Tag Archives: politician

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.

Transparent Blogging: The Pronk Effect

We could learn some lessons about blogging, honesty, accountability and the distinction between public and private views from an unlikely source: the U.N.’s special envoy to Sudan. Jan Pronk, expelled last month for comments on a blog he was writing about the conflict, has replied to an email I sent to him shortly after he was expelled in which he answers some questions about his blog. The full transcript is below. (My original piece about his blog and expulsion is here.)

His experience and attitude, I think, offers some pointers for diplomats, politicians, CEOs and anyone holding an official position. The lessons are actually the same for any person with information that others may find of interest: try to be honest, try to be accurate, and don’t pretend that there’s some distinction between a personal and an official position.

Mr. Pronk’s blog is unusual in several ways. First off, it’s extremely clearly written (unusual, if I may say so, for someone at that elevated level.) Secondly, it pulls no punches. Thirdly, and most interestingly, he sought nor received any official permission from the U.N. bureaucracy to keep the blog. And that brings us to the fourth point: the U.N. was able to make use of his blog to point journalists asked for background about what was going on in Sudan, but at the same time insisted the blog was a personal one [Inner City Press]. Mr. Pronk sees this kind of distinction as “nonsense. First, I said the same in the press conferences which I gave in my official capacity. Second, how could somebody in my position make a distinction between official and private?”

I think Mr. Pronk is right. There is no distinction between a private and personal comment if the person expressing it is known to hold an official position and that position is known. Sorry, that sounds rather pompous. But if it’s done nothing else, blogging has shown us that attempts to make these distinctions fail. We readers are not stupid, and blogs have made us even less so. We can see that Mr. Pronk’s comments about morale in the Sudanese army are not the official U.N. view. Mr. Pronk sees his blog as part of his public accountability — by informing us of the situation in Sudan he is also showing us that his knowledge and understanding of the situation are sophisticated enough to inspire confidence.

Lastly, the argument that Mr. Pronk undermined the process by not being diplomatic enough is nonsense: He may have upset the host government with his comments, but that was not his job. His job was to try to bring peace to the country. To do that he needed to show as many people as possible that he was aware of the situation on the ground, was neutral, and was trying to inform as many people inside and outside the country as possible about the situation. Mr. Pronk is, like blogging, all about transparency, and I believe he’s helped set a new benchmark for public officials which I hope a few choose to follow.

Here’s the full question and answer email:

1) What led you to start a blog?

I had two reasons. First, I like combining my work as a politician with analytical reflections on what I am doing and on the environment within which I am working.. I have always done so, by lecturing, by making extensive notes for myself and by writing articles. It helps me focussing. Blogging for me was just an extension, using another instrument. I had a second reason: to be accountable, not only to the bureaucracy in New York, but broader. I consider myself much more a politician than a diplomat. Politicians have to be accountable and transparent. I have tried to be accountable by giving rather extensive press conferences in Khartoum. However, the press in Sudan is not free to write everything they hear.

2) Did you have to get anyone’s permission or approval beforehand?

No.

3) How did you maintain it? Was it all done by yourself, or did you have someone to help you post your entries and photos?

I wrote everything myself. I send my texts and the pictures which I choose to somebody who puts it on my site. He had designed the site. I am not very skilled in those things, but it is my intention, at a later stage, to do everything myself.

4) How do you feel your blog helped? Was it a personal thing, or something you felt the peace process needed?

In the beginning not many people did read it. But gradually the circle widened. I got mostly positive reactions, though not many, say five each day. (It is different now). I also wrote to inform people in Sudan and neighbouring countries. While much to my regret I do not speak or write Arabic, there are many Sudanese who read English. These people often do only have access to official press propaganda information.

5) Were there any downsides to the blog, do you think?

As a matter of act, no. I was told that many in he UN bureaucracy did not like this, but I did not consider that important. SG Kofi Annan never mentioned the blog, until a day before I was declared persona non grata. In writing my blog I tried to be clear, but even-handed and honest, not making up stories, but providing information which had been checked. Of course it is always difficult to combine, in one text, news with commentaries. That is the eternal dilemma for a journalist. However, I am not a journalist. I am a politician. It is the duty of a politician to provide opinions on the basis of facts. In my position I had to combine a political approach with the attitude of a diplomat. Some may say that I was not successful. However, that has nothing to do with blogging. I had to combine the two approaches also in press conferences. (By the way, it has been said that my blog only reflected my personal opinion. This is nonsense, for two reasons. First, I said the same in the press conferences which I gave in my official capacity. Second, how could somebody in my position make a distinction between official and private? I have always maintained: ‘’It is not important where you say something, but what you say. If you want to criticize, don’t criticize the channel, but the message”.)   

6) Did anyone ask you to close down the blog prior to the recent fracas?

No.

7) What are your plans for the blog?

My strength was that I could write on the basis of my experiences from the field, as a direct witness. I do not have that opportunity anymore. Moreover, after 1/1/2007 I will no longer be Special Representative of the SGUN. That would make anything I write less authoritative. However, I do intend to continue blogging, writing about issues which I consider important and about which I have gathered some expertise: international relations, foreign policy, UN, climate policy, human rights policy, peace keeping, international development cooperation. But I will do so in a different capacity, say, as an academic.

The Defense Minister’s Blog

I’m much amused that news that Juwono Sudarsono, a lovely man and Indonesia’s defense minister, has started blogging has hit the blogosphere. This from Shel Israel, co-author of naked conversations:

Yesterday, I wrote a piece about politician blogging. Today, I realized how very myopic that post was because I wrote only about American politicos and cited Independence Day. This came to my attention today through the Jakarta Post, where reporter Ong Hock Chuan mentions Naked Conversations in an article about Indonesia’s Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono has started a blog.

Sudarsono’s most recent post deals with striking candor of the challenges of getting bureaucrats who clicked their heals in obedience under past government dictators to move with efficacy in the new democracy. His language remains a bit formal, but the content is pretty impressive stuff.

Blogging really is changing the world. I’m happy to be reminded of how much.

This even got picked up by a blogger at the World Bank (yes, I know! Whatever next?) who says it might be a hoax. It’s not; it’s legit. The site is held together by one of Juwono’s sons.

Actually, it is an important development, but with all due respect to Shel, Ong (who started all this discussion) and to the Bank, it’s probably a bit early to cite it as an example of blogging changing the world. Juwono is a very well respected figure in Indonesian politics, but he has always trod a lonely furrow. As far as I know he’s the first senior figure in either business or government in this country who has embarked on this initiative, and it’ll be interesting to see how it develops. He is engaging a young Indonesian audience and a foreign readership who remain understandably skeptical of the country’s leadership and direction. What he is not able to do through a blog is to engage the 200 million odd Indonesians who don’t have access to a computer, an Internet connection or English lessons. What is impressive, however, is that Juwono has replied to those people commenting on his blog (twice, on this post) so this is a good start. Congratulations, Pak.

How to Make More Use of the Vicar

In last week’s WSJ column (subscription only, I’m afraid) I wrote about how Bayesian Filters — derived from the theories of an 18th century vicar called Thomas Bayes and used to filter out spam — could also be used to sift through other kinds of data. Here’s a preliminary list of some of the uses I came across:

  • Deconstructing Sundance: how a bunch of guys at UnSpam Technologies successfully predicted the winners (or at least who would be among the winners) at this year’s festival using POPFile, the Bayesian filter of choice;
  • ShopZilla a “leading shopping search engine” uses POPFile “in collaboration with Kana to filter customer emails into different buckets so we can apply the appropriate quality of service and have the right people to answer to the emails. Fortunately, some of the buckets can receive satisfactory canned responses. The bottom line is that PopFile provides us with a way to send better customer responses while saving time and money.”
  • Indeed, even on-spam email can benefit from Bayes, filtering boring from non-boring email, say, or personal from work. Jon Udell experimented with this kind of thing a few years ago.
  • So can virus and malware. Here’s a post on the work by Martin Overton in keeping out the bad stuff simply using a Bayesian Filter. Here’s Martin’s actual paper (PDF only). (Martin has commented that he actually has two blogs addressing his work in this field, here and here.)
  • John Graham-Cumming, author of POPFile, says he’s been approached by people who would like to use it in regulatory fields, in computational biology, dating websites (“training a filter for learning your preferences for your ideal wife,”, as he puts it), and says he’s been considering feeding in articles from WSJ and The Economist in an attempt to find a way predict weekly stock market prices. “If we do find it out,” he says, “we won’t tell you for a few years.” So he’s probably already doing it.

If you’re new to Bayes, I hope this doesn’t put you off. All you have to do is show it what to do and then leave it alone.  If you haven’t tried POPFile and you’re having spam issues, give it a try. It’s free, easy to install and will probably be the smartest bit of software on your computer.

I suppose the way I see it is that Bayesian filters don’t care about how words look, what language they’re in, or what they mean, or even if they are words. They look at how the words behave. So while the Unspam guys found out that a word “riveting” was much more likely to be used by a reviewer to describe a dud movie than a good one, the Bayesian Filter isn’t going to care that that seems somewhat contradictory. In real life we would have been fooled, because we know “riveting” is a good thing (unless it’s some weird wedgie-style torture involving jeans that I haven’t come across). Bayes doesn’t know that. It just knows that it has an unhealthy habit of cropping up in movies that bomb.

 In a word, Bayesian Filters watches what words do, or what the email is using the words to do, rather than look at the meaning of the words. We should be applying this to speeches of politicians, CEOs, PR types and see what comes out. Is there any way of measuring how successful a politician is going to be based on their early speeches? What about press releases? Any way of predicting the success of the products they tout?

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News: Blogging For Politicians, Iranian Style

 If you need convincing that blogging is not some nerdy fringe activity, here’s some: Iranian vice-president Mohammad Ali Abtahi is a blogger.
 
 
It’s in Persian, iranFilter (a collective news blog) says, and is the first blog by a major Iranian politician. It’s personal rather than political, but has some nice surprises, such as secret photos of Eduard Shevardnadze, and accounts of personal and unofficial conversations with government ministers.