Sunday, September 28, 2008

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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Thursday, September 18, 2008

How not to be a Generic Politician

I just got this email from my senator. Talk about Generic-Off. How pathetic. Could the Senator's office at least go to the effort of having *different templates on different issues*?

Or even some actual information content in the email?

Like "Ms. Henry, we have noted your concern on the Iraq War, and would like to let you know that X percent of Californias agree with you. Here is Boxer's position on the issue, and here is how she plans to vote."

What earthly use is this to me? I'll be damned if I can remember what I wrote a letter about, or what petition I signed, in this case. Behold!!!

Dear Ms. Henry:

Thank you for contacting my office to express your views. I believe that all citizens should become involved in the legislative process by letting their voices be heard, and I appreciate the time and effort that you took to share your thoughts with me.

One of the most important aspects of my job is keeping informed about the views of my constituents, and I welcome your comments so that I may continue to represent California to the best of my ability. Should I have the opportunity to consider legislation on this or similar issues, I will keep your views in mind.

For additional information about my activities in the U.S. Senate, please visit my website, From this site, you can access statements and press releases that I have issued about current events and pending legislation, request copies of legislation and government reports, and receive detailed information about the many services that I am privileged to provide for my constituents. You may also wish to visit to track current and past legislation.

Again, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. I appreciate hearing from you.

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator

How hard could it be to hire someone to write you some decent "issue tracking" and letter writing software to keep your constituents informed without sounding like a mealy-mouthed robot talking to another, much stupider robot?

Meanwhile you might like to be aware that is useful, maybe more like what I'm looking for as a constituent than a flail -n- trawl through the entire Library of Congress.

Obviously I still end up voting for Boxer no matter what, but isn't the idea to make me *really, really, really* support the politicians in office? Maybe even donate to them, because they're awesome?

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

When disaster relief becomes a police state dragnet

I don't have time to be a serious investigative journalist, so here's a little rant.

I noticed in Katrina relief work that Homeland Security was swooping down on even small shelters and on people aggregating peoplefinding data. They took the data and warned people to silence. They started doing criminal checks, looking for people on their watchlists, but right down to the level of people who might have violated parole or be wanted for various crimes. Is this legal? Is it constitutional? As far as I know, they just seized that data. The people signing into an emergency shelter in some tiny church, or community center, or high school, didn't sign up to be picked over by the Feds.

They tried with Gustav to "wristband" and register people for evacuation. They did it for some of Hurricane Ike. Is anyone realizing what this means? Disaster hits, citizens who are particularly powerless become the target of random criminal investigation. And if you have a criminal record? What then? They going to "evacuate" you to a "special shelter"?

Not that Galveston even bothered to evacuate the people in its city lockup, people awaiting a hearing and not even convicted of a crime.

I expect the registering, wristbanding, and electronic tracking process will become more efficient over the next few years.

I wonder what people were told? You have to register and show your ID, or we won't let you on the bus out of town?

Oh, here we go, a little bit of the plan, that I'm sure didn't get implemented all that well, because of course FEMA and emergency management officials were thinking about how to save and feed and shelter people, not how to treat poor people like automatic criminals?>

What the state is doing, is perfectly legal, according to at least one expert.

"Since it's a government record they're checking you against, there is not the same invasion of privacy concerns that may come up in other contexts," said professor Charles Rhodes, who teaches constitutional law at South Texas College of Law. "I think the need for it would outweigh any privacy concerns. This is a public safety issue"

Rhodes' only reservation would be the system itself, whether it's set up to handle, perhaps, a false match indicating someone had a criminal record when they did not. He also wants to know how smoothly such checks could be processed.

"It's going to be interesting to see how this is implemented in the time of an emergency," Rhodes said.

They take the exact tactic I would expect. They claim they have to "wristband" and register and track everyone, centrally, and check everyone on a government criminal-record database, in order... get this... to protect special needs citizens from sex offenders. Is that really the motivation here? If the government gave a flying fuck about protecting people with special needs from sex offenders, there are far more effective things they could be doing than violating the civil rights of people evacuating from a hurricane.

Earlier this month, it was announced AT&T Inc. has contracted with the Texas Governor's Division of Emergency Management to provide electronic wristbands for those residents wanting them, before they board an evacuation bus.

The wristbands would be scanned by emergency management officials and the person's name would be added to a bus boarding log. That person's name and their bus information would be sent wirelessly to the University of Texas Center for Space Research data center.


The decision to wear a wristband is purely voluntary. But anyone who boards an evacuation bus will have to provide a name. There will be no requirement to show an identification card, such as a driver's license, but officials may ask those boarding for an ID.

Oh sure. It's totally voluntary to wear an electronic wristband, but who is going to tell you that? And who is going to ask, in the face of disaster?

No requirement to show ID. But the cop who decides if you get on the bus or not can ASK YOU FOR ID. They don't have to tell you it's not required.

How about if you're an immigrant and your immigration status is in question? Are you going to evacuate under these conditions? Or take your chances? What other databases are the authorities running the names against? Where will they stop? Who will stop them?

Don't make any mistake about this, disaster might strike a whole city, but it is primarily the rich and middle class people who have the resources and social resources to get out of town and go stay with friends or in a motel. What the government is doing here is part of the immense disrespect and violation of human rights of working class people, people living in poverty, and immigrants. They might as well just go through whole neighborhoods of people who have less money and stop people at random to do criminal checks on them. OH WAIT ... that already happens.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

María Eugenia Vaz Ferreira: Las ondines

I promised a poem or translation this week, to balance out the political posts. Here's a couple of my translations of poems by Uruguayan poet María Eugenia Vaz Ferreira. They were published posthumously in 1924, though I am fairly sure they were published in Uruguayan or Argentinian magazines much earlier in the century. I've mentioned Vaz Ferreira a few times before in this blog, including a funny moment where I was irked at a critic: Damming with Faint Praise and No Space.

María Eugenia Vaz Ferreira


This poem "Vaso Furtivo" was lovely to translate. If you read it over a few times, and let it sink in, or let yourself sink into it, you'll begin to get what Vaz Ferreira was all about.

Vaso furtivo

Por todo lo breve y frágil,
superficial, fugitivo,
por lo que no tiene bases,
argumentos ni principios;
por todo lo que es liviano,
veloz, mudable y finito;
por las volutas del humo,
por las rosas de los tirsos,
por la espuma de las olas
y las brumas del olvido . . .
por lo que les carga poco
a los pobres peregrinos
de esta trashumante tierra
grave y lunática, brindo
con palabras transitorias
y con vaporosos vinos
de burbuja centelleantes
en cristales quebradizos . . .

A quick drink

To all that's brief and fragile,
superficial, unstable,
To all that has no foundation,
logical argument or principles;
for everything imprudent,
quick, mutable, and finite;
to spirals of smoke,
to thyrsus-stemmed roses,
to foam on the waves
and forgetting's sea-mist . . .
to all that's nearly weightless
for the wandering folk
of this transient earth;
grave, moonmad, I drink to all that
with transitory words
and heady wines
sparkling with bubbles
in the most breakable glasses . . .

What could be more in tune with my own beliefs than this defiant celebration of ephemera! I worked hard to convey her floating and delicate line breaks. This translation of "Vaso furtivo" was published a couple of years ago in the journal Parthenon West.

In the next poem, I felt that Vaz Ferreira was deliberately evoking Sappho. As many of her contemporary women poets did, Vaz Ferreira wrote about the ocean and dynamic chaos as essentially feminine.

The ondines

At the shore
where the cool and silvered wave
bathes sand,
and the shining stars
flare and die
at dawn’s first rays,

from sea-foam
the ondines lightly leap,
swift curves
and forms,
ethereal dress of ocean nymphs,
fair visions.

They roll onward, clear green,
resplendent as emeralds,
the bright waters
that lend color
to their polished shoulders,
snow-white swan . . .

Some wrap themselves
in diaphanous blue mists
dressed in dawn,
others in the wind
let fly light floating gauze
the color of heaven

and the fair ones sink
svelte forms of sonorous ocean
beneath the waters,
and over the waves
their hair snakes
like rays of gold . . .

Here's the original poem:

Las ondinas

Junto a la costa
donde la arena tibia y plateada
bañan las ondas,
y los lucientes
rayos primeros de la alborada
brillan y mueren,

de entre la espuma
surgen ligeras de las ondinas
las raudas curvas
y los informes
trajes etéreos de hadas marinas,
blancas visiones.

Ruedan, verdosas,
resplandecientes como esmeraldas,
las claras gotas
que se destiñen
en la tersura de sus espaldas
de níveo cisne . . .

Unas se envuelven
las vaporosas gasas azules
del alba veste,
otras al viento
sueltan los leves florantes tules
color de cielo

y hunden las blancas
esbeltas formas del mar sonoro
bajo las aguas,
y serpentean
sobre las ondas cual rayos de oro
sus cabelleras . . .

Here is some background and commentary straight out of the enormous poetry anthology I compiled and translated a few years ago. (It was my thesis.) I had thought I'd send it around as a book proposal, and I put out some feelers. No one really wanted to take on an enormous anthology of poems of dubious copyright status from 14 different Latin American countries. Some of my translations from this book have been published in little magazines or online journals.

Vaz Ferreira was a member of the "Generación del 1900" of Uruguayan intellectuals, which included José Enrique Rodó, Julio Herrera y Reissig, Ernestina Méndez Reissig de Narvaja, Florencio Sánchez, Samuel Blixen, Alberto Nin Frias, Horacio Quiroga, and Carlos Reyles (Verani 9). She began publishing in 1894. After her illness and death in 1924, her brother, who published her book, La isla de los cánticos, downplayed the friendship between María Eugenia and Delmira Agustini. In 1959, her unpublished poems were printed as La otra isla de los cánticos.

Biographical notes on Vaz Ferreira often paint her as a frail, waiflike young maiden with a posthumous "slim volume of poems" who had a tragic illness before her early death (Jacquez Wieser 8). Her illness is sometimes alluded to as mental: Sidonia Rosenbaum implies that Vaz Ferreira, embittered by Delmira Agustini’s fame, lost her mind because of jealousy and a combination of caprice and frustrated, “sterile” sexuality (50). However, other sources emphasize her positive, charismatic qualities as a rebel, speaking of her literary and intellectual influence, her fondness for wearing men's clothes, her shocking bohemian manners, and her notorious love of practical jokes. She was the first woman in Uruguay to fly in an airplane, in 1914, at the Fiesta Aérea, a public event. Juan Carlos Legido describes her as one of the most cultured, sure of herself, famous, and popular women in Montevideo’s social circles (Legido 6). She was a literature professor at the Women's University of Montevideo, along with Dr. Clotilde Luisi. Vaz Ferreira was also a dramatist, composer and pianist. Her works were often performed at the Teatro Solís (Rubenstein Moreira 12). Vaz Ferreira was especially fond of Heine and other German poets and philosophers.

The critic Alberto Zum Felde counted Vaz Fereirra among modernista writers, influenced by the Mexican writers Salvador Díaz Mirón and Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera (Rubenstein Moriera 46). Anderson-Imbert, in Spanish American Literature, refers to her as "the nucleus of Uruguayan poetry" and of modernismo; then he calls her "a solitary voice, solemnly religious, although capable of creating sharp images on a high level" and goes on to discuss Julio Herrera y Reissig, "not a great poet . . ." for several pages. (Andersen-Imbert 279). The general pattern is for literary historians to call Vaz Ferreira’s work brilliant, and then to pay more attention to the work of poets who are men.
With typical blunt condescension, María Monvel says of Vaz Ferreira:

Interesante "caso" de mujer, de letras, esta uruguayana, que a pesar de haber nacido en 1880, tiene en sus versos todo el acento libre de la mujer nacida en pleno siglo veinte. Gran poeta lírico, con algo de reflexivo y meditativo a la vez, esta mujer es uno de los más finos cantores que ha tenido América, y tal vez es su influencia la única perceptible en Delmira Agustini, que la superó en pasión y en arrebato lírico, pero no en cultura y sensibilidad. (Monvel 63)
Interesting “case” of a woman of letters, this Uruguayan, who despite the burden of being born in 1880, has in her verses all the free tone of a woman born right in the 20th century. A great lyric poet, with something of reflexivity and meditativeness at the same time, this woman is one of the finest poets that America has had, and perhaps her influence is the only one perceptible in Delmira Agustini, who surpasses her in passion and in going overboard with lyricism, but not does not surpass her in culture or sensitivity.

My translation of the title of “Vaso furtivo” was a difficult choice. The poem is toasting and drinking to impermancence, lightness, madness, surfaces and illusion. “Sly toast” does not work in English, and “Furtive glass” does not convey the meaning of a toast. The poem itself celebrates qualities that have traditionally been attributed to women. Considered in this light, it is a radical feminist aesthetic statement. “Las ondinas,” a poem about the beauty of ocean waves at dawn, emphasizes feminine beauty, impermanence, and dynamic movement; Vaz Ferreira’s poems often celebrate an ethereal world of ideal beauty, writing modernista aesthetics from the viewpoint of a powerful woman, as in her poem “Yo soy la Diosa de las azules, diáfanas calmas” ‘I am the Goddess of all blue, diaphanous calm” (Vaz Ferreira, Otra isla, 57-58).

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lose your house, lose your vote

The Republican Party in Michigan plans to bring lists foreclosure notices to polling places on Election Day, to disenfranchise people who may have lost their homes.

This is evil and should be illegal. It is a tactic to gum up the works and discourage people from voting, by creating long lines and slow-downs.

A foreclosure notice doesn't necessarily mean a person has moved out of their house to a new address.

In Wayne County, where I lived when I was a kid in Detroit, 1 out of every 150 people got a foreclosure notice in July 2008. In Michigan state-wide, 62,000 people got foreclosure notices.

The economy sucks! People are suffering!

I know, let's *pick out those very people* and target them for harassment, and pick the very counties where working class and middle class people are suffering the most, and systematically try to deny them the right to vote.

They appear to be targeting voters in predominantly African-American communities who are under threat of losing their homes.

Great idea, Republican Party. Keep it coming. Voter caging, and now this. Your obscene, sleazy tactics will be your DOWNFALL.

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