Opinion Swarming & Vote Stuffing

Stephen Colbert did a humorous segment on truthiness lastnight, this time on the topic of historical revisionism. You canview the clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmHm0rGns4I.

What made this segment particularly famous (or infamous) wereStephen’s (Mr. Colbert’s?) comments regarding theillustrious Wikipedia:After indicating that he was revising some entries to alterhistory, pretending to do it on a laptop during taping (asupposed Stephencolbert user pretty much simultaneously — to theairing, not the taping — made a couple of edits correlatingwith the show. These edits were on the topic of George Washington and  The Colbert Report recurring elements, exactlyas indicated on the show. This user could just as easily havebeen a third party following along, but the effect is the same, andis just as humorous), he then coined the new word Wikiality.

What really raised the ire of the Wikipedia defenders,however, was Mr. Colbert’s humorous petition for users tosupport him in his quest for historical revisionism, altering theWikipedia entry for elephants to support a fictional 3xincrease in the total population over the past 6 months(“Explain that Al Gore!“). Many played along, until eventually the page in question (andvirtually all other pages related to elephants) was locked to avoidthis jovial vandalism.

Personally I think Stephen made a brilliant point, even if therewas a bit of collateral damage. Some of the reaction to it hassimply been ridiculous.

  • This isn’t really an indictment of Wikipedia (and in factfurther solidifies its place in mainstream culture).
  • It isn’t a “validation of Wikipedia” that these vandalisms werecaught and reverted, or that protections were put in place(basically undermining the core principals of Wikipedia, albeittemporarily). 

    The people and groups truly dedicated to revisionismgenerally don’t advertise their actions nationwide (which brings upthe scary fact that a remarkable number of people viewing theColbert Report don’t realize that it’s satire).

    If a completely independent enthusiast of sugar-and-sugar-producersdecides to alter sections of the sucralose entry to highlight(exaggerate?) possible health risks, would the Wikipedia editors(who themselves aren’t immune from suspicion) know that it’smisinformation Would a sucralose defender be just as motivated tomonitor the site to ensure that the representation remains fair andbalanced, or would they be skewing things the opposite way Is itmisinformation if it’s using the ambiguity of the English languageto accentuate some points that support one’s interests, whileundermining those that counter it?

  • Such a user-contributed system will invariably havesubmarined biases depending upon who is the most motivated tocontribute and to police. The perspective of widespreadinternet-enabled countries, for instance, will be magnified anddominant (have you ever notice how widespread the Canadianperspective is on the English internet We have quite a few peoplewith high-speed cluttering the English language sites. It’s oftencold with nothing to do, so we spend a lot of time online). Theperspective of special interests and motivated minorities will bemagnified.

    I don’t mean to single this particular group out, but Irecently heard about a group of Israelsupporters that have taken to swarming sites andonline pollsto skew it towards the Israeli perspective. They’ve even goneand built a system tray application to make sure supportersare alerted when distributed vote stuffing is called for.

  • Stephen Colbert didn’t suddenly make nefarious agents aware ofsomething they previously had no idea about — there have beenprofessional groups, with offices and everything, working tosubvert information to favour certain interests for decades, andthey’ve certainly used their techniques on the net as well.Thinking that it was safe until Stephen Colbert mentioned it is aslogical as saying the water supply is safe until someone postulatedthat it could be poisoned by terrorists.

Of course these, err, truths hold for more than justWikipedia: Virtually any user-contributed site faces the sameproblems.

Reddit, for instance — anup and coming meme site — lets users “vote” which linksand comments are most, well, in line with one’s ownview (while the links get rated on a what is occasionally ameritocracy, the voting on comments is usually extremely one sided,having very little to do with presenting a valid, well-spokenargument, and more to do with saying something that correlates withevery fly-by voters opinion. It is actually embarrassing seeingyour own comment scored up because you happen to share the majorityview, while the well-written and convincing posts of your adversarysink into underflow territory).

Using an apparently basic votes-over-timealgorithms, the app determines which links to put onthe front page — Getting on the front page is obviously adesirable place to be for someone try to push a perspective or anagenda (remember that the majority of users on most of these sitesare lurkers – while many people are set in their position, and arevaliant, tireless crusaders for the cause, there are a lot ofpeople who are on the fence, absorbing whatever information on atopic is presented to them, willing to change their position basedupon new inputs). My personal experience here has been that aReddit front page isn’t anything like a Digg front page in thevolume of traffic it sends to you, but it still brings in aconsiderable number of users ready and waiting to be stuffedwith one’s perspective.

So how does one get on the front page Well aside from panderingto the natural bias of the Reddit crowd (a crowd that leans towardslibertarianism/anti-authority/extreme liberalism/Lispism, ademographic that is heavily reflected in the vote patterns),getting on the front page can be accomplished with little more thana dozen votes over a short period of time (one vote per IP, folks).Staying on the front page for a work day can be accomplished withjust a couple hundred up votes.

Topping the all time record books in the Reddit universe takesless than 900 up votes after the negations have been subtractedout.

How hard is it for a special interest to manipulate a site likethis The Israeli support site up above is fairly open andinclusive in their advocacy, but surely all such groups aren’t soforthright — Microsoft has some 60,000 employees, and while theyhave a limited number of work IPs, there are certainly 10s ofthousands of home IPs that can be used to push an agenda. The samegoes for oil companies, and virtually any other largeorganization.

While I hardly think an organization like Microsoft is going toenlist employees in a concerted astroturfing drive, is itdifficult to imagine that there are similar groups doing somethingsimilar right now I’ve already pointed out the Israel supportorchestration above (and for those who would argue that theirvotes are legitimate, the problem is that it’s completelydisproportionate. It’s why user-initiated poll submissions andfeedback comments are usually absurdly skewed and not-correlatingwith reality – the people voting often have a vested interestmotivating their actions), and every bit of common sense says thatthey aren’t alone.

Once this approach has been mastered at Reddit, move on thelarger meme sites like Digg – a couple of thousand votes on Digg isall it takes. Hire some botnet authors if need be.

(Note: This isn’t intended to be a “how to”, but this issue hasbothered me for a while. Before hearing about the Giyussite mentioned above, I had already considered making an opinionswarming coordination web app, allowing groups to administer andprivately coordinate opinion bombing runs. My goal was to highlighta potential problem, rather than enabling this sort ofactivity)