Sock Puppetry::Are Blog Commenters Paid in Net Neutrality Debate?

    by Mark Glaser
    May 22, 2006

    i-5626de55575d40981d1341074658a8c4-Sock Puppet.jpg
    When I posed a question to my readers on March 31 — Should the government regulate Net neutrality? — I was surprised to see how many readers opposed Net neutrality regulation. In the Your Take Roundup the following week, I even headlined it, “People Wary of Government in Net Neutrality Debate.”

    Now word is spreading through the blogosphere that some of these commenters on my blog and many others might be making a concerted “fake grassroots” (a.k.a. astroturf) campaign in support of the telecommunications companies who oppose Net neutrality legislation.

    If you’re new to the debate, the telecom companies say they have the right to charge heavy users of the Internet — Amazon, Google, YouTube, etc. — a higher fee for the traffic they use. On the other side, people are worried that this loss of Net neutrality will end up creating a two-tiered Internet with haves and have nots.


    If you’re new to the idea of astroturf campaigns, many political causes and candidates have created fake grassroots campaigns, with various people writing the same letters to the editor or posting the same type of comments on blogs under different names. The latter is also known as using “sock puppets,” and Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik was recently suspended when bloggers figured out he was posting comments on blogs under various pseudonyms.

    So let’s look at what’s happening here with Net neutrality, and perhaps working together, we can get to the bottom of this. On MediaShift, I had people posting under the names: Paulaner01, pkp646, lessgov and oldhats.

    Timothy Karr, who blogs at Media Citizen and is campaign director for Free Press, has been posting comments to various blogs calling out these posters. Here’s part of what he wrote on MediaShift:


    Readers of this comment thread should know that Paulaner01, lessgov and pkp646 look to be part of a tag-team of industry shills who invade blog comments on Net neutrality to argue against any government regulation of the Internet. Other names who run with this crowd are John Rice, AJ Carey and oldhats. (Google any of these names in combination and you’ll see how their game works).

    By tag-teaming the blogs this small handful of individuals gives the false impression of broad popular support for an industry-friendly position. What they fail to point out is that Net neutrality has been the rule that has governed access to the Internet since its inception. It’s the reason that the Internet has become such a dynamic force for new ideas, economic innovation and free speech. What they really want is for Congress to radically re-write our telecommunications laws so that companies like AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth can swoop in and become gatekeepers to Internet content — in a way that benefits no one except the largest ISPs.

    I’d like these people to tell us how it is that they appear together (usually one after the other) spouting identical industry talking points across the blogosphere. What gives fellas? Are you being paid? And by whom?

    For some reason, Karr posted this on MediaShift and various other blogs under the pseudonym “sagecast.” If you’re going to call out people for using sock puppets, it’s not such a good idea to use them yourself. Anyway, Karr did later admit that he had posted using the name sagecast, giving more details in a comment on the IP & Democracy blog.

    Cynthia Brumfield, who is a co-writer of the IP & Democracy blog, brings up some good points about the possible sock puppet campaign in her post.

    “Is this kind of coordinated commenting wrong?” she asks. “The answer has to be no, if the coordination is simply like-minded individuals who get roused by the same posts, all know each other and are compulsive writers. On the other hand, if these are paid industry representatives, they have every moral obligation to state that fact when posting comments so that we all at least know which side their bread is buttered on…What I find unseemly is the prospect that these commenters are paid by the cable and phone companies to make these comments and aren’t disclosing it.”

    Karr wrote on the IP & Democracy blog that these apparent astroturf postings were an echo of a campaign by Verizon in New Jersey to get bloggers to support legislation it wanted in order to open up cable lines to their service.

    So what happens next? I’ve put in an email query to Karr, as well as all the blog commenters in question, who did include email addresses with their comments (though I’m not sure if they’re valid). I’ve also queried Verizon public relations, and hope to hear back from them, and will get in touch with AT&T representatives.

    Due to technical issues with MediaShift, I can’t trace the IP addresses of the people who posted here, but I hope that some of the other bloggers who have had comments from these people can see if their IP addresses are the same (meaning it could be from one person posing as many people). For the name Paulaner01 alone, a Google search brings up 679 pages of comments on blogs and news sites, mainly about telecom legislative issues.

    Who are these people (or person), and are they being paid? And why would they post anonymously with the same few pseudonyms over and over again? Please post your own findings and clues in the comments below, and I’ll update this post with any updates or news I have. You can also send tips to me directly through the Feedback form on MediaShift.

    [Sock puppet photo by Amy van der Hiel]

    • Mark,

      IP Democracy does indeed keep track of the IP addresses of its commenters, but this is a dead-end. As you can see below, the IP addresses for all of these commenters are residential ISPs scattered across the country. Note, there is an additional name that needs to be added to this list — Darnell Dunwitty.

      I discovered that Darnell moves with this pack when I went to check the comments and the IP addresses.

      I too have emailed all these commenters asking them to identify themselves, but so far have heard nothing.

      Commenter/IP Address/ISP
      lessgov/ in Minnesota
      pkp646/, an ISP in Columbus, OH
      oldhats/ in Atlanta
      Paulaner01/ in Mt. Laurel, NJ
      Darnell Dunwitty/ in Mt. Laurel, NJ

      Note that none of these ISPs is a major telco, such as AT&T or SBC. Also, the location of the ISP could be a “super-hub” — i.e. Comcast has major routing facilities in Mt. Laurel that might span several states, so it’s hard to tell where these folks are really coming from.

      Cynthia B.

    • Thanks for sharing your research, Cynthia. I wouldn’t say it’s conclusive either way. According to Tim Karr, there might be a Verizon connection to a New Jersey issue, so that might explain the NJ locations. With enough pressure, perhaps someone will find the right clue, or trace these folks to make a connection. We’ll see. Topix.net forums actually do automatic geolocation, but I didn’t see any forums there specifically for Net neutrality.

    • sagecast

      Thanks for following up Mark. You should know that I have been using “sagecast” as my login name since my very first days on the Internet. It’s more a force of habit than an effort to hide my identity. As soon as it became apparent that you and others were interested in following up on this, I realized that I needed to fully disclose myself and my work on this issue. Now, I’m hoping that the blog commenters in question will do the same.

      Some additional history. About two weeks ago, I started a cordial correspondence with one of these individuals, “Paulaner01.” I asked him about the similarity between his frequent comments and telephone company talking points; he replied that he was merely a concerned citizen.

      In my next email, I asked whether he had any relationship with pkp646, oldhats, lessgov — the others who commented in sequence with him. At that point he stopped corresponding.

      Other names to watch are AJ Carey, keepitfree and tpwk (Google any in combination and you’ll see how they work). All of these individuals work in a coordinated fashion against bloggers who post in favor of network neutrality. They often follow one another’s comments with openers like “I agree with Paulaner01…,” or “Lessgov is right….”

      As Cindy points out, they merely may be a group of friends who are passionate about this issue and who have decided to work together to gang up on bloggers with whom they disagree.

      Though, I have been tracking the public relations and lobbying efforts of Verizon, AT&T, BellSouth and their well funded “astroturf” subsidiaries in Washington (a list that includes “Hands off the Internet,” “NetCompetition” and “FreedomWorks”). Using deceptive methods to create the appearance of popular support for an industry issue is common practice for these groups.

      I am investigating this further. I have asked fellow New Jersey bloggers — those involved with of Verizon’s recent effort to infiltrate the blogosphere and influence state legislation here — to provide me with contact names within Verizon public relations office. Should I discover anything there, I’ll report back.

    • sagecast

      Meant to sign off on the above. . . .

      Tim Karr

    • Tom

      My blog about Verizon and Red Bank New Jersey was posted to as well. In our town we have a particularly bad taste in our mouths from a recent astroturfing stunt performed by Verizon. Luckily our Mayor picked up on what Verizon was trying to do and called them out on it.

      If Verizon is in any way behind these posts I need to find more information about it. It is particularly brazen that these posts would end up on a blog about a town in which they were already caught astroturfing. If anyone has more info please let me know about it.

      [email protected] dot org

    • One thing to perhaps following up on (I’m an analyst and not an investigative journalist so I leave this to others): Every morning Fleischman Hilliard in NYC does a Google blog search on “Network Neutrality.” This particular IP address is a frequent vistor to IP Democracy, always using this search phrase.

      Perhaps FH is organizing a grassroots blog commenting campaign on behalf of one of the telcos.

    • Email has been used for years by special interests to flood the boxes of politicians, so it’s not surprising that the telcos have figured out how to “astroturf” for their cause. What this may end up doing is forcing more folks to be transparent. It may also cause more folks to blog and more bloggers to better screen their comments sections. We’re going to have to get very savvy about what we’re reading and responding to in our comments. Online interaction has, though, always been very nuanced because of the lack of physical cues. Weeding out “astroturfing” efforts will indeed add to one’s online communication skills set.

    • I got some suspicious comments and attempts to raise the visibility of a posting of mine in Google BlogSearch by an IP out of Silver Spring, MD (I am a skeptic of net neutrality regulation and opponent FCC control over the Internet; I work for a global backbone provider; I am an opponent of astroturfing and dishonesty). I posted a comment with the IP details on this blog post (which is itself a critique of Save the Internet material).

    • Among the telcos efforts to sway public opinion, they are reportedly conducting a telemarketing campaign, calling customers and trying to convince them that companies like Google and Microsoft are driving up the costs of internet and TV service. The group doing the telemarketing campaign is called TV4U.com, and they are funded by many of the same corporations who are funding handsofftheinternet.com and dontregulate.org.

      The good news is that Congress seems to understand the bipartisan opinion of the American people. Yesterday the House Judiciary Committee passed the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006″ a bill that would protect Net Neutrality. 20 members of the Commitee (6 Republicans and 14 Democrats) voted for the bill, 13 against.

      This fight is not over, so I hope people will stay informed and keep pressuring Congress until net neutrality becomes law.

    • I kinda figured something was going on. In a relatively short period of time, I got a bunch of posts.

      Now I know why…

    • Maybe it would be a good idea to have a central place to post the name, IP and activities of suspected paid industry lobbyists. Then, each can be judged on a case by case basis. Maybe some of the programming types could start creating filters and tracking tools to focus the spotlight on these activities. It would be interesting to let the public see how the money they are paying the telcos in “regulatory compliance fees” are regularly used to manipulate public opinion.

    • guest

      thank you

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