It isn’t often that irony hits this close to home, but the revelations in the Washington Post that McCain’s campaign is giving out prizes to people who spam political blogs explains some strange things that have been happening to PoliticalIrony.com over the last month.
You can see it for yourself, on McCain’s official site. They even give you handy talking points and tell you which blogs you should spam, conveniently dividing them into Liberal, Conservative, Moderate, and Other. Heck, you don’t even have to think to participate! For each verified comment you post, you get “points” that can be redeemed for prizes, much like a frequent flier or frequent buyer program.
It isn’t that I get much spam — I guess my site isn’t big enough to warrant being on the robo-list that tells the ditto-heads which blogs to inundate with irrelevant drivel. The bigger thing I have noticed is that suddenly (on July 20th to be exact) anti-McCain stories from Political Irony that were submitted to news aggregators like Digg, Reddit, and others were getting immediately voted down. Suppressed, if you will.
The Washington Post article doesn’t talk about this tactic, but it makes sense. Voting down good news about your opponents or bad news about yourself is much easier than getting people to actually write things. Besides, as the WaPo article points out, Astroturf campaigning (making things appear to be grass roots when they aren’t) can fail because “germaneness” is an issue. People who post random talking points to blogs for “points” are often just ignored. But if McCain supporters are suddenly crawling over blogs and aggregators looking for posts to comment on, of course they are going to be voting down posts they don’t like.
It works like this. When a story on Political Irony (or other site) gets submitted to a news aggregator like Digg, people vote it up or down. Only stories that get enough votes appear on the front page and get lots of viewers. These sites have a queue of new stories, but most people don’t look at the new stories, they only look at the front page. So a very small number of people can exercise quite a bit of control over what makes it to the front page, especially if they are “motivated” enough. And since many people on the Internet depend on aggregators to tell them what’s interesting, they will never see these censored stories.
And the censorship works — I had a dramatic (and continuing) loss of new traffic to the site (although I’m very grateful that loyal repeat readers kept coming). How dramatic? The seven days leading up to July 19 had a total of 156,944 unique visitors, but the seven days after July 20th had only 10,304 unique visitors — a greater than 15x drop that happened at the same time that McCain instituted his robo-spam program. I’m not a commercial site that depends on page views for money — I do this for fun and don’t run any ads — but that kind of drop would be fatal to someone who was trying to make a living at this.
This is a huge concern to me. Since the mainstream media has been completely bought out by large corporations who don’t hesitate to exercise editorial control over the news, many of us hope the Internet will provide a needed alternative voice for news. It will be very sad if it turns out that all someone needs to do is give away points and prizes to get people to suppress stories on the Internet that they don’t like.
UPDATE: I’m not the only blogger who has been bitten by the McCain “bury brigade”.
UPDATE 2: Electoral-vote makes the point that this program means that “McCain, even at 71, is finally getting the hang of how to use the Internet.” Maybe so, but at least Obama doesn’t have to bribe people to get them to blog for him.