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
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
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.
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 Sonic.net, but he's an actual expert in the field, not just some think tank policy analyst like everyone else).
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?