Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Last week DU told me about Amazon's "mechanical Turk" program, which is basically a framework that allows the hiring of human labor to accomplish very small tasks that are difficult for computers.

The implications are pretty awesome (in the sense of inspiring awe) and extremely creepy, and as DU pointed out its primary application right now is probably using Indian labor to game search engines and other similar sketchiness. Which is nothing new, of course; Amazon is just democratizing something you'd previously have had to contract out for.

In any case, it made me think that a good use for this would be political astroturfing. At one point in 2005 I tried to turn myself into a sort of volunteer Democratic operative on one web community. I created a pseudonymous account, and every day I would look at the DNC's latest press release and then go post a diary echoing the DNC's claims in my own words.

The intent was to help counter the constant drum of GOP talking points propagated by the Right-Wing Noise Machine. This proved essentially impossible, simply because the whole way the Might Wurlitzer works is through repetition: by the time you hear someone repeat some anti-Kerry slur reported by Wolf Blitzer as what "some leading Democrats are saying," you've already heard it from half a dozen Rush listeners, Leno viewers, workplace know-nothings and your great uncle's email list. As Digby reminds me, it's the constant reinforcement of these memes that makes them "stick."

In contrast, when I loaded up democrats.org each day, my first reaction would be "they're talking about what?" Not that their lines of attack were bad, but they just weren't being repeated anywhere: I'd listen to Air America and read a bunch of liberal blogs, and nobody would be focusing on, e.g., deforestation, or whatever the DNC was on about that day. I felt like my efforts were for naught because nothing I said had any resonance.

Anyway, all of this is a long preamble to the idea that something like the mechanical Turk program could be used for this kind of thing really easily. Like, each day have a specific idea or key phrase (say, that John McCain has a history of financial corruption, or just the word "McSame") show up posted by ten different people on each of the ten most popular political blogs or forums. At a dollar per comment that's only $100 a day. And no single comment needs to be persuasive or even really coherent, because the point is to just get it out there and resonating.

Sync these messages up to what campaign surrogates are saying in the media and I think this approach could be really effective. But even when instigated by a single lone actor it would accomplish much more than my solitary shilling ever could.


DU said...

Great idea! "Not really coherent" is pretty much the state of the art in this field already, so you've set the bar exactly right.

I think you are vastly overestimating how much this would cost. A typical "type this spam in for me" job on mturk is $.01. You could probably get 1000 comments/day for the cost of lunch.

I even went so far as to set up a requestor account (or whatever they call it) to post jobs. I was going to ask for ideas for dinner at $.10 each.

DU said...

(forgot to click for follows-up)