You’ve probably heard of the term astroturfing being used to describe fake grassroots campaigns that are designed to deceive the public about the extent of support a specific cause actually has. Well, I’m not sure who coined the related term “astrospammers”, but we seem to have this new twist on the phenomenon showing up in blogs discussing net neutrality issues. I first read about these kind of suspicious comments showing up on net neutrality-related blog postings over on IP Inferno, where Ted Shelton noted that after a recent post he wrote about net neutrality three random anonymous strangers went to the trouble of creating brand new blogger accounts in order to post pro-telco comments on the subject.
The Abstract Factory did some sleuthing on one of the new net neutrality commenters called “Net Chick”, and concludes that is likely this persona is a paid spammer supporting an astroturf-like campaign againsty net neutrality:
“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.
The issue is bubbling up in the blogosphere and today there are posts on TechDirt and the Technology Liberation Front about these suspicious comments. I think Cynthia Brumfield accurately summarizes many of our feelings about the situation in her IP Democracy post titled Do Broadband Providers Employ Blog Comment Shills?:
I’m not sure what to make of this. It sure seems like organized blog commenting to me. But is this kind of coordinated commenting wrong?
The answer has to be no, if the coordination is simply like-minded individuals who get roused by the same posts, all know each other and are compulsive writers. On the other hand, if these are paid industry representatives, they have every moral obligation to state that fact when posting comments so that we all at least know which side their bread is buttered on.
It’s fine to hold the opinions that this tag-team obviously does and it’s fine to express those opinions in a coordinated fashion. What I find unseemly is the prospect that these commenters are paid by the cable and phone companies to make these comments and aren’t disclosing it.