Ballsy spammers

If you have to force a site to delete your own spam, you're doing it wrong.

Comment spam is the bane of one's life on the internet; there's probably some underneath this very post (if there isn't, there will be). Spammers post little messages with little relation to the content above, and link to their, generally scammy, site.

The intention isn't really to trick individuals to click on the post, because even spammers know that people don't tend to be that intrigued. Instead, it's to game Google Search rankings, which are determined by the number of sites which link back to yours.

For quite some time now, Google has deliberately ignored links in comments, knowing that they have nothing to do with the owner of the site. That hasn't stopped the spammers, of course, who aren't known for making sense, but it has at least dampened their effects. But recently, it went one step further, and started actively penalising sites which engage in spam.

All of which led to the American politics site, TPM, receiving a cease-and-desist letter from a spammer, asking them to delete previous spam from their site. Josh Marshall, the editor, writes:

In other words, the estimable businessmen and women at realinsurance.com.au have been paying SEO companies to spam the comment sections of sites around the globe. But now Google’s new search algorithms are making that legacy spam really damaging. So now they’re sending out cease and desist notices to the victims of their earlier spamming demanding that they search their archives and remove their spam.

There's white hat SEO, there's black hat SEO, and then there's dunce hat SEO. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The internet dictionary: what is astroturfing?

Yes, like the fake grass.

Thanks to the internet, there are a lot of new words. You’re most likely up to speed with your LOLs and OMGs, which became Oxford English Dictionary-worthy in 2011 (LOL OMG if you’re not). But words emerge constantly, and it can be hard to keep track of them. This is what this column is for. Every week, I’ll define a word that is crucial to understanding the internet, starting with “astroturfing” – like the fake grass.

To astroturf is to mask the author of a message to make it appear to have come from the grass roots. Messages created by brands, politicians and even the military are disguised as comments made by the public. The practice existed before the web – the term is thought to have been coined in 1985 by a US senator who received a “mountain” of letters from insurance companies posing as the public – but the internet has propelled it to new, disturbing heights.

“GIRLS U NEED TO READ THIS,” reads a tweet by a handsome teenage boy named Ashton, who tweets the same words day after day, followed by crying and heart emojis. Ashton lives to promote the book of a 19-year-old self-published author from Sheffield – or, at least, he would, if he lived at all. Ashton is fake, a profile designed to make the book seem popular. Many teenage girls have been duped by this. One told me: “I felt very cheated out of my money and my time.”

It has been estimated that a third of all consumer reviews online are fake. But it doesn’t end with bad books. In China, the “50 Cent Army” are astroturfers who are allegedly paid a small fee for each positive post they write about the Chinese Communist Party. And in 2011, it emerged that the US military was developing an “online persona management service” to spread pro-American messages, allowing one person to manage multiple online identities.

We would be foolish to assume that our own democracy is immune. Much was written about how the Tories used targeted social media adverts at the last election, and it is easy to see how astroturfing could transform our political landscape for ever. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon