Political astroturfing by the “50 Cent Party” is a well known phenomenon in China, with legions of commenters paid to push the government line: see, for example, CDT’s translation of likely 50 Cent posts responding to February’s calls for a Chinese Jasmine Revolution. Such activity is by no means restricted to the political sphere, however. MIT’s Technology Review describes recent research into commercial astroturfing on the Chinese Internet whose authors aim to develop automatic countermeasures.
Today, Cheng Chen at the University of Victoria in Canada and a few pals describe how Cheng worked undercover as a paid poster on Chinese websites to understand how the Internet Water Army [so-called because they “flood” targeted sites] works. He and his friends then used what he learnt to create software that can spot paid posters automatically ….
That’s an impressive piece of work and a good first step towards combating this problem, although they’ll need to test it on a much wider range of datasets. Nevertheless, these guys have the basis of a software package that will weed out a significant fraction of paid posters, provided these people conform to the stereotype that Cheng and co have measured.
And therein lies the rub. As soon as the first version of the software hits the market, paid posters will learn to modify their behaviour in a way that games the system. What Cheng and co have started is a cat and mouse game just like those that plague the antivirus and spam filtering industries.