a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Spam 3.0: issue-based comment spam

Posted by Thomas Nephew on April 8th, 2010

Because I get fairly few comments — not whining about it, I promise! — I’m at leisure to screen every one of the new commenters who show up. Sadly, most of them are plain old spam — call them spam 1.0.  Once you could at least see that they were links to online Viagra sales sites or whatever; these days they’re often not even intelligible writing (these are generally from Eastern Europe and Russia), showing up as strings like “????? ????? ??????’? ????”, which is kind of mysterious, but whatever, maybe it’s homework for some Ukrainian “Internet Marketing 101” class.

Next came “suck up” spam: short notes pretending to congratulate me on a post — i.e., impersonating someone who has actually read the post, instead of just dropping in to deposit a dropping with a link back to their huckster site.  While it’s still pretty lame, it’s sufficiently innovative that I’ll call it spam 2.0.  I’ve collected the text from some of the more amusing examples, but like all the other spam comments, the “Akismet” spam filter catches them, I look at them, I yawn, I delete them.

Lately, though, I’ve seen something new.  While the web site link of the commenter remains a giveaway to a commercial interest of some kind, the comment itself is almost relevant to the post, and the commenter’s web site is also almost a  genuine looking web site or blog.

Here’s a comment of this sort, attempted for “In What’s Become a Bit of a Regular Occurrence” (a post about Obama’s reversal on offshore oil exploration):

Our major issue in this country is our two political parties. Our forefathers knew that a two party system would be our downfall and took steps to try to stop this type of politics, and thus anyone who seriously thinks that politics isn’t corrupt or slaves to Corporate America hasn’t not been paying attention. George Jr. will go down in History as one of the worst administrations in history and I could go on for hours showing why, but my point is that the Obama administration has offered nothing different (besides health reform, granted) and has in fact continued nearly every single Bush program. Obama has almost the same political donors and thus has the same pressures as Bush did. Health reform will turn out to be the most expensive and destructive waste of tax payer money ever. I just wish I could offer a better alternative for other frustrated people, but I can’t and those that think that the tea partiers are the future, remember that Sarah Palin is an important figure to them.

OK, that’s different.  The content is a little incoherent, but would fit in as one among many comments at a politically oriented blog such as mine — even if the commenter goes by the name “health insurance.” I don’t like to delete comments that have some element of authenticity and relevance to them, so I had a closer look.

The commenter’s link leads back to a nearly plausible looking ‘entrepreneur/activist’ web site offering health insurance quotes, but dressing that up with all kinds of FAQs, commentary, and whatnot. Since I don’t want to actually link to the site, here’s an intentionally modified link; click it, take out the “REMOVETHISPART” in your browser’s address bar, and click through.  There’s even a blog there, although the posts are all over the park: one praises Ron Paul, the next  praises “single payer” or “public option” — which would seem to put the web site owner out of work or threaten to do so.

And while the blog and site are a little off, the comment itself is, too — not for what it says, but because of all the other places it shows up.  Googling for the phrase anyone who seriously thinks that politics isn’t corrupt or slaves to Corporate America hasn’t not been paying” turned up identical comments at three other blogs, all posted in the last few days; a phrase from different comment  (by a different commenter, “public adjuster”) also turned up verbatim in several sites elsewhere.

My guess right now is that these commenters have scraped together comments from other sources, and may have gone to some amount of trouble to target the comments to the content of its “zombie comment host posts” like mine.

If so, that’s kind of ingenious.  But it still obviously pollutes real discourse with marketing devices disguised as reader comments, and that’s annoying and wrong.  I’m glad the Akismet spam detection service plug-in for this blog somehow flagged the comment as spam,  But this “issue based comment spam” method may once again change the arms race between entrepreneurial spam producers and individual spam avoiders like me, and that’s too bad.

UPDATE, 4/29: Over at Fafblog!, commenter ‘tarjj’ says it best: “As much as I hate spam in general, I think I preferred it before it got smart enough to pretend it was taking part in the conversation.”

3 Responses to “Spam 3.0: issue-based comment spam”

  1. John Emerson Says:

    Some of these spammers mine the thread that’s being spammed and write sentences using a few of its phrases which might ot might not be intelligible.

    One site I go to started receiving spam which was entirely intelligible and on topic, and in a few cases even contributed to the discussion; but when you went to the site linked, it was advertising. We concluded that someone was hiring South Asians fluent in English and between jobs to actually comment on selected sites.

    If I’m not mistaken, comment spammers don’t care whether anyone actually reads their comment; getting the link onto search engines is the goal, to raise the links’ google rating.

  2. Gary Farber Says:

    Been seeing this sort of spam for a long time now, myself.

    I have a crap sense of time, so I hesitate to assert one, but I think at least a year or two. I think I recall some before I left Colorado, which is almost two years now.

  3. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Gary — right, I might have added ‘probably nothing new for people with more traffic than me.’

    John — right, it’s Google’s ecosystem, we just live in the leaf litter.

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