Zara’s Space on the Web – Musings

February 25, 2011

Thoughts on fighting internet astroturfing

Filed under: Geekery,Hippiery,Politics — zarazilla @ 11:48 pm

A bit on the late side as usual, I read this article by George Monbiot tonight on the bus (coincidentally while going around Parliament Square) and was immediately outraged.  For those of you who can’t be bothered to read the article, the summary is thus:

For a while now, PR companies (and the Chinese government) have been paying people to go on the internet and promote products (or ideologies) subtly – i.e. not as an obvious advertisement, but more like Jane Doe goes on a message board and tells everyone how much she loves using hair product K or a Chinese citizen getting upset and abusing a criticism of the Chinese government. What’s even more worrying though, is that lately organisations (companies and other types of organisations including the US Airforce) are now paying dedicated companies who are creating multiple fake people to do the same thing.  Two quotes from the article:

“I was contacted by a whistleblower… part of a commercial team employed to infest internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients, promoting their causes and arguing with anyone who opposed them… He posed as a disinterested member of the public. Or, to be more accurate, as a crowd of disinterested members of the public: he used 70 personas, both to avoid detection and to create the impression there was widespread support for his pro-corporate arguments.”

“This software creates all the online furniture a real person would possess: a name, email accounts, web pages and social media. In other words, it automatically generates what look like authentic profiles, making it hard to tell the difference between a virtual robot and a real commentator… Human astroturfers can then be assigned these “pre-aged” accounts to create a back story, suggesting that they’ve been busy linking and retweeting for months.”

As somebody who feels like she grew up with the internet, believes in democracy and free speech and participated in online forums, this absolutely outraged me.  I’m always one for thinking I can help make a change.  So I started writing an e-mail to the George Monbiot discussion group.  The rest of this post is an edited version (for clarity) of this e-mail which turned out into a mini manifesto of what we as individuals can do to fight back against internet astroturfing.

The first thing is to raise awareness.  Being an ex-computer scientist and now working in the environmental sector, I feel like I should have heard about this by now, but it came as a huge shock (although, “oh, that makes sense” did make itself heard at the back of my mind).  So perhaps what we can do is post this on any popular message boards we frequent, make people aware and solicit opinions.  Tweet it, post it on facebook and reddit.

Which brings me to the second thing.  The article mentions ‘social media’ a lot.  It may mean other services, but to me the largest social media networks are Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.  I’ve never actually read the terms and conditions of any of these services (and I can’t afford the time to right now), but the first question should be if what these companies are doing are contravening these services’ terms and conditions. Same goes for the targets of these companies: the newspaper websites, popular forums, etc.  If they are, great.  If not, we need to write to these websites to make them aware of what is happening – maybe they are already, maybe they’re not.  But I’m guessing that none of them want their websites used in the manner by which astroturfers are attempting to. They’ll need to rewrite their terms and conditions, and they’ll need to put people onto the case to figure out how they can detect and stop it.

This will be the difficult part for these companies.  The Daily Kos reports that HB Gary are recruiting from “many different agencies and top universities like MIT”. The social media companies will have to stay ahead of these guys, but I’m sure they can do it. I know they, too, are recruiting from top universities and stealing staff from each other.

I’d love to have a discussion on this and hear anybody’s thoughts.  In the meantime, I’ve posted George’s article to my facebook wall and tweeted it as per my suggestions. :)


The article that kicked this post off

George Monbiot’s first article on astroturfing

The Daily Kos report on an e-mail from one of the astroturf companies

November 8, 2010

I’m from earth

Filed under: Hippiery,Personal — zarazilla @ 12:01 am
Tags: , ,

Today I got asked an interesting question. It is a question I get asked enough times and hate answering, but it is interesting this time because it is from my mother.

In the middle of trying to convince me I should speak Cantonese (I should, but it’s difficult!) she said “Where are you from?” Well actually she asked something more along the lines of “Which place person are you?” which is usually translated to “Where are you from?” but is an interesting phrase for the purposes of this post.

It is difficult for me to place myself to be from anywhere, and generally when someone I have just met asks me that question I try to answer in the best way possible from the context of their question (although it usually ends up with me, somehow or other, listing the places I’ve lived in and pointing out that my accent is from an international school).

But since it was my mother asking, and she has in a way created my history, I merely answered, “The world”. Well, my mother was a bit taken back by my answer, despite the fact that when I tell people I’m Malaysian she says “But you’re not” and goes on to say that I’m more British as I’ve spent more of my time here. Following my answer, she said that it was not good for people to feel like they don’t belong anywhere, and went on to recount how a woman she knows was given away whe she was a baby by her mother and has spent the rest of her life trying to make up for it and to belong somewhere.

But I do feel like I belong. It may sound a bit cheesy but I’m a citizen of the earth and a proud member of the human race. I call multiple countries home and I have happily embraced the term ‘Third Culture Kid’ when attempting to put a name to my culture. This is something I worked out when I was a teenager (who stuck out like a sore thumb at school) and have been comfortable with since.

Most of the people I feel an immediate affinity with turn out to be third culture kids and I sometimes think we represent a placeless ‘race’ of TCKs – by which I mean a collection of people who have the same culture which enables us to connect and understand each other on a very basic level in a way that people from the same culture do.

And while I sometimes think and feel this way of claiming other TCKs as part of my culture and to whom I ‘belong’ with, at the very most basic level I do feel I am a citizen of this earth, the same way that a scottish man will claim that he is Scottish and a chinese girl will claim she is Chinese.

So at the end of this short conversation with my mother and slightly longer deliberation on my part I had a revelation – perhaps my chosen career in the environmental sector stems in part from my feeling of belonging to the world. I have never been a patriot of any nation, but my concern (and pride) is for all.

November 4, 2010

Thankful Thursday

Filed under: Uncategorized — zarazilla @ 10:36 pm

3 things I’m thankful for:
1) my friends – all over the world and diverse in age, race, career, thinking, but all kind  wonderful people
2) my health – I have all my limbs and everything functions.
3) my job –  I’m lucky  not just to be working but to be in a job where I do something I feel is worthwhile, where I get opportunity to learn all the time and am surrounded by awesome inspiring people

May 10, 2010

Let’s stop pretending the world is black and white

I was just watching the BBC Election Special and was shocked by how all the political commentators distilled issues down so much that it seemed like they had decided the world was black and white:

  • David Dimbleby kept on referring to Labour and the Liberal Democrats as the ‘losing parties’. He fretted that a coalition government would be formed out of the ‘losing parties’. – It is clear that none of the parties has ‘won’ as none have an absolute majority, and none of the parties that have as many seats as the Liberal Democrats and Labour do have ‘lost’. BNP, UKIP, Christian Democrats are all ‘losing parties’ because they don’t have a single seat.  If Labour and Lib Dem did form a coalition with other parties, it wouldn’t be a coalition of losers, because they would have managed to come to an agreement to become a coalition with an absolute majority, the ‘goal’ they have to reach for a stable government, therefore they would have ‘won’ through working together.
  • John Reid said that 74% of people had voted against proportional representation, his thinking being that since the Liberal Democrats were the only party that made PR one of their main issues and only 26% of the population voted for them, therefore 74% had voted against proportional representation. – There are of course a million other issues at stake while voting for your member of parliament including local issues, and painting the general election as a vote for or against proportional representation is clearly ridiculous.
  • Everyone says that Nick Clegg is playing the ‘Kingmaker, as he and the rest of the Liberal Democrats decide whether they will form a coalition with Labour or Conservatives, therefore helping to grant them an absolute majority. The truth is that Nick Clegg is only playing the ‘Kingmaker’ because Labour and Conservatives cannot possibly conceive of working together.  Everyone is seeing this situation as black and white, either Conservative wins or Labour wins. It is not conceivable at all that they attempt to work together? As far as I know, the Liberal Democrats have been speaking to both of them, however Labour and Conservatives have not been speaking to each other.  This means that the power is in the hands of the party with the least votes between the three main parties. Maybe I’m being idealistic to imagine that Labour and Conservatives could try and work something out, that they would actually have to discuss things with each other and try to bring the members of one over to the point of view of the members of the other in order to pass things through the various houses, rather than sneer, jibe and name-call each other all the time. It would probably make for much more informed discussion happening, which can only be a good thing.

I can see why it is easier to distill things down so that they look black and white, and this perhaps works for really complicated issues in less important areas. However for perhaps more important issues such as the future government of the UK, lets try and keep discussion at a level where biases aren’t formed from the distillation, all options can be seen, and outright lies aren’t told.

April 24, 2010

Who should I vote for?

Filed under: Politics — zarazilla @ 10:44 pm
Tags: , , , ,

As I’m sure you already know, the UK general election has been called for Thursday 6th May.  I do believe it is very important for people to go out and vote.  But even more importantly is that people figure out who it is they should vote for according to their views.  I had a friend at university who voted BNP in a local election because it was the only party that said ‘British’ on it instead of  ‘Scottish’…. we lived in Edinburgh.  When she found out what the BNP stood for she was horrified!  Far better had she stayed away from the polls than vote for a party that was against what she wanted.

You want more? Here’s some with humour.

Not many of us have the time or inclination to read through manifestos and try and decide whether parties have generally stuck to what they’ve said before.  Luckily for us, we live in an age of modern conveniences and where people dedicated to the cause of helping people choose which party to vote for, no matter their views, have come up with some tools!  I’m going to test run a few of those here and tell you how time consuming it is, how likely it is to be accurate, and, scarily, what parties they suggest to me!

Okay. First off, Vote Match!  Vote Match is an ‘Unlock Democracy‘ project in association with The Telegraph, Goldsmiths University of London, and The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.

It is very easy to use and definitely for those who don’t want to spend too much time reading things. After telling it which country you live in, you go straight into 30 questions about how you feel about things. You can either agree, disagree, or remain ‘Open Minded’. The only thing I didn’t like about this was there were a few questions where you could’ve done with a bit more information or a button which said ‘It depends’. Next it asks you to select your priorities over 12 issues, what you feel are the most important and least important issues.  It the asks you to select the parties you’d like to be compared with and includes that for accurate results, not to include any part you would never consider voting for. I like to think I’m a pretty open minded person, so I select all parties apart from the BNP. Because lets face it, if the BNP were ever in power I wouldn’t have the power to vote. Next, they offer to email you to remind you to vote. I reckon I probably won’t need reminding, so I skip the option.

Apart from various frustrations with the limited answers you can give to the questions, VoteMatch is very straightforward and easy to use.  My result? UKIP!  UKIP???? UKIP!!!!  I am worried…. but as I look through the answers to the questions I can see why. The quesions where I got frustrated the most with the limited answers have aligned themselves with UKIP… in exactly the ways I was thinking they shouldn’t.  My next match is with the Liberal Democrats, then the Green Party, and then I am tied with the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. Interesting.

Next up: Vote for Policies.

The idea behind Vote for Policies is that it keeps you a number of points from each parties manifesto and asks you to choose from the sets of policies, rather than the personalities. It’s a good idea, but actually doesn’t really work in the context its presented in as the points are quoted ad verbatim and it is obvious who some of the parties are due to the language used, or some points which have been brought up in the press.

Nevertheless, Vote for Policies gives you a much more indepth look and is for people who want to spend more time on choosing who they want to vote for. They start off with asking you what issues, out of a selection of 9, you are interested in. I choose all 9.

The sets of policies make for long reading, and you do get torn between a few of them. It would be nice if they had an optional ranking system.  It takes quite a while to get through them, but after the fourth section I start skipping some once I start reading vile things.

My result? Liberal Democrats. I come out Liberal Democrats on Health/NHS, Democracy, Environment, Europe and Welfare. Green on Crime and Immigration (funny, as I didn’t vote Green for MEPs because of their immigration policies, I guess they must’ve toned them down), Labour on Economy, and funnily enough, UKIP on Education.

There may be a few more quizzes out there, but for now I’m heading for bed!

March 25, 2010

March 9, 2010

Data visualisation

Although I’m at work, I figured I could do a really quick post about this to reinforce the point I am about to make: Data visualisation is awesome!

My friend Frank sent me a link to the Public Data Explorer at Google Labs, saying he figured I’d like it as an economist.  He was right!  I watched  the bubble graph visualisation embedded in the front page about three times…. the first time just because I was curious, the second time because the first time was over so quickly and random things had caught my eye, and the third pausing and retracing to check who those little outliers bouncing off to the sides and back again were about.

Try it! You can pause at any point and hovering over each bubble will tell you which country the bubble represents.

So in the space of about 5 minutes I had been able to pick out the devastating effect on average life expectancy that the civil wars in the 70s in Cambodia and Timor-Leste had, and the insane genocide in Rwanda in the late 80s/early 90s.  You can also see the South African countries moving out to the left in the late 90s – average age expectancy falling undoubtedly by the spread of AIDS (although the drastic fall in Zimbabwe’s life expectancy may be a bit more than that!).  In recent years however you can see that some of them are coming back up.  Is this due to better medicine to treat AIDS or a fall in victims?  We don’t know, but the data can tell us where to look.

In a nutshell, data visualisation is great for quickly picking out anomalies in data and telling us where to dig deeper.

Now please excuse me as I should get back to work as well as satisfy my curiosity by looking up why the fertility rate in Guinea-Bissau plummeted in the 60s!

January 5, 2010

Risky transport

Filed under: Uncategorized — zarazilla @ 10:09 am

Here’s some food for thought.  I came across this while searching for the value of statistical life.

“Taking figures from the publication Transport Statistics Great Britain (DfT, 2004) based on the 1993-2002 average figures, the chances of death in Great Britain per billion passenger kilometres are as follows:

Air 0.0
Water 0.3
Bus or coach 0.4
Rail 0.4
Van 1.0
Car 3.0
Pedal cycle 41
Pedestrian 54
Two wheeled motor vehicle 113″

January 3, 2010

Thank you 2009

Filed under: Personal — zarazilla @ 11:32 pm

2009 has been a really good year for me, and it is nice to think of all the good things that have happened to be in the past year.

I finally got my first foot onto the career ladder with a job interview in late February leading to me joining a well-respected environmental economics consultancy in March.  I’ve learnt a lot in my current role and even managed to simultaneously fulfill a childhood dream as well as get my name on some semi-popular published material.  I even got to be interviewed on the EUSci podcast! I’ve completed 10 months at work, which is seven months longer than my last longest job (temping as a secretary at Morgan Stanley Quilter), have business cards to hand out (not that I’ve ever had occasion to do so), met Tim Harford, and implemented and posted multiple times on the work blog. Next steps are to complete my personal project at work (I’m setting myself a deadline for the end of January!), get a new title, and be even more awesome.

Financially, my job has led to me being able to pay off my bank overdraft and starting to pay off my not inconsiderable student loan.  My salary has also allowed me to help out other hard-working people in developing countries through microlending with Kiva.  It is not much, but I have managed to lend $25 a month for every month that I have been working.  Although loans have already been disbursed by the time they make it to Kiva, I attempt to ‘lend’ to profiles which I believe will increase economic activity in the developing countries.  These include agriculture, transportation, and construction.  Next step is to explore other microfinance sites and see what other models are available.

Socially, I have done amazingly.  One of my good friends from university moved down to London and I have been spending a lot of missed time with her.  Earning a steady salary enabled me to restart swing dancing classes which, in the first place, set a time to meet up with a friend from uni weekly, and later, set the scene for me to meet a lot of amazing people.  I also enjoy the company of my colleagues, including out-of-the-office time with a colleague who joined the company in August. Next steps are to keep things going and to regularly keep in touch with old friends.

Self-developmentally, I have done a bit although I feel I could do better.  This is something to work on this year.  I managed to attend a few lectures to do with the environment and economics as well as a workshop on using arduinos. Using a range finder and an mp3 player I developed a small media project to demonstrate ‘environmental sin’, playing on the workshop’s theme of ‘sinful machines’. I didn’t manage to get through any textbooks however, and this is a goal for next year.  Self-organisation will help this. :)

Travelling-wise, after the glut of long-distance plane journeys I undertook in 2008, 2009 was thankfully a relatively peaceful year for journeys. I managed a short hop to Iceland and back before starting work, and several trips up to Scotland, including a biking trip around Aviemore and the Cairngorms. Unfortunately 2010 will start off with another long-distance plane trip to Malaysia for Chinese New Year, but hopefully those will be the only plane trips I take.  I’m also hoping to do a bit of train journeying around Europe. :)

So, in sum, it’s been a very good year and though some of it has been due to luck, to be fair to myself some of it has been the fruition of a lot of hard work I have put in.  I hope 2010 brings me similar joy. :)

December 28, 2009

The Climate Change (Nash) Game

Filed under: Uncategorized — zarazilla @ 5:27 pm

In modern game theory study, one of the first games to be introduced to students is the Nash Bargaining Game (named after the famous mathematician John Nash, the subject of the Hollywood film A Beautiful Mind).

Economists and in particular environmental economists love this game because the premise of it depends on a finite good (e.g. a limited amount of money) which is valuable to all players.  There are many variations to this game, but the usual goal of the game is for each player to maximise the amount of the good they have by the end of the game (e.g. the person with the most amount of money wins), but there is also a maximum threshold level to which the all of the players’ goods must sum to (e.g. the sum of the accumulated money by all players has to be less than £100).  In different variations of the game, bypassing this sum may mean a lose for all players involved, or missing out on a special bonus amount of money.

The actual play of the game is very simple: Every player starts with the same amount of good that, summed together, is above the threshold level.  There are a defined number of rounds, and during each round each player (generally secretly) forfeits however much of the good they feel like (this can be 0), and at the end of each round the arbitrator announces how much money has been given up.

If that last two paragraphs were gobbledygook to you, I apologise!  But perhaps a description of a new variation by zoologist Manfred Milinski will make sense to you; I encourage you to play it with your friends the next time they suggest a round of poker.

The rules of this game are:

  1. Each player starts out with a set amount of money.  For the purposes of explaining, I will say £20 (raise or lower this according to the level of income of the poorest member of your group!).
  2. The group needs to collectively donate half of the total sum of the starting amount (so if you have six players who each had £20 to start off with, the group needs to donate £60, that is 6×20/2) to a ‘fund’.  If this ‘fund’ is not met by the end of the game, there is a 90% chance that everybody will lose all their money.  If it is met, everybody gets to keep the money they have left over after donating.
  3. You have ten rounds to do this.  Each round consists of each player secretly donating their money to the fund, and at the end of the round an arbitrator announces how much money there is in the fund.
  4. Players are allowed to discuss strategy with each other.

It may not immediately become apparent to you, but this game is an attempt to emulate, at a very basic level, international climate change negotiations.  Each player can be seen as a negotiator from a country, each trying to play the game to achieve what’s best for themselves.  If the sum of their (expensive) pledged actions are not large enough, a climate catastrophe is upon us and all the money they did not spend (and more!) on helping to mitigate climate change will be spent attempting to adapt to it.

Unfortunately, only 50% of Milinski’s experimental groups managed to ‘save the world’. Can you and your friends do better?

I see a couple of ways you could play this game:

  1. The arbitrator (you could call them Gaia!) comes up with the money and hands it to everyone.  All money that goes in the ‘fund’ goes back to the arbitrator.  Similary, if everyone loses, all the money returns to the arbitrator.  This is a slightly boring game though, and friends may feel more generous with their money, as it will be going back to the person who originally provided it.  However, if this is the only way you can get your friends to play this game, this may be the way to do it.  If not, however, to make things more interesting:
  2. Each player comes up with their own money.  A ‘bad’ charity, that is a charity that no one would ever consider giving money to, is agreed on by everyone.  An especially good ‘bad’ charity would be one that is against everyone’s beliefs.  So if you’re with a bunch of environmentalists, maybe a coal lobby.  Or if you’re with technologists, a luddite group.  You get the picture.  If the game is lost, all the money goes to this charity.  If the game is won, the money in the fund can either go to funding your next party or to a good charity.  I suggest funding your next party, because a good charity may also make everyone feel a bit more generous with their money.

Okay, go out there and see what your friends are made of!  If you do play this game, please let me know how it goes. :)


The idea of a ‘bad charity’ is influenced by Ian Ayres’s This site allows you to name a charity you dislike and set yourself commitments.  If these commitments are broken, you donate a set amount of money to a pre-named charity you dislike.

The Climate Change Game: article: Nature Reports Climate Change

Podcast: Fixing Climate is Going to Cost You – Planet Money –

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