Tag Archives: America

Astroturfers Revisited

Good piece (video) by Jon Ronson about astroturfing:

Esc and Ctrl: Jon Ronson investigates astroturfing – video

In the second part of Jon Ronson’s series about the struggle for control of the internet, he looks at online astroturfing – when unpopular institutions post fake blogs to seem more favourable. He meets the former vice president of corporate communications for US healthcare company Cigna, who confirms his involvement in this kind of activity

He talks about the “death panels”: the Cigna whistleblower, Wendell Potter [Wikipedia] tells him that the company created lots of fake blogs and groups, all of which have since disappeared, including from archive.org, to get the issue going. Looking at a google search trend of the term “death panels”, you can see how it appears from nowhere so suddenly:

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I’ve not seen an issue spring from nothing to the max quite like that for a while.

No question that we don’t really know just how widespread this is. It’s good that Ronson, whom I greatly admire, is on the case. Should be entertaining and revealing too.

Here’s some stuff I’ve written about this in the past:

The Real Conversation I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of the genuineness of this conversation: as PR gets wise, as (some) bloggers get greedy and (other) bloggers lose sight of, or fail to understand the need to maintain some ethicaleboundaries, the conversation has gotten skewed. I’m not alone in this, although cutting through to the chase remains hard. The current case of the Wal-Mart/Edelman thang, where the chain’s PR firm reportedly sponsored a blog about driving across America and turned it into a vehicle (sorry) to promote Wal-Mart, helps bring clarity to some issues, or at least to highlight the questions.

Social Media and Politics- Truthiness and Astroturfing Just how social is social media? By which I mean: Can we trust it as a measure of what people think, what they may buy, how they may vote? Or is it as easy a place to manipulate as the real world.

The Traffic Light Scam

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If true, this is a scam that is going to fuel the conspiracy theories of every driver who feels they were fined unfairly for crossing a red light. Police in Italy have arrested the inventor of a smart traffic light system, and are investigating another 108 people, on suspicion of tampering with the software to speed up the transition from amber to to red, netting the local police and others in on the scam millions of dollars of extra fines.

The question is: Is this kind of thing limited only to Italy?

The Independent writes:

Stefano Arrighetti, 45, an engineering graduate from Genoa who created the “T-Redspeed” system, is under house arrest, and 108 other people are under investigation after it was alleged that his intelligent lights were programmed to turn from amber to red in half the regulation time. The technology, which was adopted all over Italy, employs three cameras designed to assess the three-dimensional placement of vehicles passing a red light and store their number plates on a connected computer system.

Those now under investigation include 63 municipal police commanders, 39 local government officials and the managers of seven private companies.

The fraud, The Independent says, was uncovered by Roberto Franzini, police chief of Lerici, on the Ligurian coast, who – in February 2007 – noticed the abnormal number of fines being issued for jumping red lights. “There were 1,439 for the previous two months,” he said. “It seemed too much: at the most our patrols catch 15 per day.” He went to check the lights and found that they were changing to red after three seconds instead of the five seconds that had been normal.

Unanswered, of course, is why it’s taken two years for the fraud to be stopped and investigated. The inventor’s lawyer has said he is innocent. Mr Arrighetti’s LinkedIn page is here. He is described as the owner of Kria, a Milan-based company which sells the T-Redspeed and other traffic monitoring systems.

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Image of Arrighetti from Insight24 webcast

The T-Redspeed system is described in the company literature as “the newest and most innovative digital system for vehicle speed and red light violation detection. Based on special video cameras, it doesn’t require additional sensors (inductive loops, radars or lasers). It measures the speed of the vehicles (instantaneous and average) up to 300 km/h.”

Some forum posters have suggested a system used by British authorities, RedSpeed, is the same, but on first glance it doesn’t look like it. That said, reducing the amber phase seems to be a widespread source of extra revenue: The National Motorists Association of America has found six cities that have shortened the amber phase beyond the legal amount, apparently as a way to increase revenue.

Illustration from Kria brochure (PDF)

The Revolutionary Back Channel

A tech conference appears to have marked yet another shift in the use of social tools to wrest control and flatten the playing field.

Dan Fost of Fortune calls it Conference 2.0 but I prefer the term (which Dan also uses): The Unconference Movement. (I prefer it because anything with 2.0 in it implies money; calling it a movement makes it sound more like people doing things because they want to.)

Dan summarizes what is being billed as a pivotal moment: an ‘interview’ session where columnist Sarah Lacy faces a growing discontent of the audience for her interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg. (You can see the interview here, and the comments are worth reading.)

Jeremiah Owyang pulls it altogether and tags it as a Groundswell, which happens to also be the name of a forthcoming book by his Forrester colleagues. A Groundswell, he says, is “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions.”

Shel Israel sees it as “revolutionary in the same way that American colonists wrested power from the British; that Gandhi did it with homespun cloth and boycotting British-supplied salt and in the same manner that students attempted to do it in America of the 60s.”

Tools used: twitter, meebo.

What’s interesting here is this:

Twitter has changed, at least for some people, from a presence/status tool (“doing the ironing in my underwear”) to a communication tool (“@burlesque you were right to slap him. where’s the altavista party?”)

I must confess I haven’t caught up with this trend. When I complained to a geek friend that tweets were no longer entertaining and now more likely to feel like eavesdrops on other people’s conversations, he said that was the point. But it’s not eavesdropping: these conversations are public and, by definition, open to including others.

Indeed, that’s how, at SXSW, a lot of the parties and gatherings evolved: one tweet offering a party in an empty bar attracted 100 participants in minutes.

But we need to recognise this isn’t for everyone. Twitter tools work great for people who share the same interests, or inhabit the same area. And the difference with Facebook here is instructive: Status messages are just that, while postings on friends’ walls can be seen by other friends, which makes those messages social (while messages can’t).

Which is more social? Facebook is a walled garden of trusted friends; Twitter is an anarchic network that allows users to hunt down new friends based on what they’re talking about. In a way it’s more like music taste-sharing sites like Last.fm than Facebook: I join a service like that not because I only want to hang out with the people I know, but to meet people I’ll draw value from via a shared taste and interest.

So what else is worth noting from this ‘Groundswell’?

Is this revolutionary? For those of us who have nodded off in presentations and dull panel discussions that could, for all the lack of connection with the audience, be on another planet, this can only be a good thing. Allowing the audience to participate is clearly a must, and any interviewer or moderator in that format who denies that is wasting a key resource: the audience.

That was always true, but the audience is not passive anymore: They have the tools to discuss and organize among themselves, and, in the case of the Facebook session, to fight back. It can get ugly (at times the video felt more like a mob lynching than a ‘Groundswell’, but after 45 minutes of poor questions, maybe my patience might have snapped too.)

I am not sure this is a revolution on the par of Shel’s comparisons, but there are lots of things happening here. Destructive as it may appear on the video, this is actually an example of collaboration, however chaotic, and alliance-making, however brief, that is social media at its best. A group shared a technology that allowed them to communicate, and they collaborated. The mood of the room could be felt by those present. But the mood defined itself on the backchannel chat (“Am I the only one here who is finding the questions boring and irrelevant?”) and then expressed itself vocally–one individual, initially, but supported by the applause of others in the face of the interviewer’s defensiveness.

I’d love to think that audiences, with their collective knowledge, enthusiasm and, let’s face it, investment in being there, can turn the traditional format of dominant speaker/moderator and appreciative but docile mass on its head. If that’s a revolution then I’m up for it.

The Other American Idols

My wife’s in the other room watching American Idol, and while I’m amazed it’s been going so long, you gotta admire its emphasis on quality and professionalism. And no mention of money (isn’t there something vaguely obscene about a program like Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader where avarice and greed are paraded before kids as incentives to learn?)

Anyway, while my wife’s watching idolatry on a production line, I’m trading emails with the guy who wrote my favorite software of the moment, SuperNoteCard and a composer whose music I discovered as pirate tapes on the streets of Bangkok 20 years ago: Tim Story.

His Glass Green was the soundtrack to a dark period of my life and I still can’t listen to those deceptively simple songs without being transported back to the night bus north to Sisatchanalai, pulling out of Morchit in the rain.

Anyway, I once confessed this to him in an email (after I’d tracked down the originals) and he was forgiving and very pleasant, so I’m proud to be one of the first to sign up for his new CD, Inlandish, not needing to listen to know it’s going to be well worth the money. (Yes, it could be on MP3, but who cares?)

The point? I hate it when I can’t even find an address on a website when I’m buying something. But that’s so old wave: The new world is when we can discover and communicate directly with our heroes, whether they write great software that makes us more creative, or music to inspire us. And it feels good to support them.

American Idol fulfills an important role: finding the hidden gems scattered across America. But maybe the Internet does something even better: helps us find artisans who may be less interested in becoming idols to just making enough to be happy, and making others happy in the process.

The Puppy Love Scam

The scam emails offer a Yorkshire Terrier dog for adoption

A few weeks back I wrote about love scams (“You Give Love a Bad Name,” WSJ.com) — how scammers are trawling online dating sites looking for suckers. What interested me about the scam is that in some cases the scammers play a very patient game — luring the mark in over a period of months before any sting is attempted. 

Sophos, the antivirus people, say they have found a new twist on the same scam, where scammers are apparently luring folk by offering a puppy up for adoption:

The emails, which come from a husband and wife who claim to be on a Christian Mission in Africa say that their Yorkshire Terrier dog is not coping well in the hot weather.

Says Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos:

“The criminals are offering the pet puppy in an attempt to gather information from kind-hearted people who jump in to help. If you respond the scammers will try and steal confidential information about you, or sting you for cash. If you fall for a trick like this you’ll be the one ending up in the doghouse.”

Actually this is not quite new and not completely accurate. The LA Times wrote back in May about how the scam works:

People who responded to the ads eventually were asked to send hundreds of dollars to cover expenses such as shipping, customs, taxes and inoculations on an ever-escalating scale.

Some reported paying fees totaling more $1,500.

A piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week said the scam had been going across America for a year and points out that a Google search for “Nigerian Puppy Scam” turns up more than 200,000 “hits.” (I must confess I found only 16,000.) Bulldogs and Yorkshire Terriers are favorites. The paper was apparently alerted to the scam when ads were found to be running in its own paper. A month earlier the Toronto Star reported that a local woman had parted with $500 for a 11-week old terrier, after responding to an ad on a free local classified site and complying with requests for three payments to ship the dog from Nigeria. (A reporter called up the scammer, who uttered the immortal scammer’s words:

“Are you trying to call me a scam? I’m a family man,” he said. “I am a man of God. I am a missionary.”

For more detail on scams and how to spot them, check out this page on the IPATA website.

Dogs work because we love them, and are suckers for the sob story. What’s interesting here — and why these scams are in some ways more dangerous — is that the scam does not play upon people’s greed at all, but instead upon their charity and sense of decency.

Two conclusions from this:

  • These scams are aimed at throwing a wider, and slightly different, net to the old scams. The victims are going to be people who are moral, not greedy.
  • Chances are the scammers are aiming at making less money from these scams, but perhaps make up for it in volume. Perhaps the days are over when scammer aimed to make five-figure sums.

Puppy offered for adoption by Nigerian email scammers

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The Real Conversation

We all keep talking about the idea of conversations — the “market as a conversation” (as opposed to the companies shouting at us to buy their stuff) and, nowadays, as the blogosphere as the manifestation of this. The problem is: A conversation between whom and whom? And, more important, what happens when the conversation starts getting spun, as all conversations do?

I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of the genuineness of this conversation: as PR gets wise, as (some) bloggers get greedy and (other) bloggers lose sight of, or fail to understand the need to maintain some ethicaleboundaries, the conversation has gotten skewed. I’m not alone in this, although cutting through to the chase remains hard. The current case of the Wal-Mart/Edelman thang, where the chain’s PR firm reportedly sponsored a blog about driving across America and turned it into a vehicle (sorry) to promote Wal-Mart, helps bring clarity to some issues, or at least to highlight the questions.

(Because there’s so much out there already on this, I should probably point out the facts as we know them: A couple hoping to drive across the country , BusinessWeek reported, discovered that Wal-Mart allows Recreation Vehicle users (RVers) to park in their lots for free, so they decided to do that every place they stopped. They sought the approval of an organisation called Working Families for Wal-Mart, an organization set up by Edelman to fight bad press against the chain. The organisation decided to sponsor the couple’s entire trip, paying for the couple to fly to Las Vegas, “where a mint-green RV would be waiting for them, emblazoned with the Working Families for Wal-Mart logo.” The group also paid for gas, set up a blog site, and paid the woman a freelance fee for her entries. The final post on the blog discloses all this, including the connection between the couple and Edelman. But until then the only evidence of a link to Wal-Mart was a banner add for the Working Families group.)

This is how I’d put the issues:

  • Can a blog written by someone with an interest beyond merely informing the reader be ever considered something other than promotion for that interest, however well-concealed or unconscious? We get all upset about PayPerPost (rightly so) but far more insidious are blogs that earn their wages in less obvious ways.
  • What happens to a conversation when it turns out to be between people who aren’t who they pretend to be? The conversation, in this case, appears to be between, not two ordinary folk casually mentioning how good Wal-Mart is on their travels, but between the PR company and their employer.
  • When is a spokesperson not a spokesperson? How should we regard Edelman’s Steve Rubel if the one thing he’s not really covering in his blog is the issue about his own company? At the time of writing the story’s been out there for three days already, and not a mention, even a “I can’t comment on this at the moment, let me get back to you.” Given that Steve is well-versed in these nuances, I’d expect him to be quicker off the mark in this case, company sensitivities and procedures notwithstanding. (Update: Steve has now, on the fourth day, posted something.)

Why do I sometimes feel we’re caught in a kind of Groundhog Day in the blogosphere, where we are doomed to repeat ourselves until we learn the lessons our forebears learned? Are we so arrogant that we think we’re smarter? The lessons are:

  • The Chinese Walls aren’t just for the Chinese. They’re for us: to protect us against conflicts of interest, snake-oil salesman, shysters and shills. These walls were built over centuries, and we shouldn’t think we’re so smart we don’t need them, however imperfect they are.
  • You write to promote your company, however tangentially, and you speak for that company. It’s not a cherrypicking job. You can’t just ignore topics you don’t like the look of. If you don’t know what the line is, find out and tell your audience asap. If the story is wrong, get your version out asap.
  • Define the conversation, and the conversationalists. Too much talk about conversations, already. It’s a nice, neutral, inclusive word. But it’s not really. Because most of the time we don’t know who’s talking, and what their real purpose is. When PR firms with clients, or venture capitalists with an interest in seeing their investments rise in value, or whatever, start to get involved they naturally want to steer the conversation a certain way. Nothing wrong with that, except they must accept that they remain on one side of the conversation. They can’t claim to be on both sides. Journalists learned this a long time ago. It’s time we all remembered it.

Old Journalists and New Facts

It’s not hard to see that old-style print media and journalists are still torn over what, exactly, the Age of Blogging means for them. For Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times, it’s part of a our culture’s newfound “enshrinement of subjectivity” — a fancy way of saying we don’t really care whether something’s right or not, so long as it’s about us and our feelings. She might be right about the general trend in society, but I fear she’s unfair, if not a little subjective, herself, about the role of blogging and the Internet in the case she mentions: James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces”.

Kakutani’s scathing look at the controversy surrounding the failed fiction-turned-successful memoir – When nonfiction means facts with a flourish in today’s International Herald Tribune — says

“A Million Little Pieces,” which became the second-highest-selling book of 2005 in America (behind only “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”), clearly did not sell because of its literary merits. Its narrative feels willfully melodramatic and contrived, and is rendered in prose so self-important and mannered as to make the likes of Robert James Waller (“The Bridges of Madison County”) and John Gray (“Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus”) seem like masters of subtlety.

She sees the book as riding the crest of two 1990s waves — memoirs and recovery-movement reminiscences — which in turn also coincided with

culture’s enshrinement of subjectivity – “moi” as a modus operandi for processing the world. Cable news is now peopled with commentators who serve up opinion and interpretation instead of news, just as the Internet is awash in bloggers who trade in gossip and speculation instead of fact. For many of these people, it’s not about being accurate or fair. It’s about being entertaining, snarky or provocative – something that’s decidedly easier and less time-consuming to do than old fashioned investigative reporting or hard-nosed research.

This is where I think she glosses over the role of the Internet. For sure, the world of blogging and the Web is full of tripe — self-indulgent whining, where ‘feeling’ is more important than ‘knowing’ — and a place where razor-tongued opinion counts more than well-informed reason. But wait a minute. Wasn’t Frey unmasked, not by a mainstream news publication, but on a web site called The Smoking Gun, as she herself acknowledges? (The Smoking Gun is owned by Court TV, a cable network, that uses ‘material obtained from government and law enforcement sources, via Freedom of Information requests, and from court files nationwide’.)

The truth is that the Internet reflects real life, meaning that there’s both great and awful sitting side by side. We people who spend time there know this already; we’ve taught ourselves to quite quickly — 50 milliseconds, to be precise — judge the merits of a website. It wasn’t exactly a blogger that unmasked Frey, but if this tawdry little affair is to be remembered, it should include acknowledgement that, despite being atop of the NYT non-fiction bestseller list for 15 weeks, it was an obscure web site, not a broadsheet journalist, who thought to dig into the truth behind the story.

Are Spam Lawsuits A Waste Of Time?

Not everyone thinks the big boys are on the right track by pursuing spammers in the courts.

Postini, ‘the industry’s leading provider of email security and management for the enterprise’, says spam “cannot be solved by lawsuits and legislation alone”.

America Online, Microsoft, Earthlink and Yahoo announced on Wednesday that they had filed numerous civil lawsuits against spammers, charging them with violating the provisions of the two-month-old CAN-SPAM Act. Steve Kahan, corporate vice president for Postini, says, “We believe these law suits will only succeed against small unsophisticated spammers, while doing little to stop the overwhelming amount of spam clogging corporate America’s email boxes. We hope these lawsuits do not give people running email systems a false sense of security.”

Postini says that since CAN-SPAM it “has seen no reduction in the amount of spam directed at its customers”: 75-80% of all messages are spam, viruses and other malicious email. On March 3, Postini recorded its highest spam day ever, blocking 103,193,573 spam messages.

Of course, Postini would say all this. “We make sure our 2600 enterprise customers and ISP’s don’t have a spam problem,” says Kahan. “There’s no need for them to spend money suing spammers because we keep them totally protected.” But what about the rest of us, who don’t have an ISP willing to pony up for this kind of service?

That said, Postini are probably right about the lawsuits. Spam is processed outside the U.S. and other territories getting tough on spam. The only way to close down spammers, in my view, is to go after the people using their services. Spammers don’t sell the goods, they just market them.

Stopping Spammers and Scammers By Patrolling Their Shopfront

America’s new anti-spam CAN-SPAM Act is a great way to stop spam, so long as the spammer is legit. The problem is, most spammers aren’t.

Mass.-based software company Ipswitch Inc. estimate that more than two-thirds of all spam is deceptive, meaning that spammers disguise the links to their website “behind unrelated graphics and pictures, or by camouflaging their site as a commonly used consumer e-tail site”. Some of this, of course, is real business (however sleazy) but a lot of it is scamming. From Ipswitch’s press release it’s not quite clear whether their software is aiming at the former, the latter or both.

“Over two-thirds of all spam messages include deceptive content intended to trick the recipient into believing the sender represents a legitimate business,” said John Korsak, messaging product marketing manager at Ipswitch. “Because of their legitimate look and feel, recipients do not associate these types of messages as spam when they appear in their email in-box. To protect people from unknowingly sharing private financial details, it is critical email providers employ a URL Domain Blacklist to verify the sender’s true identity.” That kind of sounds like most spam is scam, which can’t be right. It’s bad, but it is not yet that bad.

Anyway, the URL Domain Blacklist is one filter in 20 in Ipswitch’s IMail Server — the others are Bayesian Statistical filtering, Reverse DNS Lookups, SMTP filters, and whathaveyou — which “unmasks illegitimate spam messages by looking at the actual underlying link and comparing it to a growing list of more than 18,000 repeat spammers”.

It’s not a bad idea. Links are the one things all spams and scams have in common, and they’re relatively easy to identify, unlike text (which can be disguised by clever use of HTML, the language used to create webpages, or by images). But there are still problems, and the press release (and website) are maddeningly imprecise about what, exactly, is being targetted here: Spam or scam?

If it’s the latter, I don’t think URL blacklists are going to be much help. From what we know of phishing scams, the main email-based scam, the website addresses that scammers want us to go to don’t last very long — sometimes only a few hours — meaning that you need to have a very long and rapidly updating list of known scammers. And while Ipswitch is probably right in arguing that they don’t get many false positives — good email mistaken for spam — I don’t think that’s the problem here. The problem is you’re chasing the one element in your average scam email that’s changing most: The scammer’s Internet shopfront. That can be set up and pulled down in a matter of minutes.