Posted by Thomas Nephew on August 22nd, 2006
I got curious the other day about a comment left some time ago at this blog. I won’t identify it, so that I can discuss the the IP address it traced to without revealing an identity that perhaps shouldn’t be revealed — and without leveling a precise charge that can’t yet be supported. Suffice it to say a political opinion was involved, as is of course the case for most comments here.
Haloscan — the comment service for this blog — permanently records IP addresses of published comments, and site owners can examine them with the “Manage Comments” utility. In addition, I’ve built the SiteMeter script into the comment code. Together, this gives me a chance to quickly learn about commenters and, when necessary, report spammers or ban unwanted commenters. In this case, the IP address — 151.200.70.X (I know but won’t say the final block number) — turned out to be registered to
DEMOCRACY DATA & COMMUNICATIONS, LLC
1029 North Royal Street, Suite 200
Alexandria, VA 22314-1542
Interesting name — so I tried to learn more about it. And lo and behold, Democracy, Data & Communications (henceforth DDC) is in the astroturfing business — or, as the Wikipedia entry on the subject puts it:
…formal public relations projects which deliberately seek to engineer the impression of spontaneous, grassroots behavior.
A defunct “Rational Grounds” post preserved by Teresa Nielsen Hayden once noted DDC’s involvement in sotto voce Bush administration P.R. campaigns for its Medicare and “No Child Left Behind” education initiatives — the latter famously blowing up on the front pages with the Armstrong Williams “paid shill” story:
An internet campaign was also mounted through Democracy, Data & Communications, a company with a breathtaking record in the astroturf world. A quick WHOIS/nslookup investigation turned up oodles of DDC fronts. [detailed list to follow] Their client list is also pretty impressive.
More interesting yet was a DailyKos article by “leveymg” sharing what he learned investigating a Craig’s List Help Wanted ad for “OnPoint Advocacy,” which turns out to be a DDC affiliate. Kudos to the Washington Post’s Jeffrey Birnbaum for much of the information in this post; his September 15, 2005 “For Online Advocates, Click Here” article provides a lot of excellent background:
It’s hard to imagine two issues of less interest to most voters than free trade with Central America and a cut in the tax on dividends paid to the owners of stock
Yet the latest in lobbyists’ wiles — a grand elaboration on Internet advertising — managed to rope hundreds of thousands of average Americans into the congressional debate on both matters and was instrumental in passing the measures into law
The until-now unheralded trick-of-trade was bankrolled by the Business Roundtable — an organization of chief executives from 160 large companies — and was executed by Alexandria-based Democracy Data & Communications LLC and its OnPoint Advocacy affiliate. It worked so well that the Roundtable is experimenting with it as a way to revive President Bush’s foundering effort to make private accounts part of Social Security
“It’s the future of lobbying,” said John J. Castellani, president of the Roundtable.
I can’t know at this point whether my commenter was (1) a regular citizen somehow tagged with the DDC IP address as he/she was forwarded to my site, (2) a DDC employee who just happened to surf to my site that day, or (3) a DDC employee involved in cruising targeted web sites and leaving comments* — perhaps (4) a so-called “Advocacy Coordinator,” the position “leveymg” found an ad for:
Exciting start-up, grassroots firm currently has openings for Advocacy Coordinators working in house or from home. In this position you will be working with a team of dedicated professionals doing issue-based advocacy work; educating, organizing and mobilizing grassroots advocates by phone and e-mail. Ideal candidates will be highly motivated, politically minded individuals with outstanding communication skills, both written and verbal, who thrive in a campaign style work environment. A strong interest in and working knowledge of politics and public affairs are essential. Campaign experience strongly preferred.
The latter two possibilities — call it the “paid shill” theory — are more disturbing to me, but even the first one — call it the “astroturf grass blade” theory — would illustrate that Margaret Mead was more right than she knew when she said “Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world when they’ve got millions of dollars worth of IT services to play with.” (Or something like that.) As the idealists at OnPoint — IP address 18.104.22.168 — put it:
OnPoint Advocacy understands how difficult it can be to generate the amount and quality of support you need, especially within tight timeframes or on specialized issues. That’s why we often turn to the Web to help our clients quickly build high-volume support for a campaign.
….the Astroturf way
In his DailyKos post, “leveymg” also saved some of the key parts of a second “Rational Grounds” post about DDC (emphases added):
Democracy Data & Communcations is a big player in the astroturf community. They host the website for the Grass Roots Roundtable, and they co-chair it with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The board of directors is a regular Who’s Who of American industry. They’re a big player at the Public Affairs Council, and they’ve earned a reputation as the place to go for astroturf campaigns.
I came across DDC in October of last year, when they were putting pop-up ads against John Edwards in AOL Instant Messenger. This was for their The Truth About Trial Lawyers site for the November Fund (warning: slow to load). The November Fund was a tort-reform astroturf campaign bought and paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. … A quick google on their name brought up their site, and a May 2004 post by Mark Kleiman on a very similar campaign on behalf of No Child Left Behind.
However, it wasn’t until I started noodling around their DNS that things really got interesting. Punching in the domain name at DNSStuff.com gave me the IP address 22.214.171.124 for http://supportnclb.com (defunct now, try the Way Back Machine). A WHOIS lookup on this showed me it was indeed owned by DDC, and that they owned the whole 151.200.70.* netblock. Hmm. Finally, I did a reverse-DNS lookup on the IP…
and hit paydirt. Sadly, only some of it is preserved in the DailyKos post, but it gives you the idea:
126.96.36.199 voteforsmallbusiness.org …
(Emphasis in original.) The current list for that particular block appears to be smaller now, and appears to change periodically — or maybe the “dnsstuff.com” utility for looking at that block only gets a random dozen or so at a time, I’m no expert on this kind of thing.
At any rate, as of the other evening 188.8.131.52 is the IP address for votefornuclear.com, voteforthemeritshop.com (builders association twist on “open shop”), ustvotes.com (UST tobacco corporation voting site) and other organizations that generally funnel interested parties towards a voteforbusiness.com Chamber of Commerce mothership.** One that doesn’t is is the Social Security “reform” group compasscoalition.com (Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America’s Social Security), which asserts
The only viable solution is to modernize Social Security. Modernization would not affect people who are currently in or near retirement. Instead, it would offer younger workers a chance to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in personal savings accounts (PSA). Modernization would be a victory for all Americans and offers many benefits, such as higher retirement payments and personal ownership of PSAs that can be passed on to heirs.
Sure, if you … and Big Tobacco … and all the rest of the wonderful folks inhabiting this IP address say so. And that’s just what I saw under 184.108.40.206 the other evening; although I’m not a confident Internet sleuth, DDC still appears to own the whole 151.200.70.* IP address range. That leaves a bunch of other 4 number codes to sift through, but there’s clearly a bit of a political pattern already.
Now just because I don’t share the politics, implied or otherwise, of the constellation of organizations sharing the 151.200.70.* IP range, that doesn’t make what’s happening here some kind of illegal conspiracy. Online voter organizing is arguably fair game on both sides — maybe it’s no more than people self-selecting themselves into the political data cattleyards of their choice. If a number of seemingly unrelated cattleyards turn out to be on the same servers in Alexandria somewhere, what of it?
Well, perhaps that we’re looking at a kind of industrial scale metaspam here, cookie cutter organizations that create the illusion of huge support with relatively little real human activity at the heart of it. And the prospect of a paid, IT-weaponized army of shills skewing the public discourse on political issues of the day is at least a wee bit more disturbing yet.
It’s not unthinkable and it’s not implausible. As Teresa Nielsen Hayden once wrote:
But at least uncovering that can be a community process. So: is anyone else getting political comments tracing from the 151.200.70.* IP address group? Maybe it’s not happening — but I’ve got a way to make sure on my site, and that’s to ban future comments tracing to that address group and to the astroturfing P.R. company that owns it.
* This has happened to me before with CENTCOM, the DoD Central Command operations site in Tampa, Florida.
**A couple of sites I saw appeared to be planned but nonexistent at the time I looked: curediabetesnow.info and protectpatientsfirst.org.
UPDATE, 8/23: Welcome, “Making Light” readers! I hope those of you with blogs will check your own visits for this IP address block.
UPDATE, 8/27: Ann Bartow (“Feminist Law Professors”) has collected a number of other examples of “chaff” — opinions paid for or instigated by astroturf operations, and in a comment here, “Pony” points out an account of a Monsanto-orchestrated smear campaign.
1) Teresa Nielsen Hayden (“Making Light”) rounds up astroturf comment orchestrator sightings, and identifies Netvocates and The Rendon Group (IP 220.127.116.11) as two leading practitioners; Netvocates claims to “never engage in anonymous commenting on blogs,”, but a reverse lookup of its IP address (18.104.22.168) seems unusually inconclusive. In other words, it might be hard to tell whether Netvocates is keeping its promise or not. (But I’m also inexperienced at this.)
2) In a second comment, “Pony” points out that PR Watch follows astroturf stories and has a special tag for them.
3) Bill Humphries, “More Like This WebLog” has a nice line: “Barlow didn’t realize that moneyed interests would treat open society as damage and route around it.”