 seconds at 3 am? There are plenty of blogs being used as late night chat rooms. They don’t have this sort of pattern. It is not faked well enough.

Naming patterns are fairly clear in pumapac as well as in hillaryis44. The majority of pumapac commenters have a pattern that could come straight out of a traditional buzzword generator, using the following elements: Demographic category, Political affiliation or anti-affiliation, variety of feline, gender identifier, geographic location, number. For example, osaka puma,TexasTigress, asian4hillary, tennaseepuma, snowtiger, landiPUMA. I imagine a corkboard with index cards, as a novelist might keep on the wall, with lightly sketched out personalities:

* Alice1943, a senior citizen who thinks Obama is a Muslim
* gd4Hill4EVA, a racist white woman who rants about terrorism
* Luckyseven, always provides a link to a video and a news article. Spells things wrong.
* Nijma, the (fake) Muslim who everyone picks on, for fake flame wars.
* hillstheone Another like Luckyseven, gives a youtube video + news article

Their personalities are thin. Most of them don’t even have a sock! It’s just the shadow of someone’s hand on the wall! With a few exceptions, the ones who have a net presence reach only as far as other astroturfing blogs all in a network that sprang up at the same time, around June 08. For instance, GoHillaryGo/Camille424/bitterpoliticz.

In contrast, pumapac commenters “jody in florida” and “pooh496” are likely to be real people — or, a puppeteer stealing their identities and posing as those real people. Do a little googling and reading to see the depth of these two, compared to the other names listed above, and you will see the difference.

The “commenters” use really transparent rhetorical strategies in concert. One will say “Obama’s a dirty Muslim! ” and two more will agree, with links. Then the “Muslim” of the commenters will speak up, saying something obfuscational and tangential about Palestine. The others attack her and accuse her of being on Obama’s side. Then, the blog’s author steps in to say, in the false voice of reason, “Gals, gals, calm down, we don’t really *know* that Obama’s a Muslim! And even if he were, would it really matter? By the way, how about that spunky gal Sarah Palin?”

I read plenty of blogs written by real conservative Christian women, and they don’t talk like this. It is disrespectful to them, and their politics, to represent them like this.

I’m not going to do a full expose on Darragh Murphy, the head of Pumapac, but if you look around you will find her bankruptcy and allegations of fraud (her construction company wrote out $60,000 worth of checks to her mom, for no discernable services, just before it filed for bankruptcy), claims to represent millions of Americans in a legitimate political organization which fundraised over 20K (but has not reported on the spending of that money), announcements of big conferences which turn out to be 30 people in a little motel, etc. I suspect that people like Murphy and whoever is behind hillaryis44 contract out to the same company to build their astroturf blog networks. They may also be funded by independent political organizations that merely seek to disrupt the elections or cause confusion. I don’t at all think they are supported by the Republican party.

If I had time to do a systematic analysis I would compile a db of all the commenters on this network of blogs and see what kind of stats I could come up with. IP numbers might not be too difficult to find, in cooperation across several blogs where the suspected sockpuppets come to make a few comments to establish themselves or to leave linkbait.

One might also start from the other end with the real people who are known to be behind some of these sites. For instance, Heidi Li and Mark Rubin as well as Darragh Murphy, Alex Rodriguez. Or look for identities, like Billiejo/Betty Jean/Freemenow and delve into their associations with other blogs and the people behind them.

How else might we detect blog puppetry? We could write tools to scrape the comments, gather comments by the same “people” and run them through some textual analysis tools. I can see that some of these comments are written by the same person, through a filter of a thinly invented fictional “personality” and writing style, but I would have a hard time proving that. Take a look for yourself and see if you can detect the same veneer of stylistic differences.

The lack of link backs and identity representation is another major clue for badly done sockpuppetry. Most blog comment software allows for link backs to the commenter’s identity either to a profile on the blog itself, or to an external source. These blogs don’t allow for that. In other blogs and forums that don’t build in identity tools, at least some commenters would build in their own sigs with links back to their own blogs, profiles, or email addresses. It is not conceivable to anyone who has seriously studied, or been immersed in, Internet culture for the last 10 years, that a group of over 50 commenters on a subject they feel passionately about, in a “place” where they read and write daily, would NOT link back to some other anchor or “home”.

Why do people hang out in blog comments on a big forum, bulletin board, or blog? Certainly part of the motivation is to make intelligent enough comments that others will come over to your place and hang out there. You are talking in a public forum to establish your own reputation and identity. This is true on the dippiest social networks, on the most primitive bulletin boards talking about bands or action figure collecting or whatever, on MySpace, on blogs, on conservative forums like Little Green Footballs or Free Republic or leftist ones like Daily Kos.

Dig a little deeper and you will find whole fake “attack blogs” whose purpose is only to link back attacking the first blog, to shore up their tenuous claim to reality.

My point is: think a bit when you come across a site like pumapac, really analyze and compare it, and you will see the flaws in its setup.

I do know there are women who were going to vote for Clinton and who now are going to vote for McCain – but these sockpuppets are NOT their voices and do not represent a large political movement.

If I came across a leftist blog displaying this same pattern, I would happily expose and debunk it too.

One thing that may be possible, and more plausible than the same small “astroturfing firm” building and running these sorts of sites: there could easily have been some training sessions or workshops on how to astroturf and run a bunch of sockpuppets. Conservative strategists and thinktanks funded training camps for college conservative journalists and funded college newspapers in the mid to late 80s, with dramatic results; a similar move has likely been happening for the blogosphere.

Too bad they aren’t as good as msscribe in their sockpuppetry and intrigues! They need to take lessons from a master.

I leave you with a link to the Anti-Astroturfing Wiki.

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Deep, then flippant, thoughts on SXSWi

I’m getting ready to fly out to Austin for SXSWi, where I’m going to talk at a session on Sunday afternoon, “Fictional Blogging”. Marrit Ingman at the Austin Chronicle interviewed me here: Where the Wild Things Blog. For once, I’m not talking about myself or making anyone’s eyes glaze over with my wild Theories About Twitter:

Liz Henry, who will present the Fictional Bloggers panel with blog-novelist Odin Soli of Plain Layne fame, emphasizes the importance of disclosure. “We want lying we can trust, lying that’s transparent,” she explains. “We don’t want to feel stupid and be tricked by hoaxes. But some lying, the lying of fiction, is good and ethical. It creates distance between a person and the world, and in this distance we can explore crazy, fascinating ideas.”

Henry adds, “If corporations used fictional blogs seamlessly and with artistry, a lot of people wouldn’t mind the fakitude. They’d be entertained. We could potentially love the PSP2 fake bloggers just as we love Chaucer Hath a Blog if the PSP2 blog was any good.”

Instead of being good, the ad company responsible for Sony’s viral campaign, Zipatoni, drew the ire of consumers with the blog’s lack of corporate disclosure, ostensibly teenage pidgin, and blatantly fake “flogging.” (“so we started clowning with sum not-so-subtle hints to j’s parents that a psp would be teh perfect gift,” read the first entry on www.alliwantforxmasisapsp.com/blog, itself shut down last December.)

“Companies who want to build out a fictional character should hire novelists and playwrights, role-playing gamers and LARPers, bloggers and social media people – creative world-builders who understand how to bring life to an online presence. Blog readers and Web-entertainment consumers are sophisticated. They want depth to a character,” Henry says.

Odin is an awesome geek and all-around internetty consultant sort of person as well as a novelist. I like how he includes his old .plan files as part of his web site. I always thought of them as old school blogging… And I wish I still had mine!

I’m working now for Socialtext now, as their open source community manager, but my panel has nothing to do with that and everything to do with my history as a bookish and writerly and bloggity person.

But because I’m being soaked up to my eyebrows in wikis right now, I talked about them with Marrit too, so bear with me while I write that up and quote myself at enormous unquotable length:

I’d love to see companies blog creatively from the points of view of minor characters in a novel or other fictional series. I don’t want Harry Potter’s blog; I want Dobby’s blog or Neville’s or Pansy Parkinson’s. Or better yet, a network of interlinked fictional blogs and worlds. In the imaginary world, we aren’t limited by truth, reality, history, or time. We can have Genghis Khan blogging in dialogue with Caroline Ingalls and Picard and two hundred different Harry Potters, with real people thrown in the mix. A smart company would interlock its fictional worlds and information and allow participation from everyone in the building of alternate fictional realities. There’s a lot of energy in fanfiction, for example. This energy should be welcomed by media owners and publishers, who need radical change in their approach to intellectual property.

Book publishers aren’t getting wikis either – or not enough of them are getting it. Every book needs a wiki. Every book needs a blog, but I’d push it further and say that they need wikis too, or blikis.

Wikis have enormous creative potential. Socialtext uses wikis and blikis to increase collaboration and speed up communication in big corporations. Corporate wikis change the ways people talk with each other at work, or how they approach the definition of a project. But novelists and creative writers need to play with wikis in many other areas. Wikis are clearly useful for worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy. But let’s push it further. We could write a novel as a wiki. Someone should do that for Nanorimo! Maybe they already have. It’s a scary thought, isn’t it, if you’re a writer? It challenges the idea of authorship, authority, style, and the singular voice of the genius artist. That’s a fine challenge with a ton of potential. When we get our first excellent bestselling novel written by a wiki collective — better yet by an open collective — we’ll know that our society’s approach to the generation of knowledge has evolved. Fans groups of particular wikinovel hive minds will spring up. Literary criticism will change as well, and academia’s resistance to collaboration will have to evolve to change with the times.

Book publishers aren’t getting how to make a blog into a book. What is the value of the book? Besides editing the blog and making it portable, a book should annotate. The book of Riverbend’s blog, for example, could have been a fantastic book rather than just a nicely bound bundle of printouts. Add information, indexes, annotation, glossaries, diagrams, geneologies. Enrich a blog; don’t just print it. Publishers think people don’t want footnotes. They’re wrong. When people love a world, a character, or a subject — or a blog — they want to know everything, on different levels. A generation that grew up listening to DVD commentary tracks and writing complex Wikipedia articles about Pokemon characters does, indeed, love footnotes, and the option for depth of information they provide.

Anyway!

The conference was great last year. It was supposedly the year of everyone marveling at OMG there are girls and brown people here OMG OMG there is a line for the women’s room at a tech conference! Diversity was nice, I think it will continue, and I hope it has positive and tangible results for the “diversity-providers” as well as making everyone else feel all warm and fuzzy. The conference itself benefitted, if you think of their increase in attendees as being correlated with the array of speakers from different backgrounds – and I do think that’s true. I had to laugh a bit at the SXSW magazine that came in the mail last month, and its article on the British Invasion. What a spin. “Last year we had women! This year omg white guys are invading our conference! It’s so radical!” Every cliche was invoked. It was sweet, really! I’m not complaining — British geek guys are super sexy, they dress nicer than American white guys, they don’t make the bathroom lines longer for all the women (that’s important!) and I think they grace any conference with their cute accents and snarky comments and the way they act sort of uptight and then get drunk and let it all hang out. Kind of like Spock. The invasion’s fine with me!

In fact, right after I talked with Marrit about collaboration, world building, and wikis, I had lunch with Paul Youlten from Yellowiki, a very fascinating multi-tentacled person who is now building a collaborative fictional Latin American geographical space, Batán. I did not quiz him too deeply on the imperialist implications of his Bruce-Chatwin-esque wiki thing because I think it’s a fine cultural experiment, and if English-speaking people are going to construct a fake Latin America, they might as well make it overtly fake rather than constructing it on real cities where people actually live. (I realize that only about 3 people will get this or laugh at it, but it’s worth it to make them laugh really hard. This means you, Brian, Prentiss, and Gabby!)

(Meanwhile, as I’m blogging this in a cafe, there’s a guy across from me with a big Daviswiki sticker on his laptop. Wiki Everywhere!)

Back to the conference!

I’m looking forward to seeing some people I don’t see that often – to the rush of intense conversations – to eating breakfast at my favorite breakfast place ever which I shall not name because I don’t want you all to go there and make it too crowded – And to picking up some more Turitella fossils from the limestone bed of Shoal Creek, because I gave all the ones I picked up last year to little kids. And to going to all the wiki panels and open source panels and doing more soaking-stuff-up.

Also notable in my pre-conference rush: I got very excited at getting my cute little MOO cards. I have two kinds – one for my real name stuff and one for the main pseudonymous-me.

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Fictional layer on social networks

Here’s a fabulous idea! On social network profiles, there will be space for one’s fictional alter egos. In other words, my profile on orkut or friendster or tribe or even LinkedIn should include my past role-playing game character information. One could suck in data from one’s Everquest or World of Warcraft or MUD characters, and manually put in data about tabletop rpgs.
It’s important, because who you like to pretend you are is important. Among role-playing gamers I certainly know people who think about the patterns in their game-playing, and who consciously use the characters to vary their real life persona, to experiment with ways of being, as well as to play to their real life characteristics and strengths.

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