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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Anonymous said...

This "industrialization of deceiving us" reminds me of the professional disinformation bloggers in Ken McLeod's The Execution Channel.

Suzanne said...

This is a very helpful post. Thanks for pointing out the man behind the curtain!

Ben Moreno said...

Ya, this doesn't surprise me. The web is so full of bullshit it's hard to tread through to get the good info sometimes.

Karen Bodkin said...

"Most of them don't even have a sock!"
That cracked me up...probably because i imagine you saying it! miss you!

Anonymous said...

Hi Liz,
Wow, this is very enlightening. I had no idea. Thanks for the comment on my Blogher post and filling me in.