What A Rise in Astroturfing & Sockpuppeting Might Mean

A few years ago the terms “astroturfing” and “sockpuppeting” were quirky social media names, although the concept of astroturfing actually pre-dates today’s social media. These tactics (definition below) have long been a mainstay of American political party tactics and sometimes in other democratic nations. For the most part these political weapons were used to shape perceptions in mass media and then social media so it would seem a large number of people supported an issue or at least to attempt to re-frame an issue in the target audiences mind. As we at MediaBadger conduct a fair bit of public policy and stakeholder issues analysis in social media, we’ve been tracking the use of these tactics for the past four years.

An Increase in Sockpuppeting & Astroturfing
Reviewing 30 reports from the past three years (2010 to 2013) where we provided analysis of the use of these tactics, we have seen a 47% increase in the use of sockpuppeting and astroturfing in social media and news media websites where we have a 85% or higher confidence level in their use. We have a set of criteria we apply under review by human analysts to determine if these tactics are in play.

Business Has Picked Up These Political Tools
No longer are these tactics the domain of just political parties either. We’ve noted increased use of these tactics by large corporations and sometimes smaller businesses. When it comes to businesses using these tactics it is usually to drive down search engine and social media results/content of competitors or as a tactic to promote a specific product. Some larger corporations, such as those in the extractive resources sector may also be using them (or their hired PR firms) to attempt to sway citizen opinions on matters of public policy that impact mega projects.

Non-Profits, Unions Are Engaging
NGO’s and NPO’s too seem to have picked up on this tactic. Usually it seems to be when they are involved in a campaign where they are attempting to sway citizen opinion regarding an issue of interest. Especially when it may involve legislation impacting them.

Shaping The Narrative
As we’ve indicated before in our blog posts and research findings, once a “myth” that starts online spreads and gets picked up by mass news media, it can become the narrative. Using sockpuppeting and astroturfing can be an effective way to attempt to change that narrative, or to create an alternate myth that may become reality.

Can You Monitor Social Media for These Tactics?
If a social media monitoring term claims it can, we would strongly recommend taking a very close look at their analytics software. We’re working on this problem within our own software team, providing three years of data to train the system. So far, accuracy is proving difficult and right now it takes a combination of technology and humans.

But at the end of the day, these tactics seem to be on the increase. Being aware of them is key and ensuring your organisation is considering them in analysing social media is becoming increasingly important to develop strategies of engagement.

Definitions of Sockpuppeting & Astroturfing
As promised we provide a definition, naturally from a crowdsource tool, Wikipedia;

Sockpuppet for the Internet and Astroturfing

Astroturf MediaBadger

Why Business Needs To Understand The Deep Web

It’s often called the deep, dark underbelly of the Internet. The place of lurkers and nasty types. Yes, it is. But it is also a place of great ideas and good content. The deep web isn’t all bad…so just what is the “deep web” anyway? Why is it important for businesses to get their heads around it? After all, most businesses are struggling to understand social media and now the deep web is raising it’s ugly head. But it can’t be ignored.

What is The Deep Web (a.k.a Invisible Web)?
It is very much part of the Internet. In fact, Google itself estimates the Deep Web is about 500 times larger than the “surface web” that Google crawls and indexes. Yes, that’s right. Why doesn’t Google or Bing or other search engines crawl it? Good Question. Because some people and organisations don’t want Google or Bing or DuckDuckGo to search it. They block inquiries from search engines. Not necessarily because it’s bad content, they just see no reason to share on consumer search engines. And yes, sometimes it is bad or illegal content…it may even be your software someone is selling there, your Intellectual Property. It is exactly the same technology as everywhere else online…just not as easy to get to.

How Do You Access The Deep Web? Is It Public?
Anyone can access it (unless you’re in Iran or maybe China where they filter it) any time of day, no passwords or registration required. All you need is a TOR Browser (you can find it on Google, but we gave you the link); the most common and popular is Onion TOR and it works exactly the same as FireFox, Chrome, Safari or Internet Explorer…with bookmarking and all the rest. It’s easy to access and use. You launch your TOR browser, wait for the associated software to assign you a neutral IP address to make you anonymous and off you go…you can use InfoMine for example or CompletePlanet and InfoPlease sort of…mostly you will need to access the HiddenWiki and EvilWiki to start (no links can be given; they’re deeper than this website!)

There are some sort of search engines for the Invisible Web, but not many. Most people use directories. Websites on the Deep Web can come and go very quickly. Forums disappear within hours or days, servers are pulled off line and some shut down by authorities. It is public, because anyone can access it with the right software, the same as using Chrome or FireFox…just don’t expect either of those browsers to work with the Invisible Web because they won’t. It’s all about being anonymous.

Who Polices The Invisible Web?
Interpol, FBI, CIA, RCMP, MI6 and MI5 and other agencies are all very much aware of and engaged in, the Deep Web. It’s no secret. Many Jihadist groups and elements of Al-Qaeda use the Deep Web for communications. So do the pedophiles, hackers and other lunatic fringe groups. It is a place of “information warfare” right now. We’ve done enough research there to see it and know.

Why Companies Should Care
Governments; spy agencies and police, are already there. So why should a business care? Do you have some Intellectual Property you’re looking to protect such as software, recipes or methods? It can be posted there. We’ve found a few cases of this for clients including a recipe for a food product. Yes, that’s right. An angry employee posted it there. So much for that IP. We’ve found process documents, snippets of code and more. Increasingly, agitators are there; using the social media tools in the Deep Web to coordinate and organise…there are a number of other reasons corporations need to be aware of the Invisible Web…but hey, we’re a business, so ask us for more insights?

Opportunities of the Deep Web
Not everything that happens in the Deep Web is bad. Sometimes the Invisible Web can reveal competitor activities to take advantage of. Perhaps new insights for a product or how to gain a strategic advantage in the market place. It isn’t all negative.

Being Prepared for the Deep Web
The “Deep Web” or the “Invisible Web” (it isn’t invisible, it’s easily visible so that term drives us nuts at MediaBadger!) is far larger than the Internet most companies know. It’s dynamic and evolving. Social Media has become far more than a threat and opportunity place for businesses, the Deep Web is a whole other entity and businesses need to be aware of it…wonder where your secret sauce went? Your latest software? Right. If any social media monitoring service tells you they cover the Deep Web, they are lying. It just isn’t that easy. We’ve spent years developing a special crawler and even then, it’s just not that easy. So if they tell you, ask them to prove it. In the meantime, a wise senior marketer, PR professional or corporate security executive will inquire and take note.

MediaBadger- Deep Web


How Social Media Insights Can Help Healthcare Policy

Having completed several research projects for pharmaceutical companies and federal government health authorities, we’ve come to find that deep research into social media activities by citizens can help inform public policy and product development/marketing. Based on our experience, we provide here a quick overview into how to leverage social media research and Big Data analysis for public healthcare practitioners.

Program and Campaign Evaluations: Whether it’s smoking cessation awareness campaigns, disease awareness or handwashing campaigns, social media analysis can add a whole new layer over traditional evaluation methods. Traditional methods such as polling, focus groups and surveys are still key approaches, but digital research can offer insights only gained through passive observation. Insights that include emotion (sentiment), how a message is received by the public and how it is spread across a community, province or nation.

Policy Planning Insights: In the planning stage, sometimes a quick scan of the issue through citizens views can aid in the final policy development. Citizens talk a lot about health issues, not just personal issues, but management of healthcare in a community, province, state or country. For instance, in research into diabetes, we found that a large number of conversations were held about access to healthcare and public policy regarding education and treatment.

Idea Generation & Innovation: Research and analysis of social media for public policy issues on health can provide some unexpected insights. As planners and practitioners look for innovative ways to approach policy development or programs, sometimes, through this more “passive” form of listening, ideas from citizens and citizen groups can be found. A whole solution may not be presented, but part of the wonder of social media engagement by citizens is the powerful sharing of ideas. An idea may provide the trigger a healthcare professional  needs to take a new and innovative approach.

This Is Open Big Data Analytics for Healthcare: While traditional methods of research and insight are still absolutely necessary, Big Data analysis (in this case social media and open web sources) can provide a new layer of human insights. Traditional methods of research and evaluation are based on precise, smaller data sets. This requires special attention to ensuring complete accuracy and cleanliness of data. When we look at analysing Big Data (social media etc.) we deal with much larger data sets, requiring less strict cleaning and accuracy, gaining stronger inference insights. In one sense, we go from n=xx to n=ALL.

All of this of course, requires stepping outside a traditional methodology approach and evolving ToR’s (Terms of Reference) to integrate digital analysis with traditional.

Social Media Monitoring is Not Social Media Research: It can be tempting to simply sign-up for any one of the hundreds to social media monitoring tools. But these are unlikely to provide deep insights. These tools are designed to take a “snapshot” of the “now” or very recent. They are also only skimming the surface of the social media iceberg, often missing where the deeper, more valuable conversations take place. In addition, while they may offer some analysts, these are more often than not, marketers with a focus on public relations, not on public policy. It is why at MediaBadger we engage analysts with a background and education in public policy, sociology, anthropology and healthcare, as well as rule of law, international policing and more. Here is an example of our research into public health professionals use of social media for some insight into the types of information that can be found.

Detecting Financial Fraud via Social Media in Alberta

The ever increasing availability of ‘online data’ provides investors, big and small, with a tremendous new opportunity to enhance their due diligence capabilities.  To demonstrate, MediaBadger undertook an analysis of indicators of fraudulent activities discovered through citizen comments in social media channels around a investment fraud case in the Alberta’s courts in 2012. Our objective was to see if there were warning signs before the case became public.

 Criminal charges were laid against Gary Sorenson, of Merendon Mining, and Milowe Brost of the Calgary-based Institute for Financial Learning (IFFL) in 2009. The pair was accused of defrauding around 3,000 people in Canada, the U.S. and overseas out of anywhere from $100 million to $300 million between 1999 and 2008.  Sorenson, Brost and Dennis Morice of  Arbour Energy were also fined by the Alberta Securities Commission for what was one of Canada’s biggest frauds, but our research suggests that open-source, publicly available, digital media channels (e.g. social media) provided early indicators of suspicious or potentially fraudulent activity in the investment scheme, before criminal charges were made public. The evidence of suspicious activity as seen on-line, and is depicted on the timeline graphic below, provided advance warning to victimized investors.
 This case exposes evidence that should have been warning signs to investors and portfolio managers. The information was publicly available for discovery in social media channels long before the criminal investigation became public knowledge.  If the research methods, technologies and ongoing monitoring by MediaBadger (a Google search wouldn’t be sufficient to uncover warning signs in most cases) had been employed in a timely fashion, investors, investment  agents, regulatory authorities, oversight bodies, and law enforcement could have been ‘forewarned and forearmed’ of suspicious activity:
  • Prompting tougher questions from investors, that might have helped them avoid the deal entirely;

  • Raising warning signs after investments were made that steps had to be taken quickly to prevent the loss of all or some of their investment;

  • Extending regulators’ reach into cyberspace for information to deepen due diligence research; and,

  • Enabling investigators’ to conduct more efficient and comprehensive investigations across borders and time.

In Summary
This is one of a few cases we have documented where warning signs were present in open Web sources. Securities watchdogs, commercial crime investigators, even consumers and financial firms, have a new resource available to them through public data online; this ranges from social media to news media. An advantage of social media today is that people are speaking their minds and sometimes revealing golden bits of information that when understood, by placing them into context, can lead to critical insights that can save consumers and governments millions and reduce instances of fraud. Keeping in mind this is all publicly available information – people who make public statements online that are visible to anyone. They are not statements made in private channels.
(Authors: A. Colson [Calgary office], M. MacKinnon, G. Crouch)

Cultural Identifiers in Social Media

We’ve done a lot of research work around uses of social media in both developed and developing nations. We’ve shared a fair bit of that work. One aspect that always struck us as interesting is how people identify themselves in discussions around politics, elections and other civil society issues. A recent research project with Freedom House of Washington DC that involved elections in Kenya and hate speech use gave us even further insight.

Tribal Identifiers in Africa | Social Media
Adding our most recent research project in Kenya, we’ve now done social media research on Ghana, Sudan, Kenya, Tunisia, South Africa, Somalia and Nigeria. In all instances, we found that when tribal units are discussing politics and civil society issues outside of social media channels restricted to their own tribes or social groups, they will identify their tribal affiliation 93% of the time. Total sample size would be n=30,000.

Cultural Identifiers in Latin America | Social Media
From research projects that have encompassed Mexico, Honduras, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay we noticed that people in these countries will also  identify themselves by tribal affiliation in political and civil society discussions 89.7% of the time across social media channels. Total sample size would be n=20,000.

Cultural Identifiers in USA, Canada and UK | Social Media
We don’t really have tribal affiliations across most societies in Canada, USA and UK; taking into account non-diaspora communications. What we did find however, is that people still tend to affiliate with “place” such as stating “I’m from Wisconsin and…” or “I’m a Newfoundlander and we….” Which essentially are social group identifiers. Total sample size would be n=80,000.

Cultural Identifiers in Other Cultures | Social Media
We find similar practices in research we’ conducted in India (they will identify as Hindi or Sikh for example) and the Middle East (declaring Sunni or Shiite for example.) We found this trait in some parts of Asia as well, although our research into the use of social media in Asia is currently extremely minimal. Total sample size would be n=120,000.

What Does This Tell Us?
For some reason, perhaps an anthropologist can shed some light? We, as in humans, tend to want to make it clear what socioeconomic or cultural group we self-identify with when making statements, claims or arguments on issues in social media. Why is such self-identification important? Do we expect other readers to acknowledge a set of “issues” that define a certain cultural group? What are the implications for public diplomacy or digital diplomacy?

It sets up a lot of questions, but the facts seem to indicate that cultural self-identification remains an important social issue in online communications. What are your thoughts?