The Dangerous Illusion of Internet Democracy

Anyone who has wondered why raves or pans on Facebook, Yelp or YouTube are both so numerous and unreliable has probably suspected the awful truth — armies of posters are paid to praise or pan.

Ironically, this practice — which pervades the entire internet — has been best ventilated in censored China where it is known as the Internet Water Army because it can “flood” the internet with posts for whoever will pay. Tens of thousands of mercenaries are directed to generate posts aimed at praising the client’s cause while knocking rivals. The ploy works to produce undeserved hits and to destroy equally good or superior rivals.

The paid posting industry is already well developed, having recruited tens if not hundreds of thousands via spam and banner solicitations. These posters are directed to register on target websites under numerous aliases to engage in posting activity for purposes ranging from creating the illusion of real reader activity, to building apparently reader-generated content, to recommending, praising or condemning products and causes. They are usually given detailed guidelines as to the content and tone of desired posts. And they’re paid based on the counts logged by quality control teams that check posts to make sure they meet “quality” thresholds, according to Chen.

Tony Chen of Canada’s University of Victoria worked as a paid poster on various Chinese websites to get an inside look at the workings of the Water Army. He then joined some friends to create software that can automatically spot paid posters. It does this by analyzing the posting patterns of paid posters against those of real people with a sincere desire to share.

Based on studies of posting patterns of water armies engaged by two major rival Chinese brands to wage war on and, Chen learned, among other things, that paid posters tend to post more new comments than replies to other comments, and more often. Half post every 2.5 minutes on average, moving among discussions more quickly than legitimate users, frequently discarding IDs and making up new ones. They also tend to cut and paste the same content over and over in order to maximize the payment they hope to collect for posts.

Chen’s software used those earmarks to achieve an 88% accuracy rate in spotting water soldiers.

The problem, of course, is that this kind of software is more likely to be used by the operators of those water armies to automate QC than by ordinary netizens who rely on reader posts to make product decisions or to make up their minds about issues ranging from travel plans to voting choices. The average internet user will continue to be misled by what amounts to fraudulent advertising posing as candid, disinterested sharing of experiences and opinions.

What does this mean? That the internet isn’t really the wide-open democracy it’s often depicted as. To the contrary, it provides a far greater potential for distorting promotional strategies than traditional media like newspapers, TV, magazines and the like which don’t allow publication of unfiltered public input. Professional journalists typically have a strong incentive to aspire to fairness and objectivity in order to preserve their own credibility as well as those of the media for which they work. Soldiers of the water army are merely extensions of their PCs, doing the bidding of paying patrons.

So what do water armies mean for the future of the internet? It will continue to be useful to those who have the education and good sense to distinguish between information and disinformation — much as sensible people do in the real world. At the same time, the internet will continue to be the most treacherous of traps for the naive and the gullible who mistake colloquial informality for raw honesty.