Tom makes some interesting points on my recent post on subverting the census. Interestingly, Google’s spam filter prevented the comments from being posted immediately. Was this simply because they made reference to “astroturfing” or was it for some entirely deeper and darker reason?
Either way, I’ll reproduce them in full here:
There is more about the Peace News blog saga than meets the eye and which could lead to several new lines of enquiry and discussion.
1) Yesterday evening I searched the phrase “How to fill in your census form without Lockheed” and got about 30,000 hits. (for reasons which I do not understand at all, the number of hits you get is sometimes much less, sometimes not, in such a search)
2) Here is a link to an article which looks in a technical way at it as a new type of protest action:
3) Here is a blog with comments on the subject of “astroturfing” (i.e. fake posts by PR operators)in relation to the Peace News blog:
3) Finally, as far as I can find out there has been not one word in the print media about it all. They only discussed the issue in terms of the – my opinion false – choice between compliance and boycot. It would surely now be quite safe to report on something which has already happened and is fully in the public domain. Should I find this odd?
Thus I do wonder, if only for an idle and light-hearted second, whether, on this occasion, Google’s spam filter filtered spam or served, rather more darkly, to filter arguments which must not be countenanced.
Anyhow, Tom continues his pursuit of what would appear to be a rather cack-handed astroturfing commenter here. Again, I’ll reproduce in full what both have to say on the subject. First the alleged astroturfer:
The flaw with this being, Lockheed Martin do not process the forms. All they did was create the tracking system. Their job is done, dusted, and paid for. Lockheed Martin do not and will not see your completed forms. hey go to the ONS in Manchester for processing! By creating more work, you are making the census more expensive overall, and where do you suppose the money comes from to pay for this? Personally I prefer to take the ten mins it takes to fill it in, post it back, and never be bothered by it again… at least not for a decade.
I must laugh at this idea to deliberately make the paper un-scannable by the software. Many people have a problem with the fact that their personal information is being recorded. Besides the obvious point that all this info and much much more is readily available to the government if they really wanted it, by writing badly and forcing a human to manually type in your details, well then your details will be seen. If you write legibly and allow the software to do its job, no one need see your personal details at all.
Oh and on another note, if only for example 80% of people in your district return the forms, the local council, schooling, healthservice, libraries and all other public sector services, will only receive 80% of the funding they are entitled to… so if you failed to return your form, think twice before you complain about the state of your roads or the closure of your local library!
Lastly, a friend of mine is working for the census this year, and her fear is that people will be rude and aggresive towards her when she makes calls to collect their forms. If you do happen to be contacted by Census workers, do remember they work for the ONS, not Lockheed, nor the government, so be civil!
Now Tom’s response:
A comment about Ker’s post. Forgive me for the length of what follows. It is important, but there is a lot to it. Ker’s post seems a bit incoherent and doesn’t actually address the issue properly. I first saw this post on the Peace News blog, and found it a bit odd, so I investigated. I followed all the links of people who posted comments and Ker’s identical post turned up everywhere, sometimes under another name. At that pount, a little alarm bell rung: I had heard of fake posts, by PR agencies on behalf of commercial or political interests. This is one of them, but not as subtle as I would have expected.
We are dealing here with something called “astroturfing”. Below are 2 links to explain in much greater detail what this means.
Basically, the PR industry has discovered that you can influence opinion by internet infiltration of discussion forums etc. by imeans of inserting fake comments which look as if they are made by real people. This is dangerous, because it can be effective. Yesterday I met someone who was actually taken in by some of those on the Peace News blog (there are several ones now). This particular one (Ker’s) is a primitive and unsophisticated one, which laboriously tracked links by hand. I searched, and found that it did not get all that far. I ran also a very simple check: put a characteristic phrase, with an oddly placed comma: “The flaw with this being, Lockheed” in the Google Advanced Search option of “this exact wording or phrase”, but no new ones turned up in addition to the ones I had al ready found.
I think that the reason why there are not many more and much more sophisticated “astroturf” posts relating to the census and the Lockheed Martin contract is that there has been so little time between the date of the Peace news Blog (21 march) and the census date (27 March). The moment has long passed that anyone can do anything about it anymore. But, from point of view of Lockheed Martin, the stakes are very high indeed.
In terms of the company’s overall turnover, the UK census contract may be small beer, but they also run the census contracts for the USA. Currently (May this year) they are the contractors for the Canadian census (links with details below). With all those similar contracts in the English speaking world, it is beginnning to add up. Even that aspect of their operations is no doubt quite small compared with their arms business, but it has an all-inportant function: such civilian work “cleans up” their brand image, i.e. it helps to legitimise the company. If the Peace News blog had appeared earlier, they would have had much more time to act on it and we might have seen a barrage of astroturfing and other obstructive and disinformation techniques. They were really caught on the hop (no mean feat by a few peaceniks againts a MASSIVE U.S. arms company – the largest in the world, I believe)
The implication for internet social network sites is basically that as long as they deal with matters which do not threaten big vested interests, they will be left alone. As soon as they happen to hit upon something big, they become an astroturfing target. In a sense it is nothing new: everybody in the Westen capitalist world grows up with advertising and opinion- manipulating messages all round him/her as a natural environment. We have learned to ignore it all by and large. From the advertising poster to the tupperware party and then to astroturfing is a process of refinement by the PR industry to reach people at a more and more personal level, which will never stop. But on the internet, it will take us a bit of time to learn to deal with it, for it contaminates open and democratic sites.
This is in a sense a science fiction world. When you encounter an astroturfer you are basically dealing with a robot – or an android – a manufactured, non-human entity. I know of 2 ways to catch them out.
1) The “Techie” way: you try to track down URL and servers to find the source. This will get harder and harder as the astroturf techniques develop. (I am not a techie and leave it to others to work on this)
2) The “Humanist” way: you detect the absence of truly human spontaneity, feeling and thought. There is a certain Dalek quality about the astroturfer (Yes, media studies at Uni and education in literature and poetry are important!). There is a clear economic dimension to it. You can’t cheaply mass-produce spontanous human speech and thought: it would be prohibitively expensive to try it. I firmly believe that this is a boundary the PR industry cannot cross. Authenticity is always hand-made and thus expensive. If it feels wrong, check it out. Everybody who writes has a “signature” he or she is not really aware of: a certain mannerism, a characteristic spelling or typing error, a recurring stock phrase, and so on. If you home in on those, you can trace astroturf posts even if they are cleverly changing (i.e. mutating) between one post and the next.
I am a 61 years old computer dinosaur, and I am new to all this myself. Please take it away, improve it, and help to educate others. This is the new internet world which is now taking shape.
Here are the promised links for the Lockheed Martin Canadian census contract (their census is next month, in May):
And here is a good Canadian protest site:
Please tell your Canadian friends and relatives about it.
I have to say when I first read the Peace News Blog “rebuttals” (here and here in particular), my response was as follows:
[...] I have to say that when I first read the rebuttal on Peace News via the comments section, it did strike me as a little strange. Couldn’t put my finger on it – but something didn’t ring quite right. As if a temp would poke his or her head over the parapet to defend their short-term employer …
Whilst this example of someone wanting without ulterior motive to “tell the other side of the story” was practically a press release.
Finally, whilst the massive silence from mainstream media in relation to the alleged links Lockheed Martin has with the more unsavoury underbellies of international relations definitely begs questions, especially as the biggest question of all – why any government should choose an arms manufacturer to process a census in the first place – doesn’t seem to be getting an airing anywhere, we come across these paragraphs and conclusion from one of the reports Tom links to in one of his comments, on the subject of what those of us who care enough about these things could do in the future:
A blueprint for paper-based protests
What we have here is a blueprint for future protests that could exploit the mismatch between online and paper-based services. It isn’t really a denial of service (DoS) attack, of course, as the aim is not to deny anyone access to the service.
The authorities should be worried about this sort of thing, as the current situation, with incomplete computer penetration and a mismatch between the costs of online and paper, make the danger almost unavoidable.
There may be an indication of worry from Lockheed or the authorities: amongst the comments to Peace News’ article there is one supposedly from someone employed by Lockheed to process forms, saying “census workers earn a flat rate no matter how much work we have to do. So all that extra processing work? It doesn’t cost the arms manufacturer guy a penny while I have a shitload more work to do for nothing.”
However, census workers’ terms of employment are published and they are on an hourly rate – other commenters see this as a “Lockheed plant”.
If so, then it could be that people are starting to worry about this mode of protest.
So. If you want to subvert a government which wishes to drive its policy-making via a huge virtualisation of data collection, the easiest thing you can do is to take advantage of and deliberately deepen the digital divide by reversing the process – and demanding paper-based application forms for this, that and almost anything you have to provide in the future.
With the added advantage of it being entirely legal – and, what’s more important, entirely legal for the foreseeable future …
Unless, of course, Lockheed Martin, the government and perhaps even my beloved Google know something completely different.