Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Anti-network neutrality astroturfing comment spam

Exhibit A: Read the comments to my post from Sunday, May 21. Notice anything about the two comments by "Net Chick"? Do they strike you as, perhaps, somewhat perfunctory and non sequitur given what I wrote in the extensive main body of my post?

Exhibit B: Observe "Net Chick"'s Blogger profile, which reveals that "her" account was created recently, in May 2006. Note the utterly generic username, and the absence of any personal details or blog; screencap below.

Does anyone find it odd that somebody who just got onto the Internet in May 2006, and has no home page, has such strong opinions about telecommunications regulations?

Exhibit C: Observe the Google searches for '"Net Chick" network neutrality' and "posted by net chick", which reveal a wide array of comments splattered across the web under the same pseudonym. Click through to a few links, and you will see perfunctory talking points repeated in response to every post, with little regard for the post's content. Notice that all blog comments to date by "Net Chick" concern network neutrality legislation; not only does "she" care about network neutrality, it's the only thing "she" cares about.

In case the results of the above linked searches change, here are a few direct links where you can find comments which are probably (or certainly) by this same (ab)user: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven... I guess that's enough for now. (UPDATE: If you run one of these blogs, please don't delete Net Chick's comments; we need them for evidence.) Below, for posterity, I have also captured screen shots from a few of these links.


Exhibit D, just to beat this dead horse down: post to Ars Technica...

...and corresponding profile, freshly created in May 2006:

Okay, enough evidence. Time to render a verdict.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have been defaced by a comment spammer. Not your garden-variety porn/drugs/gambling comment spammer, who would have made certain to include at least one link to an advertising-supported website somewhere in either the post or the profile page. Nor is this the work of a mere desperate narcissist spammer, who would have made some link to a personal blog available.

No; "Net Chick" is an astroturf comment spammer: an astro-spammer, if you will. Judging by the volume of spam (dozens of sites, rather than hundreds), the degree of comment differentiation, and the variety of comment systems to which the astro-spam was posted, I'm guessing that it's a human being, rather than a computer program. For this quality of A.I., it's probably cheaper to pay a human than to hire a computer scientist to write a program. This appears to be retail astro-spam, not wholesale astro-spam, although it's likely that the same entity's posting a lot more under other aliases.

(In fact, among the commenters from my original thread, the pseudonyms "Luv2Box", "MRT", "watcher", "stevens33", and Katie2020 all look pretty suspicious to me. Note the absence of links to any substantive personal page, blog or otherwise; yet these people care deeply enough about telecom policy to comment en masse at other blogs? Well, OK, it looks like "Luv2Box" has shilled previously for the Iraq War as well.)

Now, note the following traffic log, timestamped roughly when "Net Chick"'s most recent comment was posted:

This visitor left his/her browser window open for over twenty minutes, which isn't consistent with automated comment spam. Also, notice that the comment originates at an IP in Charleston, WV, which isn't the home of any major PR or telecom companies. At first, this puzzled me: what seasoned spammer would waste that quantity of time on an individual blog? Why is the spam originating from a home DSL provider in podunk West Virginia, rather than a city with major PR firms? Then I made the connection: I also recently received anti-net neutrality email advocacy spam from a PR company that provides integrated, cross-medium marketing services. The people posting the astro-spam aren't tech-savvy viral PR ninjas; they're telemarketing employees being paid minimum wage by the hour to browse Technorati and comment on the blogs they find. "Net Chick" is probably some suburban housewife moonlighting as a PR shill, or some guy who lives in his parents' basement and can't get a real job.

Notice, incidentally, that all most comments by "Net Chick" et al. appear on posts that tilt against network neutrality legislation. This makes me wonder about the online marketing strategy. Do they have different personas for posting to different sorts of blogs? How much latitude do they leave the telemarketers? Etc. I have more evidence that leads me to speculate about these things, but I prefer to keep it quiet for now. If the astro-spam sponsors see too many of the bread crumbs they're leaving behind, they'll change up their strategies.

Anyway, I'm not the first one to notice that the shills have come out: Seeing the Forest, MyDD, and IPDemocracy appear to have run across a different pack of pseudonyms shilling on the blogs they read, although I've documented "Net Chick" somewhat more thoroughly.

This sort of thing will only become more common (and more subtle) in the future. Henceforth, be wary of any blog comment that isn't backed by some persistent and credible web identity, one with a history. Even be suspicious of comments that are backed by a history. The PR-industrial complex is all around us.

I also plan to aggressively delete comments that strike me as shill-ish in the future, leaving previously posted comments for forensic purposes only. As you can imagine, I am pissed (though not surprised, since I've always been pretty paranoid).

UPDATE 31 May: Fixes: (1) Telemarketers get paid somewhat more than minimum wage. (2) Added more links to astro-spammed blog posts.

UPDATE 1 June: Fix: Moved a link that was confusingly placed.


  1. Good detective work! (I found you via Bora at Science & Politics, who also praises your efforts.) Just one more reason that online pseudonyms aren't necessarily a good thing.

  2. "Elayne",
    Just admit that you've been paid by Cog to shill for him and we can finally end this whole charade.


  3. Thank's for your tip. I found your site through my own blog admin screen (I'm example eight in your post). I actually started to get several comments similar to those of "Net Chick". I'm working on improving my commenting system.

    I'm all kinds of paranoid now. I also feel very used.

  4. Very interesting speculation. The evidence you presented doesn't completely convince me, but it is compelling.

    A year ago I had several comments about my post on Bill Oreilly. I took these remarks at face value until I saw them pop up elsewhere. Apparently zealous individuals google the scandal-of-the-week (with Bill, there are many), and insert some kind of spirited defense.

    It's not really comment spam (in a way that groups sending preprinted postcards to their congressmen is not spam) but it definitely reduces the quality of online discourse.

    The question is how to prevent astroturfing from overrunning online comment sections. Is it wrong to filter comments merely because of their blatently partisan nature?

  5. Stevens33 is another shill, as far as I can tell. "He" and "Net Chick" often make comments together. However, there was a Stevens33 that was complaining about shills, yet most of the other posts I see by Stevens33 looks like a shill.

  6. Please email me the IP address of the person who posted as Netchick. I've got some from Netvocates to try to match it up with.... background info here: http://www.cybersoc.com/2006/06/netvocates_ip_a.html

  7. Sitemeter does not record exact IP addresses. You can find Net Chick's subnet by clicking through the traffic log screencap linked in the post above.

  8. hm)
    thanks for information)
    i only start to study different things about blogs)

  9. Good point! this Net Chick sounds mighty fishy.

    I am going to be ironic now and astroturf you myself, but because i am warning you it isn't really the same thing i guess.

    my videoblog investigates 'astroturfing', and you should check it out if you're interested in this new (and troubling) trend.


    thanks, angela.

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. By all hi!!!
    I from Russia. I am sorry for my bad English!!!
    At me the question because of what events occurs increase PR of a site?
    At me on a site PR-2 why so happens...
    Whether it influences search???