While traditional media outlets claim to “embrace the conversation,” are they still holding it at arm’s length? Is it enough to host comments and invite input online, without the due diligence to see if others are manipulating the agenda?
A few days ago, I wrote about what appeared to be a fairly obvious case of Astroturfing – the practice of creating fake “grass roots” in order to make it seem like public opinion was different than reality. One of my biggest clues was the sheer volume of comments posted between the moment the story went live at 5 a.m., and the time I read them (dozens of them) at 6:15 a.m.
If newspapers were a little more sophisticated about this sort of thing, they might check their IP logs and see the source of all that recent traffic — most of which is not washed through any proxy, and does give decent geographic information.
For example, let me show you the sort of data one can mine if they use the right tools:
As you can see, both of these visits came from Boca Raton, Florida, and the visits overlap in time. Curiously, you can see from the out-click information that both of them left comments. They also come from different browsers, which is a nifty little way to be logged onto the same site concurrently from different profiles.
As it happens, those comments correlate in time to a pair of comments left here, by people purporting to be “5 Points Joe” and “Garlic Rolls,” two screen names you see used in the AL.com comment threads about Bingo. “Garlic Rolls” is one of the many commenters who is firmly for a vote of the people and is pro-gambling, while “5 Points Joe” is a little more skeptical, and is often accused of being a “Sock Puppet” handle for Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor Joey Kennedy. (That accusation is laughable on several counts, but I digress.)
Here is the screen shot of my WordPress comment administration panel, verifying the IP addresses of the comments. I took the liberty of blurring out the email addresses used by those who posted, for reasons I will get to later.
Since the panel shows newest comments at the top, you can see that the “5 Points Joe” comment, left at 6:27pm, came first. I seriously doubt this is from the real 5PointsJoe, because a quick look at his comment history shows him engaged on a number of issues not related to gambling in Alabama. Why would a paid lobbyist based in Boca Raton be so involved in flood warnings at schools, police trials, and whether George Barber is a good guy for offering free land downtown for business development.
Brad (claiming to be Garlic Rolls), on the other hand, has only posted in bingo-related threads. And in the comment, Garlic claims to be on unemployment in the state of Alabama, while posting from Boca Raton. I would think that someone whose lamenting the loss of his/her minimum wage job would be staying someplace cheaper than Boca Raton while cashing those Alabama state unemployment checks.
But hey, I’ve been wrong before.
I’m not a betting man, but here’s where I would put the smart money:
- Both comments were left by the same person.
- Neither email address shows up in searches.
- Wanting to throw me off the trail, the Phony Joe was left first, so the Garlic Rolls could respond.
The entire thing reeks of underhanded manipulation. And it parallels a more fundamental question raised by the real Joey Kennedy of the Birmingham News, about transparency and our right to know who is paying for all the issue advertising.
Round-Up the Turf Merchants
If I were a reporter, I’d be wanting to chase down some pertinent data. A couple of years ago, this same newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for investigating corruption in Alabama’s two-year college system, and that entire series of stories started with a request for a raw data dump. Brett Blackledge asked for the raw records, and started stitching together the tendrils until the narrative came into focus. But I’m not so certain that will be as easy to accomplish here, because most newspaper web sites are run as completely different divisions. I do know that AL.com is run out-of-state, and there is likely not decent access to the raw information that could establish patterns of astroturfing.
What about privacy? The News doesn’t publish letters sent anonymously, so I don’t buy the precedent that this is somehow invasive.
I love my lawn. It is good turf. But some turf is wrong, and deserves to be terminated.
So, who wants to do a little digging into firms that handle political campaigns and public relations efforts out of Boca Raton?