Tag Archives: online world

Social Media and Politics: Truthiness and Astroturfing

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a column I wrote back in November. I’m repeating it here because of connections to astroturing in the HBGary/Anonymous case.)

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 answers to these questions aren’t of academic interest only. They go right to the heart of what may be our future. More and more of our world is online. And more and more of our online world is social media: A quarter of web pages viewed in the U.S. are on Facebook. So it’s not been lost on those who care about such things that a) what we say online may add up to be a useful predictor of what we may do at the shops, the movies, at the polling booth. And b) that social media is a worthwhile place to try to manipulate what we think, and what we do at the shops, the movies—and at the ballot box.

There is plenty of evidence supporting the former. Counting the number of followers a candidate has on Facebook, for example, is apparently a pretty good indicator of whether they’ll do well at the ballot box. The Daily Beast set up something called the Oracle which scanned 40,000 websites—including Twitter—to measure whether comments on candidates in the recent U.S. elections were positive, negative, neutral or mixed. It predicted 36 out of 37 Senate races and 29 out of 30 Governors’ races and nearly 98% of the House races. That’s pretty good.

Dan Zarrella, a self-styled social media scientist, counted the followers of the twitter feeds of 30 senate, house and governor races and found that in 71% of the races, the candidate with the most Twitter followers was ahead in the polls. And Facebook found that candidates with more Facebook fans than their opponents won 74% of House races, and 81% of Senate races. More than 12 million people used the “I Voted” button this year, more than double that in 2008.

Why is this interesting? Well, social media, it turns out, is quite a different beast to even recent phenomena such as blogs. Social media, it turns out, really is social, in that more than previous Internet methods of communication, it reflects the views of the people using it. It is, one might say, democratic.

A study by researchers from the Technical University of Munich of the 2009 federal parliamentary elections in Germany, for example, revealed that, in contrast to the bulletin boards and blogs of the past, Twitter was reflective of the way Germans voted. Unlike bulletin boards and blogs, they wrote, “heavy users were unable to impose their political sentiment on the discussion.” The large number of participants, they found, “make the information stream as a whole more representative of the electorate.”

In other words, social media is as much a battleground for hearts and minds as the rest of the world. Even more so, perhaps, because it’s easier to reach people. Forget knocking on doors or holding rallies: Just build a Facebook page or tweet.

And, maybe, hire some political operators to build a fake movement, aka astroturfing?

Astroturfing, for those not familiar with the term, is the opposite of grassroots. If you lack the support of ordinary people, or don’t have time to get it, you can still fake it. Just make it look like you’ve got grassroots support. Since the term was coined in the mid 1980s it’s become popular activity by marketers, political operators and governments (think Chinese 50-cent blogging army). Astroturfing, in short, allows a politician to seem a lot more popular than he really is by paying folk to say how great he is.

Whether social media is ripe for astroturfing isn’t clear. On one hand, we know that the Internet is full of fakery and flummery: Just because your inbox is no longer full of spam doesn’t mean the Internet isn’t full of it—87%, according to the latest figures from MessageLabs. You don’t see it because the filters are getting better at keeping it away from you. Twitter, by contrast, is much less spammy: the latest figures from Twitter suggest that after some tweaks earlier this year the percentage of unwanted messages on the service is about 1%.

So Twitter isn’t spammy, and it broadly reflects the electorate. But can it be gamed?

We already know that Twitter can spread an idea, or meme, rapidly—only four hops are needed before more or less everyone on Twitter sees it. In late 2009 Google unveiled a new product: Real time search. This meant that, atop the usual results to a search, Google would throw in the latest matches from the real time web—in other words, Twitter and its ilk. So getting your tweets up there would be valuable if, say, you were a political operator and you wanted people to hear good things about your candidate, or bad things about your rival. But were people doing this? Two researchers from Wellesley College in Massachusetts wondered.

Panagiotis Takis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj studied the local senate race and found that they were. They looked at 185,000 Twitter messages which mentioned the two competing candidates and found that there was plenty of astroturfing going on—where political supporters were creating fake accounts and repeating each other’s messages, and sending them to likely sympathizers, in the hope of their messages hitting the mainstream.

The researchers found one group, apparently linked to an Iowa Republican group, was sending out one tweet a second linking to websites “exposing” their rival’s missteps and misstatements. Overall, the message they sent reached more than 60,000 users. The researchers concluded that “the fact that a few minutes of work, using automated scripts and exploiting the open architecture of social networks such as twitter, makes possible reaching a large audience for free…raises concerns about the deliberate exploitation of the medium.”

The point here is not merely that you’re propagating a point of view. That’s just spam. But by setting up fake Twitter accounts and tweeting  and then repeating these messages, you’re creating the illusion that these views are widespread. We may ignore the first Twitter message we see exposing these views and linking to a website, but will we ignore the second or the third?

This discovery of Twitter astroturfing in one race has prompted researchers at Indiana University to set up a tool they call Truthy—after comedian Stephen Colbert’s term to describe something that someone knows intuitively from the gut—irrespective of evidence, logic or the facts. Their tool has exposed other similar attacks which, while not explosive in terms of growth, are, they wrote in an accompanying paper,  “nevertheless clear examples of coordinated attempts to deceive Twitter users.” And, they point out, the danger with these Twitter messages is that unless they’re caught early, “once one of these attempts is successful at gaining the attention of the community, it will quickly become indistinguishable from an organic meme.”

This is all interesting, for several reasons. First off, it’s only in the past few months that we’ve woken up to what political operators seem to be doing on Twitter. Secondly, while none of these cases achieves viral levels, the relative ease with which these campaigns can be launched suggests that a lot more people will try them out. Thirdly, what does this tell us about the future of political manipulation in social media?

I don’t know, but it’s naïve to think that this is just an American thing. Or a ‘what do you expect in a thriving democracy?’ thing. Less democratically minded organizations and governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the way they use the Internet to control and influence public opinion. Evgeny Morozov points to the Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “whose suave manipulation of cyberspace was on display during the 2006 war with Israel”; my journalist friends in Afghanistan say the Taliban are more sophisticated about using the Internet than the Karzai government or NATO.

The good news is that researchers are pushing Twitter to improve their spam catching tools to stop this kind of thing from getting out of hand. But I guess the bigger lesson is this: While social media is an unprecedented window on, and reflection of, the populace, it is also an unprecedented opportunity for shysters, snake oil salesmen and political operators to manipulate what we think we know.

It may be a great channel for the truth, but truthiness may also be one step behind.

Social Media and Politics: Truthiness and Astroturfing

(This is a longer version of my syndicated newspaper column)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

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 answers to these questions aren’t of academic interest only. They go right to the heart of what may be our future. More and more of our world is online. And more and more of our online world is social media: A quarter of web pages viewed in the U.S. are on Facebook. So it’s not been lost on those who care about such things that a) what we say online may add up to be a useful predictor of what we may do at the shops, the movies, at the polling booth. And b) that social media is a worthwhile place to try to manipulate what we think, and what we do at the shops, the movies—and at the ballot box.

There is plenty of evidence supporting the former. Counting the number of followers a candidate has on Facebook, for example, is apparently a pretty good indicator of whether they’ll do well at the ballot box. The Daily Beast set up something called the Oracle which scanned 40,000 websites—including Twitter—to measure whether comments on candidates in the recent U.S. elections were positive, negative, neutral or mixed. It predicted 36 out of 37 Senate races and 29 out of 30 Governors’ races and nearly 98% of the House races. That’s pretty good.

Dan Zarrella, a self-styled social media scientist, counted the followers of the twitter feeds of 30 senate, house and governor races and found that in 71% of the races, the candidate with the most Twitter followers was ahead in the polls. And Facebook found that candidates with more Facebook fans than their opponents won 74% of House races, and 81% of Senate races. More than 12 million people used the “I Voted” button this year, more than double that in 2008.

Why is this interesting? Well, social media, it turns out, is quite a different beast to even recent phenomena such as blogs. Social media, it turns out, really is social, in that more than previous Internet methods of communication, it reflects the views of the people using it. It is, one might say, democratic.

A study by researchers from the Technical University of Munich of the 2009 federal parliamentary elections in Germany, for example, revealed that, in contrast to the bulletin boards and blogs of the past, Twitter was reflective of the way Germans voted. Unlike bulletin boards and blogs, they wrote, “heavy users were unable to impose their political sentiment on the discussion.” The large number of participants, they found, “make the information stream as a whole more representative of the electorate.”

In other words, social media is as much a battleground for hearts and minds as the rest of the world. Even more so, perhaps, because it’s easier to reach people. Forget knocking on doors or holding rallies: Just build a Facebook page or tweet.

And, maybe, hire some political operators to build a fake movement, aka astroturfing?

Astroturfing, for those not familiar with the term, is the opposite of grassroots. If you lack the support of ordinary people, or don’t have time to get it, you can still fake it. Just make it look like you’ve got grassroots support. Since the term was coined in the mid 1980s it’s become popular activity by marketers, political operators and governments (think Chinese 50-cent blogging army). Astroturfing, in short, allows a politician to seem a lot more popular than he really is by paying folk to say how great he is.

Whether social media is ripe for astroturfing isn’t clear. On one hand, we know that the Internet is full of fakery and flummery: Just because your inbox is no longer full of spam doesn’t mean the Internet isn’t full of it—87%, according to the latest figures from MessageLabs. You don’t see it because the filters are getting better at keeping it away from you. Twitter, by contrast, is much less spammy: the latest figures from Twitter suggest that after some tweaks earlier this year the percentage of unwanted messages on the service is about 1%.

So Twitter isn’t spammy, and it broadly reflects the electorate. But can it be gamed?

We already know that Twitter can spread an idea, or meme, rapidly—only four hops are needed before more or less everyone on Twitter sees it. In late 2009 Google unveiled a new product: Real time search. This meant that, atop the usual results to a search, Google would throw in the latest matches from the real time web—in other words, Twitter and its ilk. So getting your tweets up there would be valuable if, say, you were a political operator and you wanted people to hear good things about your candidate, or bad things about your rival. But were people doing this? Two researchers from Wellesley College in Massachusetts wondered.

Panagiotis Takis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj studied the local senate race and found that they were. They looked at 185,000 Twitter messages which mentioned the two competing candidates and found that there was plenty of astroturfing going on—where political supporters were creating fake accounts and repeating each other’s messages, and sending them to likely sympathizers, in the hope of their messages hitting the mainstream.

The researchers found one group, apparently linked to an Iowa Republican group, was sending out one tweet a second linking to websites “exposing” their rival’s missteps and misstatements. Overall, the message they sent reached more than 60,000 users. The researchers concluded that “the fact that a few minutes of work, using automated scripts and exploiting the open architecture of social networks such as twitter, makes possible reaching a large audience for free…raises concerns about the deliberate exploitation of the medium.”

The point here is not merely that you’re propagating a point of view. That’s just spam. But by setting up fake Twitter accounts and tweeting  and then repeating these messages, you’re creating the illusion that these views are widespread. We may ignore the first Twitter message we see exposing these views and linking to a website, but will we ignore the second or the third?

This discovery of Twitter astroturfing in one race has prompted researchers at Indiana University to set up a tool they call Truthy—after comedian Stephen Colbert’s term to describe something that someone knows intuitively from the gut—irrespective of evidence, logic or the facts. Their tool has exposed other similar attacks which, while not explosive in terms of growth, are, they wrote in an accompanying paper,  “nevertheless clear examples of coordinated attempts to deceive Twitter users.” And, they point out, the danger with these Twitter messages is that unless they’re caught early, “once one of these attempts is successful at gaining the attention of the community, it will quickly become indistinguishable from an organic meme.”

This is all interesting, for several reasons. First off, it’s only in the past few months that we’ve woken up to what political operators seem to be doing on Twitter. Secondly, while none of these cases achieves viral levels, the relative ease with which these campaigns can be launched suggests that a lot more people will try them out. Thirdly, what does this tell us about the future of political manipulation in social media?

I don’t know, but it’s naïve to think that this is just an American thing. Or a ‘what do you expect in a thriving democracy?’ thing. Less democratically minded organizations and governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the way they use the Internet to control and influence public opinion. Evgeny Morozov points to the Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “whose suave manipulation of cyberspace was on display during the 2006 war with Israel”; my journalist friends in Afghanistan say the Taliban are more sophisticated about using the Internet than the Karzai government or NATO.

The good news is that researchers are pushing Twitter to improve their spam catching tools to stop this kind of thing from getting out of hand. But I guess the bigger lesson is this: While social media is an unprecedented window on, and reflection of, the populace, it is also an unprecedented opportunity for shysters, snake oil salesmen and political operators to manipulate what we think we know.

It may be a great channel for the truth, but truthiness may also be one step behind.

Enough Mainstream Silliness, Please: The Social Web Works

I’m a big fan of mainstream media — course I am, I work for them — but I’m also a big fan of the other stuff. Like Wikipedia. It’s usually the first place I start if I’m trying to familiarize myself with a new subject, even a new one.

Which is why I get uppity when mainstream media disses Wikipedia with the kind of broad-brush strokes it usually accuses the online world of making. Like this one from The Boston Globe, in a story (not a column) about social finance sites:

The wisdom of the crowd may be a fine way to discover the most amusing YouTube video, but Wikipedia has been vilified for inaccuracies, and the online world hardly has a reputation as a trustworthy source.

In one short sentence the writer manages to dismiss

  • YouTube as a mere site for “amusing” videos,
  • the “wisdom of the crowd” as a mere mechanism for finding stuff,
  • Wikipedia as apparently the mere butt of vilifiers, and
  • the online world as, basically, untrustworthy.

Sources? Examples? A measure of balance? Er, none.

Now I like the Globe, and I love the IHT, where I read this, so I’m guessing this might just have been a bit of sloppy editing or last-minute “background” so enamored of editors. But frankly I can find very little vilifying of Wikipedia, at least if one counterbalances the criticism with the praise  — and the sheer numbers: nearly 2 million articles in English, in the top 10 websites. (The best source, by the way, for criticism of Wikipedia is, er, Wikipedia; the piece has 125 external references.)

So, come on, mainstream journalists. The time is past for sniffy, unsubstantiated asides about things like Wikipedia. The social web has already established itself and proved itself. It ain’t perfect, but neither are we.

Sharing the wealth – The Boston Globe

Another Birthday, Another Batch of Birthday Spam

bday  

It’s that time of year again. The big old 3 0, or however old I am. And the first where I’ve really felt the power of social networks. Not in a good sense, though. Sure, it’s been nice to get some greetings from ‘loose ties’ in my online world who spotted, in one social network or another, that today is my birthday. Thanks, Graham and co. Really.

But all the other stuff? From websites I signed up for and, in a moment of madness, entered my real birthday (tho usually, the wrong year: 1900. That should mess up their stats.) There’s something rather sad about finding yourself getting more email greetings from services you’ve signed up for than from real people. How pathetic is that?

And not just for my own miserable existence. How is it that companies think that folk like me either a) enjoy being wished a happy birthday by some automated computer script, or b) are ready to believe that employees at the company involved sat around and thought “Oo! It’s Jeremy’s birthday today! We should send him something!” Either way I come across as pretty stupid.

Which I’m not necessarily disagreeing with. Hey, I’d rather get birthday spam than nothing at all. And when you get to my age either your friends have long given up on you or think you’re too old to get real birthday cards with little badges stuck on them you can wear. Message to friends and Auntie Mildred: You’re never too old to get cards with badges on. Never.

Of course, social networks aren’t all bad. At least with services like Facebook you can send birthday greetings and be reasonably sure they actually arrive. Which is more than you can say for those e-cards. Those silly email services where you choose the least lame ‘card’ from a very lame selection and whisk it off, feeling you’ve done the best you can for your buddy/spouse/mother. Awful. Thankfully, no-one sends those anymore, knowing that either they’re so lame they were losing friends/spouses/mothers or that most of them wouldn’t get through spam filters.

Anyway, we should be smarter than this by now. I’d love to see social networking tools used better to celebrate birthdays. We all know we don’t actually remember people’s birthdays; we remember to put them into some diary or calendar so it reminds us. Preferably before the day itself. Technology has just made that more efficient. But it’s lame to then just turn what is supposed to be a very personal experience into a generic one by automating birthday greetings. Who (besides me) wants one of those?

Social networking tools should offer users the chance to opt out of receiving birthday greetings, or to receive them only from insanely attractive members of the desired gender, or automate a quick whipround so the birthday person gets a free year’s subscription or a real g-string or something. I don’t want to sound venal, but whoever enjoyed a birthday made up of only greetings cards or their online equivalent? Where, in short, is the loot?

Why can’t, for example, a mall recognize someone with a birthday has entered the building and offer them freebies and piped ‘happy birthday’ music through the tannoy system? Or car-parks offer free parking? Or banks extra credit? If these companies were sincere about wishing us a happy birthday, shouldn’t they put their money where their mouths are?

And, finally, a thought. Why, if I registered my year of birth as 1900 for these services, aren’t the companies either awarding me ‘oldest living customer’ badges, or sending someone round on my birthday to check I’m ok/still alive, or something? If they really cared, wouldn’t they make more of a fuss of their 107 year old customer?

Directory of Attention

This week’s WSJ column (subscription only, I’m afraid) is about attention:

If you feel the Internet has both blessed you with an abundance of information and cursed you by drowning you in it, I have one word which might help make sense of it all: attention. (And, if you give me enough of your attention, I promise to give you a tip about how to cope.)

It’s beginning to dawn on people who ponder these kinds of things that it’s attention, not information, which lies at the heart of the new online world. In a world full of information, the scarcest commodities are your eyeballs and ears.

Here are some links to find out more. Suggestions very welcome, as ever.

Attention, according to The Attention Trust, is the substance of focus. It registers your interests by indicating choice for certain things and choice against other things. Any time you pay attention to something (and any time you ignore something), data is created. That data has value, but only if it’s gathered, measured, and analyzed.

A definition of Attention Data from Chris Saad. And I like this one from, again, The Attention Trust:

When you pay attention to something (and when you ignore something), data is created. This “attention data” is a valuable resource that reflects your interests, your activities and your values, and it serves as a proxy for your attention.

Wikipedia’s entry on the Attention Economy, and The Attention Economy: An Overview from the excellent Read/Write Web, are also well-worth a read (as well as the comments.) A look at Google’s role in all this from Sam Sethi, who asks: Is Google building the Attention Economy?

I quoted liberally from Anne Zelenka, who is writing a book on this kind of thing. Check out her blog here, and a great piece she wrote on where attention fits into the whole Web 2.0 thing.

Stuff to play with:

  • Particls, formerly Touchstone, which is a ticker that tries to understand you or tick you off. (My description, not theirs.)
  • I didn’t have a chance to write about Attensa for Outlook, but it’s trying to do something a bit similar.
  • Or the AttentionMap, which “helps you keep track of your attention on a daily basis.”

See also my Directory of Lifestreams

Word Of Blog And Summer Puddles

I love this idea from hugh of gapingvoid in his summer puddles post: The idea is that blogs are cheap and they’re easy and that scares ad agencies because they’re in the business of selling you stuff that is neither.

But he also points out:

The more I think about this line, the more I think it applies to A LOT MORE industries than just advertising.

A lot of us make good livings selling expensive, specialised stuff that in future will become easier and easier to replace. And the way Society has educated and socialised us will make us and our children completely unable to respond effectively.

There’s a good chunk of the middle class that, although certainly nice people, hard working, reliable and whatnot, are not particularly bright, creative, or too fond of original thought, nor taking risks.

This class I see being bled white over the next few decades, as their niches dry up like summer puddles.

Are blogs the thin end of a wedge that lowers the price of everything? It’s not impossible. Blogs are just cheap websites (compare an ordinary blog to the lame, overpriced attempts of big companies to develop the same look and feel, such as this one, also linked to by hugh.) The success of a blog online has nothing to do with the amount of money invested in it (the usual way to differentiate your brand from another).

But where is the link beyond that? Blogs aren’t the whole economy. But they could be. Think of Byron’s Clip n Seal, sold via blog. Think of how ideas, tips, products and collaborations spread via word of blog. Think of how thousands of people are inspired to create online tools etc for free because of the blog community’s support. Think of how traditional media are quivering at the realisation that their combination of news delivery and advertising is being undercut by the online world. Any of us in a ‘specialised job’ must know that the game may be up.

The Tag Report III: Bowen Dwelle

Here’s a chat I had with Bowen Dwelle on tagging.

JW: i just wanted to get my brain around your tag posting, and get your views on the broader tagging (r)evolution.

Bowen: I attempted some sort of explanation of this in this post:
Bowen: said again, there are several ways to classify information — human top down (Dewey, DMOZ, old Yahoo directory), machine “AI”, machine brute force (Google), etc. Brute force is great, but doesn’t allow the human value-add and the power to social networking to take effect…
JW: yeah, that’s well put…
Bowen: Top-down categorization breaks down almost immediately. I used to build search engines and such (HotBot), and I never thought that directories were very interesting at all. Think about how confusing the yellow pages is because you don’t know where to find Restaurant, Supplies, Retail – ugh.
Bowen: So even though there is some built-in level of “error” in tags (mis-spellings, synonyms, etc), in aggregate the social network adds more meaning than it costs in terms of effort.
JW: where do you see it going?
Bowen: As illustrated by my own crude efforts on my blog, I think that a “tag” centric view of one’s own online world is a useful one. The number of recent tools that have emerged that leverage the tag metaphor shows that people get it.
Bowen: Technorati, Flickr, delicious, etc
Bowen: Some are pointing to Google’s nofollow
Bowen: “nofollow” thing as a “tag” – although I don’t think it’s quite the same
JW: that’s just a way to cut comment spam from page rankings, no?
Bowen: right.
Bowen: but gmail does tags…
JW: that’s true.
Bowen: basically, the idea of having some mechanism to tie various axes of data (email, links, photos, etc) together, and then being able to pivot on those axes is very useful
Bowen: it gives people a comprehensible way to link things together
Bowen: and, most importantly, it gives people a way to link to other people, and — potentially — to be grouped together..

Thanks, Bowen.

Is It Really The Russian Mafia?

TechNewsWorld, in an article entitled “Worm Variants Part of Russian Mafia Extortion Scheme”, quotes Gartner research director Richard Stiennon told TechNewsWorld as saying of the recent spate of computer worms: “the real intent of the dueling viruses is to deny site availability to online gaming companies and other sites that have not complied with Russian mobsters’ demands”. But is it? And who are these ‘mobsters’?

Stiennon is quoted as saying, “The worm writers this time around are really cyber criminals in Russia. They’re using [the worms] to recruit bots (compromised computers) to launch denial-of-service attacks, mostly against online gaming sites, after failing to extort large payments from the sites.”

Unfortunately there’s no further evidence provided about just who these mobsters are. I’m willing to believe that some Russians are behind it, and I’d love to see some evidence that online casinos are being extorted, but I’m less willing to believe it’s the Russian Mafia (or mob). In Russia the mafia are a quite distinct — and very powerful — part of the establishment, but they’re not quite the same thing as the range of individuals, and loose-knit groups, that populate Russia’s online world.

This kind of report has been doing the rounds for at least a year (The Russian Mafia were also suspected of being behind the October 2000 assault on Microsoft’s servers). I’m not saying it’s wrong, but I think those who utter it have a responsibility to produce more evidence than we’ve seen so far.