Telco Astroturfing Tries To Bring Down Reviews Of Susan Crawford's Book

from the lame dept

Astroturfing — the process of a faux “grassroots” effort, often set up by cynical and soulless DC lobbyists pretending to create a “grassroots” campaign around some subject — is certainly nothing new. It’s been around for quite some time, and it’s rarely successful. Most people can sniff out an astroturfing campaign a mile away because it lacks all the hallmarks of authenticity. A separate nefarious practice is fake Amazon reviews — which have also been around for ages — amusingly revealed when Amazon once accidentally reassociated real names with reviewers’ names to show authors giving themselves great reviews. Over time, Amazon has tried to crack down on the practice, but it’s not easy.

So what happens when you combine incompetent astroturfing and fake Amazon reviews? Check out the reviews on Susan Crawford’s book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. Now, I should be clear: while I respect Crawford quite a bit, and often find her arguments compelling and interesting, I found Captive Audience to go a bit too far at points, and felt that the book lost a lot of its persuasive power in really overstating the case. We agree that the broadband market is not even remotely competitive, but we disagree on the solution to that. Still, I think the book is very much worth reading, and an important contribution to the discussion on broadband/telco policy.

But, boy, the telco lobbyists and shills really have been going overboard trying to smear the book every which way. Front groups set up by the big broadband players going by names like NetCompetition, Broadband For America, and Media Freedom have wasted little time attacking the book as if it has no redeeming merits at all.

But, at least people can look at who’s behind those various organizations, or where their “founders” last plied their trade. When it comes to Amazon reviews, it’s a somewhat different story. Karl Bode recently noted the large number of one star reviews on Crawford’s book that exhibit a pretty clear pattern: a “folksy” tone from someone in an “ordinary” job, living in a “rural” location (they all mention a rural location) absolutely trashing Crawford’s book, all using talking points that the big telco lobbyists have been handing out. Here are a few examples.

This is wrong

By lavell martin (hazelwood, mo United States)

Des Moines, Iowa
I am professional truck driver who uses the Internet in job training.I have just read the book “Captive Audience” by Susan Crawford. I am very disappointed in her negative attitude toward our national telecommunications system. As a professional truck driver, I have been using technology since the days when CB radio was the next big thing. Then came cell phones that were barely useful for an over-the-road trucker who was almost always “roaming” from his home system.

But times have changed and now every trucker has the ability to communicate, not with a trucker a quarter of a mile ahead or behind, but a quarter (or all the way) around the world. Wireless technology allows us to track where trucks and their cargo are in real time. They allow us to contact our customers to alert them to our arrival time, meaning I can unload as soon as I get to the customer rather than waiting for someone to arrive.

To read Ms. Crawford’s book you would be led to believe that the companies who have investested hundreds of billions of dollars in these systems haven’t accomplished anything. She is wrong. The “breaker-breaker” days are long gone and it is private industry that has left it far in our rear-view mirrors.

Unimpressed – Facts Don’t Add Up

By nhunter

I do much of my schoolwork online and do not believe that Susan Crawford’s points in “Captive Audience” are valid. I am from a rural area, yet my broadband connection is good enough for me to stream online lecture and perform research. Only 3-5% of homes in the US do not have access to wired broadband services, and generally in these cases there are multiple wireless options. I simply do not know anyone who is not able to purchase a wired broadband connection – even in remote areas.

Our system of private investment is sustainable and has provided affordable service to hundreds of millions of people. Looking at the state of broadband in the US I do not see the problems in our system that Ms. Crawford points out. The last thing we need is a complete overhaul that trades our tried and true system for one of uncertainty, reliant on government spending. In order to provide better, cheaper broadband we need to move regulation out of the 1990’s and into the 21st century.

Captive Audience lacks in believability

By MAntkow

I am not sure I agree with the central premise of this book. While Susan Crawford certainly has credibility, given her tenure as President Obama’s technology advisor, I am just not buying her take on the supposed monopoly within the telecom industry. If the United States is truly lagging behind other countries in its access to high-speed broadband Internet, how is it our Internet network infrastructure investments have risen by almost 25 percent? Moreover, if access were really a problem in the U.S., I would almost certainly have first hand knowledge of it. I am from a remote part of Kentucky that is as far a cry from big city living as one can get. I have yet to find my access to the Internet lacking.

Terrible Book
By Lee

I do not live in a metropolitan area, but I have had access to an affordable high-speed connection for over a decade. Ms. Crawford is not telling the whole story. The FCC has reported on multiple occasions that over 99% of the population has access to satellite, wired or wireless broadband connection. Not so long ago there were people who thought laptops would never be an equal to desktops, and tablets could never be a substitute for a laptop. It seems those that doubt technology usually end up wrong, and if there is any industry that will provide world changing innovation over the next few years, my bet is it will be in broadband here in the US.

Because I’m a curious sort, I decided to look a little more deeply at the 31 one-star reviews, and see if I might glean any patterns. I read through them all and noticed some very noticeable patterns. First of all, there are a few named reviewers who are listed as “verified buyers” of the book or are in Amazon’s “Real Name” program. Those are people who are clearly legit. Of course, nearly all of those reviewers are rather well-known in technology/telco policy circles, often closely associated with various think tanks known for supporting the position of the telcos: you have Scott Cleland of NetCompetition, Richard Bennett of ITIF, Ryan Young of CEI, Andrew Langer of the Institute for Liberty and Geoffrey A. Manne of the International Center for Law and Economics. I don’t have any problems with these reviews. While the view of these individuals are well-known and were probably decided long before they ever came near the book, they put their names on the reviews and many of them are listed as verified purchasers. On the flip side, for the 5-star positive reviews, you have folks like Tim Karr from Free Press, though that’s really about it (there is also Dane Jasper, the CEO of awesome local ISP, but he’s an actual expert in the field, not just some think tank policy analyst like everyone else).

The problem comes in when you look at everyone else. As mentioned, a very large number of the reviews seemed to follow a similar pattern — so I figured why not see if we can compare the 1-star reviews to the 5-star reviews in some manner. To keep it fair, I removed the named DC policy folks from the calculations, though even if you add them back in the numbers are pretty striking. First, I looked at what percentage of the reviews included some sort of folksy reference to their job (e.g., “I’m a truck driver and my experience is…”, to the fact that they lived somewhere rural or non-metropolitan, or that they were a student). In reading the reviews, these all felt extremely inauthentic, because there’s nothing about Crawford’s book that should lead someone to discussing any of those things. It’s irrelevant — but if you’re a clueless DC astroturfing firm trying to sound like everyday common folk, it might be something you do.

Fifteen of the 1-star reviews make such a mention. That’s 58%. Of the 5-star reviews, there was only one single mention of anything having to do with rural settings, and it was someone delving more deeply into the issue of rural broadband, rather than anyone trying to sound folksy. No one mentioned their down home job or that they were a student. So if we include that one pseudo-mention, it’s 2.5%. In other words, something is pretty clearly off with those 1-star reviews.

My second check was to look at whether or not the reviews had one of the following three criteria: they were a verified purchaser, they were enrolled in Amazon’s “REAL NAME” program, or they had reviewed other products besides just Crawford’s book. While this is a rather crude measure, I figured that having any of those things be true at least suggested that there was a real person behind the review. Having none of those three things might still mean they were a real person who legitimately bought the book and was giving a legitimate opinion, but at the very least it couldn’t be proven. To give the benefit of the doubt to the Crawford haters, here I added back in the known policy wonks — who were basically the only 1-star reviewers to qualify as humans under these criteria. Without this, I think only two of the remaining 26 reviewers could meet the criteria. In the end, even with the known DC policy insiders, only 11 out of the 31 reviews, or 35% met the criteria.

Of the 5-star reviews, 80% met the criteria. And, even this is somewhat misleading. Of the reviews that did not meet the criteria of provably human, nearly all of them mention that they’re leaving a 5-star review solely to counteract the obvious shill 1-star reviews. I think that’s counterproductive in many ways, but it suggests that those reviews weren’t directly “shill” reviews, but rather response to astroturf reviews.

As a further check, I compared the average number of other products reviewed by each group — the 1-star reviewers and the 5-star reviewers. That really wasn’t a fair fight. The average number of “other” reviews by those who gave Crawford’s book a 1-star review: 1.4. And that’s almost entirely due to one person, Richard Bennett, who has 24 other reviews. Of those who gave it a 5-star review, the average is 113.9. Yes. 1.4 vs. 113.9. Okay, the 5-star reviews are also skewed heavily by one reviewer, Loyd E. Eskildson who has over 4,000 reviews. So, to be fairer, I cut out that outlier and the 5-star reviewers still had an average of 13 other reviews (I didn’t even bother to take out Bennett’s outlier on the 1-star reviews). Using the other (probably better) tool, we could also compare the median other reviews for each group. For the 1-star reviews, it will surprise no one to find out that the median is 0. For the 5-star group, the median is two.

Basically, no matter how you slice it, there’s some sort of statistical anomaly going on here that makes it pretty clear that someone was pushing a ton of fake astroturfing reviews on Crawford’s book, and didn’t even care to take the time to hide it well. As I said, even if you don’t fully agree with the book, I’d hope we can all agree that this is a pretty disgusting move by whatever lobbyists/shills/think tanks dreamed up this astroturfing campaign just because they don’t like what the book says. Can’t fight on the merits, huh?

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Comments on “Telco Astroturfing Tries To Bring Down Reviews Of Susan Crawford's Book”

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David says:

Now I'll Buy

I grew up in a remote part of the country that still can’t get cable television or high speed internet. I don’t like that anyone would misrepresent themselves as ‘rural’ just to appear more trustworthy. I’m going to buy, read, and leave a review for this book just to put one honest redneck review on Amazon.

Ninja (profile) says:

Holy spare time killing, Batman! That’s some nice digging here! I’ve been noticing it happening in TD comments as well. We have a few regular trolls that can be easily identified and then we have the shills for each specific sector (which can also be easily identified with few exceptions). When something big happens or comes (ie: NSA leaks, copyright reform or key lawsuits) the comments get completely flooded with those shills. This combo of ‘Astroturf’ and and user generated comments, ratings and opinions has been around for a while now and I believe it got traction after people started realizing that the web has the power of spreading stuff, information massively (and the politicians, companies started using it intensively). I’m gonna guess it started somewhere near th year 2k.

Basically if your article/book/whatever is being heavily polluted by trolling/shilling you know you are doing it right ๐Ÿ˜‰

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Astroturfers / shills can be effective

The web loses its power to spread stuff if the shills / astroturfers can completely derail any meaningful discussion in a forum such as TD.

I’ve seen it before. Articles where the vast majority of comments were responding to a troll that was obviously trying to generate responses. The time and energy spent in those responses detracts from writing other thoughtful comments in the same article. Furthermore, the bulk amount of responses to the shills makes it difficult to locate the more thoughtful comments.

I have suggested that a useful countermeasure is that in addition to hiding a message once it gets past a threshold number of reports, that once it gets past a second threshold number of reports that it and it’s replies are all hidden. Anyone who is interested in reading can still un-hide them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Astroturfers / shills can be effective

everyone reads the REPORTED, censored comments to see why they are censored. And EVERY TIME, we are not let down.

EVERYONE knows, these will be comments that do not agree with Masnick, or are a dissenting comment..

And dissent is not allowed in a totalitarian cult !

What is sad about this TD censorship (lets call it what it is), is that it is 100% used (abused) to stifle comment and speech.

Masnick could have a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ and a counter for each, so you could “vote” on the comment.

That would be reasonable, and not censorship.
How it stands now you can ‘vote up’ a comment “funny” or “insightful” or you can CENSOR IT.
It’s sad Masnick has chosen to go this way..

Put censorship in the hands of the users (of TD) and they will exploit that power to censor, something Masnick is strongly against (publicly), except here on TD, Masnicks own site !

Sideshow Billybob says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Astroturfers / shills can be effective

If everyone reads the REPORTED, censored comments, as you’ve posted, then how is it “censored?” More times than not, I’ve read the “censored” comments and discovered that they were justifiably flagged more times than not. Now quit whining about being “censored” and try and contribute something on the subject at hand instead of this verbal masturbation at the sight of a Masnick post.

Oh, I also flagged this useless vomitous mass of a “post” of yours too.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Astroturfers / shills can be effective

I agree. The biggest enemy of the govt-industrial complex is the shills themselves. By their own words we can expose their lies. By their own laws we can substantiate their corruption (ie: 95+ year copy protection lengths and retroactive extensions). By their actions we can prove their allegiance.

“As you know, there is also [then-MPAA president] Jack Valenti’s proposal for term to last forever less one day.”

Their own words, their laws, and their actions are their own worst enemy from a PR perspective.

Anonymous Howard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Astroturfers / shills can be effective

I gave you an insightful, because imho this is a real problem on TD, but few seem to care. Mike and TD staff did not even respond to most of my suggestions regarding this.

It’s disappointing when there’s a hot topic, and I check out the comment section and shillpuke and trollshit everywhere. Kills the mood to make any comment or read through the cesspool they generated.

I’m starting to flag pointless responses to the trolls too, so maybe they’re collapsed.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Astroturfers / shills can be effective

I gave you an insightful, because imho this is a real problem on TD, but few seem to care

Don’t equate not agreeing with not caring. I don’t think this is a real problem here. The overwhelming majority of collapsed comments are flagged for obvious, legitimate reasons that have nothing to do with being “dissenting”.

If I thought otherwise, I’d care a lot.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Astroturfers / shills can be effective

Maybe yes, maybe no. However I’ve seen the most awesome replies to trolls at times. Karl did a wonderful job last week in a post smashing the troll to bits and adding a valuable layer of information.

I’d say we need to educate ourselves to try to respond like that, smashing their logic to bits and adding info. Or simply don’t reply. I’ve been trying to do that albeit sometimes I do fail ๐Ÿ˜‰

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

are you reading the same web site as we are ??

the comments get completely flooded with those shills

really, it seems only a few comments are “REPORTED” and looking at those comments, they ARE ALL ones with a different opinion to the bulk of the comments, from the Masnick supporters..

So you only report comments because you don’t agree with them, you try to hide them and make it harder for people to read opinion you don’t agree with.

That is the WORST KIND of censorship, because it’s used to stop opinion and free and open debate.

I am sure, if you had the power you would delete those comments you don’t agree with.

So someone could come here and ONLY READ COMMENTS that agree with Masnick, ANYTHING that you don’t think supports Masnicks opinion you censor.

It’s amusing, that given Masnicks (outward) opinion on censorship, he would allow it to be employed so extensively here on HIS web site, and for this reason..

He is allowed to censor, it would be nice if you was honest about why he allows this censorship to continue, and why it is only comment not agreeing, that get’s censored.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Censorship implies removal of access.

The flag report system is a system that says this persons posts do not have a redeeming quality and are thus hidden.

There are dissenting comments on many posts which are not hidden, that’s because they bring something of value to the discussion, something relevant to the topic at hand.

In fact, some of the ruder responses to troll comments tend to get reported as well, as it should be.

Ad homimens, misleading, and focusing on trying to discredit Masnick without evidence are all frowned upon and are a quick way to get your comment hidden.

Just look at his post on cell phones after the Boston Bombing, lots of people disagreed with him, but comments weren’t hidden.

Free speech does not give you a right to be heard, only the right to say it. And much like anything else in life, saying something has consequences, which you must learn to deal with.

Evidence, not rhetoric, not strawmanning, and not ad homs are what will get you heard.

digi_owl says:

Re: Response to: Ninja on Jul 29th, 2013 @ 1:07pm

Something similar was claimed by one of the Moderators over on Boingboing. Whenever certain topics popped up, there would be a flood of very similar sounding comments. And looking over the IP addresses, they pointed back to a “Internet image management” company.

Anonymous Coward says:

my provider was recently purchased by Charter Communications, Since this has happened I have been without service for days at a time. This never happened before the buyout. Now I call tech support to ask about the problem and they brush me off, Like it’s no big deal. So at this point I pay almost 200$ a month for services I don’t get. Simply because I’m dealing with a monopoly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It is because the intelligent Internet community massively out numbers the obvious industry shills.

If you had once agreed with a single thing on this site, you may have been able to fool someone into believing that you are not a shill.

Are you really that stupid, that even after all the times the censorship has been explained to you, you still get it this wrong.

I hope you get paid on quantity not quality of your posts

kenichi tanaka (profile) says:

I’m incensed by the comment that “Only 3-5% of homes in the US do not have access to wired broadband services”. Not only is that statement misleading by the Amazon commenter but it grossly inaccurate and so far off the cuff that you can’t help but to shake your head at that figure.

That number that only “3-5%” of homes don’t have wired broadband services is so misleading that I fell out of my chair at how wrong that is since the number of Americans in the United States who don’t have broadband services is much, MUCH higher than that. Mostly because the prices of broadband services are so expensive.

There are currently more than 300 million Americans living in this country, according to official population numbers reported by the government. The FCC reported (per an Ars Technica article published in 2012) that 119 million Americans in the United States lack broadband services.


Tell me something? How does somebody get 3-5% of Americans lacking broadband services when the FCC reported last year that 199 Million Americans lack such services. The last time I checked, and feel free to correct me on this, but 119 million from 300 million is actually closer to 35%, not 3-5%.

Either that commenter is the dumbest person on this planet or they simply don’t know how to properly count and need to go back to school.

jim w says:

Re: Re:

Before you go around calling someone the “dumbest person on the planet”, you better check your own mental acuity first. The 3-5% figure was referring to folks with no “access” to broadband, not how many people were not “using” broadband. The article you linked states that 19 mil have no ACCESS to broadband. 19 mil out of a total population of 314 mil is 6%.

So the 3-5% figure is still incorrect, but no so far off that the person should be labelled “dumbest on the planet”.

Brian says:

Re: Response to: kenichi tanaka on Jul 29th, 2013 @ 1:12pm

I believe that by “households having access to broadband,” they mean to say services are available, not that they actually have it. Still, it’s ridiculous. I’m currently an American stationed in South Korea. $40/month for a 100 gb connection.

spixleatedlifeform (profile) says:

Re: Really? You are incensed?

Incensed, huh? And yet you have the clue to the truth right there in your statement. On the one hand you act all huffy that “Only 3-5% of homes in the US do not have access to wired broadband services”. But then you say in the very next paragraph ” that only “3-5%” of homes don’t have wired broadband services”?

Dude! Can’t you tell the difference between “having” and “having access”? A real world of difference. You ought to read her book, even if you have to borrow a copy from a library. You might find the error of your ways. So many reasons why those who may “have access to broadband” don’t “have broadband”. It isn’t because they’re cheap. It’s because DSL only works if you live next door to the telecom exchange. The real speeds of DSL fall unbelievably rapidly with distance. The price of cable internet access as a stand alone service is jaw dropping.

The solution–universal access to fiber optic cable TO THE HOME/BUSINESS has been cancelled while the service providers wait for a conservative Congress to put the funding on the backs of taxpayers while keeping the ownership of that infrastructure private.

My only complaint about her book is she missed THE critical aspect of the subject matter–internet delivered video and the codec used for compression/decompression in light of “metered service”, whether wired or mobile.



out_of_the_blue says:

Is this shilling for Crawford's book? Or just coincidence

that you recommend the book? I mean, imagine the odds of some alleged astroturfing being conducted against a book that YOU’VE read and advise others to buy! You’ve even got a nod toward objectivity to enhance your apparent credibility: “we disagree on the solution to that. Still, I think the book is very much worth reading,” So you give a favorable review… And you position poor Sue as the victim. All I can say is, HMM… Come to think of it, many of the problems you write up in some way affect your pals or their interests.

However, far MORE interesting is to find that you “disagree on the solution”! Holy cow! You actually have a solution to some problem? I haven’t seen you give ANY solution in over three years! Why didn’t you skip this questionable minor item whether it’s about astroturfing or promoting some weenie’s book, and give us the SOLUTION to a substantial problem? … Or do you just disagree yet don’t actually have your own notions to trot out?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Is this shilling for Crawford's book? Or just coincidence

People can agree or disagree on a solution without having a solution themselves.

For instance: I think the solution to ootb trolling is banning him.

A person (we will call him X) disagrees and states that banning him will only cause other trolls to level claims against TD for being pro-censorship and ramp up other people trying to troll. X did not need to offer a solution. All X did was disagree and state why he/she does so. It’s better that “solutions” be examined and re-examined to determine if the solution will fix the problem while causing next to no new problems.

To clarify my position I think that it is better that we have a few legitimate solutions that have had a lot of thought put into them then to have 1000’s throwaway answers that end up causing more issues then solving.

Lord Binky says:

They can't even pretend to talk like the little guys....

Wow, lay off the power words guys. It written by someone stuck in advertising using words like affordable,reliable, private industry, hell I half expected to see peace-of-mind show up from one of these ‘rural’ folks leaving outside a metropolitan area. And Metropolitan, really?! who lives outside a metropolitan area that doesn’t call it suburbs or a metro? If it isn’t a formal writing the only time metropolitan is used in normal speech is if alcohol is involved.

Alt0 says:

I hardly ever put any weight in the reviews of things on the internet. Simply for the reason it would be too easy to trash something or prop up something based on factors OTHER than the product / service / creative work.
If I see reviews that mostly all have the same criticism (example: the back seat is too small, or the cord is really short) Then its a safe bet the seat will be small or the cord short. But creative works, even ones based on supposed facts, are for the reader to decide and in those cases I don’t read the reviews at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

this has obviously been going on with all things that the various services etc want to continue having a monopoly on. while they can keep things going, they eliminate competition (thanks mainly to the politicians that are bribed into applying new laws that keep the monopolies going) and are able to rig prices, give poor service with no competition to interfere. apart from the telco/broadband companies, the other obvious example of putting out as many falsehoods as possible, as quickly as possible, particularly when answering independent reviews that have totally debunked the figures the industries themselves have put out, is Hollywood and the entertainment industries. if it weren’t for all the lies they tell, the politicians they bribe and the law suits they bring (simply because of the bottomless pit of money they have against the shallow purse of an ordinary home owner), they wouldn’t be able to do anything at all if competition were ever to be forced on them!

Anonymous Coward says:

Welcome to another report vote ootb. Once again you show the hypocrite you are. On one hand you accuse Mike of shilling but there is rarely (so rare that hens teeth are more findable) an article you can remotely agree on when it comes to copyright being stretched beyond all reasonable bounds.

Your position is exactly what you claim to accuse Mike of.

You offer no solutions, just trolling and so get another report vote.

Alt0 says:

Oh did I mention?

I live in a highly populated area and have a choice of three major providers for wired broadband, each willing to bundle the service for me (how nice) with TV and telephone!
Thing is, IT COSTS TOO MUCH! If Comcast had not “grandfathered my account I would have to pay a fortune for these services.

Oh and the debate about 3-5% vs 35%…
3-5% do not have broadband access – 35% choose not to have broadband. BIG difference.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Only 3-5% of homes in the US do not have access to wired broadband services, and generally in these cases there are multiple wireless options.”

That sounds about right since the majority of the population is located close to cities. Sadly for me that was not the case for a long ass time. I was stuck on fucking dial-up from 1995 – 2005 until a wireless option became available. It was pretty crappy by my standards today but the 500kbs sure in the hell beat the 2.2 – 2.6 kbs download speeds of dial-up. Luckily today I live in town and my downloads blaze well over 7500 kbs.

Timothy Karr (profile) says:

No immoral equivalence

Mike, I’m usually a fan. This time, however, you’re completely off the mark. My review of Susan’s book does not represent the same problem as the astroturfing attacks of paid corporate shills. Free Press receives no money from any entity that has a financial stake in the outcome of the internet policy issues Susan writes about. In fact, my colleagues and I make considerable financial sacrifices to represent the public interest in policy debates that have been overrun by well-heeled sock puppets on the companies’ payroll. I happen to believe that Americans need more affordable access to fast and open networks. I believe that Susan’s offers a very important critique of a U.S. policy making regime that has failed to represent Internet users and push for those objectives. I don’t hide my identity or misrepresent the work that Free Press does. Nor do I come by my opinions dishonestly or out of a desire to spin an issue in service of a hidden agenda. Frankly I’m surprised that you would suggest some sort of immoral equivalence. A correction would be the right move.

minerat (profile) says:

Re: No immoral equivalence

I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t think he made a moral equivalence. He was just paring down his argument to the most objective (or lease objectionable) level to show how strong it still is even if you discount everything an opponent might disagree with.

You’re well known in the industry and have a huge predisposition to Susan’s argument and advocate for many of the things she’s saying. You didn’t misrepresent yourself at all, and that’s not why your review was discounted. It was simply to remove reviews with any possible perception of bias. Your review is honest and forthright, but it’s not unbiased. As it is, I happen to agree with you and support the Free Press, and this is still how I saw the whole point.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: No immoral equivalence

Mike, I’m usually a fan. This time, however, you’re completely off the mark. My review of Susan’s book does not represent the same problem as the astroturfing attacks of paid corporate shills.

Huh? Tim, I never even came close to suggesting that. Perhaps read the entire post again, because you appear to have read into it something I never said or even suggested in the slightest.

Timothy Karr (profile) says:

Re: Re: No immoral equivalence

Mike — This isn’t really worth wasting any more of our time on. The main focus of your post is spot on. There’s even a follow up work to be done exposing the DC-based PR firms that hire out people to do this sort of comment trolling and review rating. Sadly, this is just another part of Washington’s shady influence industry.

Briefly, my point is this: Free Press legitimacy as a defender of Internet users rests on our NOT being tainted by any of the industry money that’s behind so many of the other voices in these broadband debates. We’re not the “flip side” of the same coin that created the likes of Scott Cleland and Richard Bennett. We’re not even cast from the same metal.

When we formed Free Press 10 years ago we deliberately decided not to pursue that funding model. As a result we have had to turn away millions in direct and in-kind contributions from the tech and communications industry. We’ve never regretted that decision.

Perhaps I did misread your post but it comes across pretty clearly as a discounting of my review as the product of just another DC-based wonk with skin in the game. I object to that characterization. That’s all.

And for the record: 1. I’m not based in DC 2. I’m not a policy analyst and 3. Free Press is not a think tank.

Moving on …

Richard Bennett (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: No immoral equivalence

Me thinks Tim Karr doth protest too much. While Free Press is funded primarily by foundations, there’s no denying that it coordinates its campaigns with commercial interests. Free Press owned the “Save the Internet” campaign funded by commercial interests seeking favorable Internet regulations under the “net neutrality” umbrella.

Unlike Tim Karr, I’m not a professional public relations hack. I’m the technologist who co-invented Ethernet switching and Wi-Fi and I only work on policy issues I approve of for technical reasons.

Oral Seymour (profile) says:

Amazon Reviews

Those are the most intelligent 1 star reviews I have ever read. Usually when someone is pissed off enough to write a 1 star review, they don’t take the time to eloquently express themselves. Which normal person says that pages render in HD quality???

“Pages render quickly, in HD quality, allowing a customer to choose from my widew variety of prices and styles. To begin the process of creating a unique design, all my customer has to do is click a button on the screen and we’re in touch.

Brad Peters says:

Fine Line

One thing worth mentioning is there is a fine line between these big companies and small rural ones. I work for a small rural telco. We service 3 towns/villages and the surrounding areas. We can offer up to 5 meg to everyone and more to most. We have made large investments in our infrastructure and now are making more of an investment in fiber to the home. We pay for all of this on our own. I don’t understand how these big companies cannot afford to build out their networks. It seems like at least in wisconsin here all the small telcos have very good networks in the rural. Then you move outside our boundary to centurylink customers and they cant even get basic dsl.

David says:

Astroturf not easy to spot

I disagree that astroturf campaigns are easy to spot. I think they’re all too effective these days. I’m convinced but don’t have definitive proof, that Samsung waged such a campaign in the trenches against Apple and the Android users took up the cause as their own. Samsung was proven to have paid people to write disparaging posts and reviews for HTC, but not directly against Apple. Yet the wave of anti-Apple posts that appeared right as key Samsung marketing campaigns were going on seemed too much of a coincidence. It followed a similar pattern of all posts repeating the same talking points.

It is demoralizing when the appearance of democratization of the internet is turned on itself to still be controlled by corporate special interests.

Fred says:

Astroturfed forums

People are sheep. If an astroturf effort is successful, bystanders will join the mob carrying the message of the astroturfers. This extends to forum websites as well. One such site is Any comment that isn’t glowing about the Chevy Volt is attacked by the community or the poster magically disappears with frequent banning. The community joins in sometimes laughable hug fests talking about how incredible their purchase experience is. Its a filtered, controlled, curated community that gives the passerby messages GM would be proud of, either by coincidence or by design.

tor says:

Ac spam poster, complaining about 'censorship'

Techdirt isn’t censoring you – the community flags posts it deems stupid, irrelevant, or offensive – kind of acting like a hive mind; protecting us all from your inane babble!

Your whole shtick is ad hominem attacks on the author, who you seem to have some creepy love/hate/stalker type relationship – if i could offer you any advice it would be this: try and gain a sense of perspective, and attempt to express yourself with eloquence/clarity, & perhaps you won’t be ‘censored’ in the future! good luck

William Payne (profile) says:


The contractors and technology firms that provide these Astro-Turfing services – are they not likely to be the very same contractors that provide staff and support services to the NSA?

Are you sure that you want to speak up against this? Is it wise? Are you not afraid that you will be singled out for *special treatment*?

After all, in this brave new world of ours, we do not know who holds the reigns, and we do not know the dangers of criticising the powers that be.

Best to stay quiet, bend over, and spread ’em.

Sharon says:

Another observation

To me, the reviews sounded like they were written by the same person with a stick up his @$$. I didn’t notice a single contraction in any of them. Not a single “I’m,” “don’t,” or “I’ve” in the bunch. I think that at the very least a real truck driver and the yokel from Kentucky would’ve used more casual speech than the OCD/anal retentive examples you provided.

P.S. Awesome sleuthing, by the way. ๐Ÿ™‚

Constant Reader says:

I’m a little confused. About a year ago it was decided here, more or less emphatically, that the occurrence of fake reviews at Amazon was a “non-story”. This in spite of the fact that a million-dollar business crashed and burned from the revelation, and some high-profile writers of best-selling books found their reputations tarnished.

Your investigation makes interesting reading, but you’d have done well to learn from the investigations of Jeremy Duns, and read the Guardian and NYT pieces about fake review services. Fake reviewers are smart enough to be verified purchasers.

out_of_the_blue says:


What’s so important about this item, even if your imaginings were true, that you’re putting it up fixed in second place? Particularly after complaints from several that it’s annoying because one stops reading the front page soon as recognize a prior title.

Just read what Mike presents. Though HIGHLY unusual that a list of prominent people posted reviews of the book, Mike just explicitly dismisses those (he tends to throw out all data that don’t fit his prior notions), but then DOES find it unusual that others would state their jobs. In contrast, I think it entirely normal that after ivory-tower weenies give their supposed creds to try and lend approval to the book, that other people disliking the book would establish their “proletarian roots”, so to speak.

But since there’s no actual proof one way or other, why bother worrying about it? Reviews are slanted all the time at Amazon, just part of the game. And pushing it for a second day? HMM.

So I conclude that some ulterior reason moves you, ’cause this is minor, rather ordinary, and insubstantiable.

Richard Bennett (user link) says:

Playing Masnick for a Fool

Really, Mike, you can’t be serious. Yes, it’s obvious that there are a number of fake 1 star reviews of Crawford’s book and you and Karl Bode have ferreted them out, quite innocently I’m sure.

It’s also the case that these reviews are SO FAKE and SO FORMULAIC that no one would ever have taken them seriously in the first place. You don’t have to get past the first word of the fake reviews to see that: They all start with “I” or “As”.

Somebody on the pro-Crawford side has been writing a fake one-star review every two or three days since March in order to push the legit one star reviews down to the last page of reviews by helpfulness. Look at how they’ve voted my review: 20 of 950 called it helpful. As if.

Most of the five star reviews were written by people who haven’t read the book, and a surprising number of them complain about astroturfing; that’s probably not a coincidence. Why leave a review of a book the reviewer admits to not having read? Many of the five star reviews do just this. This is sort of thing that happens around any issue in which Free Press is involved; their members flood the FCC with junk one-paragraph comments on every inquiry related to net neutrality. Just saying.

The questions that people should have asked about Crawford’s book relate to accuracy and research, but this fake-fake-grassroots complaint will prevent any rational discussion.

Good job, Mike: you’ve been had by a double-reverse, fake/fake grassroots campaign to raise the credibility of a poorly researched and poorly reasoned analysis.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Playing Masnick for a Fool

Good job, Mike: you’ve been had by a double-reverse, fake/fake grassroots campaign to raise the credibility of a poorly researched and poorly reasoned analysis.

Let’s run through this “theory” of yours to do a quick demonstration of just how incredibly delusional and whacked out it is.

Here’s your argument: Free Press — an organization that is very supportive of Susan Crawford and her book, and whose director of strategy is one of the named positive reviewers of the book — decided that they would publish ~25 1-star reviews (again, for a book they like and support) and make them feel so “obviously” fake that 6 months after the book is published a “stooge” such as myself would come across it, make a stink about it, leading an uninformed mob that support Free Press to suddenly bombard the book with positive reviews and vote the world’s most perfect 1-star review that you wrote as “unhelpful.”

The level of insanity it takes to think that this is a legitimate strategy or that anyone actually carried it out is stupendous.

Richard Bennett (user link) says:

Re: Re: Playing Masnick for a Fool

Sorry, Mike, but that’s not what I’m saying at all, but I can understand your hurt feelings at realizing you’ve been played. Crawford discussed her upcoming book on the Comcast/NBCU merger on a panel she and I were on a couple of years ago, and it naturally piqued my interest. I was among the first to read and review Crawford’s book, and I’ve seen the whole ebb and flow of the reviews on Amazon since January, not just the little snapshot Karl Bode lead you to. From the beginning, there have been a number of short, poorly spelled, and generally illiterate five star reviews that show the same level of insight as the FCC comments Free Press solicits. There has also been a pattern of down-voting the one star reviews. This is an unusual book in the sense that nearly all the reviews are either one star or five star.

Some of the one star reviews are very thoughtful, well researched pieces written by experts who highlight Crawford’s analytical and factual shortcomings. These one star reviews are now nearly impossible to find because they’re buried under the bogus one star reviews in the time sort as well as in the “helpfulness” sort.

There are many more five star reviews that one star reviews, and I’d be willing to bet that more than one advocacy group has asked members to go to Amazon and place five star reviews. With the ratio firmly in favor of Crawford, why wouldn’t they then add just enough one star phony reviews to keep the thoughtful reviews from being read?

You underestimate the deviousness of the players in this debate, but I’ve seen their tricks up close.

Now I don’t know who wrote the fake reviews any more than you do – neither of us has evidence of their authorship. But Occam’s Razor isn’t proof.

It’s funny how this story just fell into your lap, isn’t it?

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Playing Masnick for a Fool

I’ve seen the whole ebb and flow of the reviews on Amazon since January, not just the little snapshot Karl Bode lead you to

Karl did not lead me to a little snapshot. I put together a spreadsheet looking at every single review.

From the beginning, there have been a number of short, poorly spelled, and generally illiterate five star reviews that show the same level of insight as the FCC comments Free Press solicits. There has also been a pattern of down-voting the one star reviews. This is an unusual book in the sense that nearly all the reviews are either one star or five star.

It is not uncommon for “political” books to have a heavy rate of 5 stars and 1 stars. Also, welcome to Amazon’s comments. Most are short, generally illiterate without much insight. That’s true on everything.

The downvoting came from people pointing out that many of the one star reviews were obviously fake. That your review got swept up in that wave, well, when you lie down with the dogs…

Some of the one star reviews are very thoughtful, well researched pieces written by experts who highlight Crawford’s analytical and factual shortcomings.

And, in my post, which you clearly did not read, I named all of those and said, quite explicitly that I had no issue with those.

These one star reviews are now nearly impossible to find because they’re buried under the bogus one star reviews in the time sort as well as in the “helpfulness” sort.

They’re not at all hard to find.

There are many more five star reviews that one star reviews

When I made the post they were about equal. It was only after the post went viral that there were a ton of 5 star reviews added. And, as I said, I find those problematic as well, but those are a reaction to the fake one star reviews, not part of any systematic effort to deceive.

You underestimate the deviousness of the players in this debate, but I’ve seen their tricks up close.

Actually, I think I’ve made it clear that I know exactly who is being devious.

It’s funny how this story just fell into your lap, isn’t it?

Not really, because it didn’t. But, let’s see you keep digging, Richard.

Richard Bennett (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Playing Masnick for a Fool

OK, here’s the Twitter chain where Karl Bode clued you into the story: . Unless you were playing along, it did fall into your lap from Karl, so don’t try to bullshit me.

If you count the upvotes and downvotes, you’ll see that the reviews by Roslyn Layton and I both got an unusually large number of “unhelpful” votes; over 900 in my case, and almost 1300 for her. None of the other 1 star reviews got more than 500 votes of any kind, and many of the obviously fake 1 star reviews got exactly “4 of 412 people found the following review helpful”.

That’s a very, very odd coincidence.

The rather unremarkable review by Tim Karr got “411 of 422 people found the following review helpful” so we can reasonably connect Karr’s 411 fans with … gee, you tell me, Mr. Comment Analyzer.

Now I smell a story.

Richard Bennett (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Playing Masnick for a Fool

There’s no denying this: Whatever the origin of the fake reviews you so carefully analyzed in your spreadsheet may have been, your story itself has produced an order of magnitude more corruption to the sanctity of the Amazon review process.

There were maybe a couple dozen formulaic fake reviews a couple of weeks ago, but the Reddit onslaught has brought 400 angry visitors to Amazon who have altered the helpful/unhelpful ratings balance beyond recognition.

At this point, both the 5 star review with the highest rating – Loyd E. Eskildson’s – and the 1 star with the highest rating are clearly fake. The non-real name, non-verified purchaser Eskildson produces four book reviews a day on most days, which suggests an account used by several PR agents to pump products, is the top rated 5 star review, and the top-rated 1 star is the parody review by you pal from Reddit.

Add that to the downvotes to Layton’s and my reviews that were partly the result of Reddit and partly from a Free Press plea to members to vote them down and vote Karr’s up (they do this sort of thing, you know) and you’ve got a totally corrupt process.

But none of this is news, this is the way tribalism works at Amazon and on the Internet as a whole.

Anytime you and Bode and Karr want to stop attacking me on Twitter would be fine.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Playing Masnick for a Fool

I know this comment comes a day late to yours Mr. Bennett, but I thought I’d give a stab at it.
Just to get it out of the way, I have not read the book, nor do I plan to. Outside of this article, I don’t think I’ve heard of the author.
What you are proposing, and please correct me on any mistakes I make, is that an author publishes her book, which is supported by Organisation X. Org X wants this book to sell, wants as many people as possible to read it, because the viewpoint of the book matches their viewpoint. However, according to your theory, your own 1-star review threatens them so much that to stop the damage your review could do to the book’s sales…they then go around and leave a bunch of OTHER 1-star reviews, so as to drive your review further down the page.
I’m sorry but I personally find your theory ridiculous and full of holes. In fact, I equate the ridiculousness of your theory to the ridiculousness of one of our resident trolls here, AJ, who constantly says that his comments are being “censored” and providing all sorts of crazy theories as to how they are, while ignoring the very real, very more obvious evidence that if he were being censored, we wouldn’t be able to see his comments at all.
Is your theory Mr Bennett physically impossible? No, it very well can happen. Is it a likely theory? No, the idea of a supporter of a book trying to mitigate the damage of a 1 star review by burying it beneath a ton of other 1 star reviews is unlikely to the point of not even needing to be considered.

Richard Bennett (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Playing Masnick for a Fool

On the face of it, the theory that Free Press, Karl Bode, Reddit, Masnick, or some other professional telecom-hater would write 1 star reviews of a book that supports the viewpoint of their corporate paymasters is implausible, I’ll agree with you on that. It only starts to make sense when we look at what Masnick is doing with this story, the predictable way that the story itself has affected the Amazon reviews, and Masnick’s agenda.

But you can also look at it in terms of raw numbers. There are 128 of the 5 star reviews and 32 of the 1 star reviews, so the balance of preferences is quite one sided.

I don’t know about others, but when I look at Amazon reviews, I read one page of 5 stars and one page of 1 stars and judge the product by the intelligence of those reviews. If the 5 stars seem to have been written by morons and the 1 stars by smart people, I conclude that the product sucks and vice versa.

If that’s the general pattern, I would want to make sure that the first page of 1 star reviews is totally lame, as these faked reviews are. As long as the balance of reviews is strongly in favor of the 5 star tribe, I can do that without jeopardizing the overall impression formed by people who simply compare the counts of the reviews at different star levels.

Now I don’t really know if that happened, any more than Masnick knows that telecom lobbyists wrote most of the 1 star reviews as his article claims. I’m saying that we can speculate about several sources and reasons for the bad reviews and all that anyone can do is speculate since whoever wrote them isn’t going to admit it.

Masnick made no effort to disclose the fact that something like 95% of all the Captive Audience reviews – both the 5s and the 1s – were written by people who obviously hadn’t read the book. Most were written by people who were urged to write reviews by some advocacy group. Why single out a few 1 star reviews that are obviously phony when there are four or five times as many 5 star reviews that are also phony?

Masnick is probably just doing what he thinks his corporate paymasters want him to do. He’s a reasonably clever boy, so he’s probably right that they’ll pat him on the head and give him a cookie for bringing 400 angry Redditards into the supposed fray.

This is really all kind of sad, frankly. Crawford’s book is crap, and the interests who like it have not been well served by it because her arguments are so lame and easily rebutted. That’s probably a good thing overall, so I won’t complain further.

AzureSky (profile) says:

we need a 4th vote option, something covering stupid and delusional, this guy (Dick Bennett) is about as delusional as they get from what i can tell….

Dick, sorry if this upsets you but, damn man, you couldnt be a more blatant shill if you had tattoos allover your body for the companies/industries you support/work for.

your posts here are enough for me to see you need psychiatric help, reading your stuff about how great broadband in this country is…….just makes it more and more clear how urgently you need that help… bad you can pray the stupid away…

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