We all know what a traditional Spammer looks and smells like. They overload your blog with links to diet pills and fat creams and breast enhancers and penis extenders. You can smell their nastiness permeating across the universe.

But how do you recognize another — sometimes more subtle form of Spamming — done with vested interest and obvious coordination? When do you pull the plug on that kind of Spam effort and should you let any of that Spam through your blog door if, later, you put together the posting patterns to discover your blog has been Spammed, Slammed and left Ham-less?

Now most coordinated attempts to Spam a blog are loud and obvious, but recently here we had a more insidious attack that taught us interesting lessons in outside manipulation of this blog’s core purpose: A free and unfettered discussion about the human condition in the urban core. How do you know if your blog is being manipulated by special interests? Here’s a quick checklist:

1. Dead posts are suddenly and inexplicably resurrected. Blog articles actively get comments for a day or so and then they wither away until someone does a search and finds that post again. If an article you wrote four months ago gets 10 comments from new commenters in two hours, alarms should go off inside you that something strange is happening. Old articles can get comments — but usually only one or two at a time — and when you get flooded you know something is wrong and you need to take fast action to protect the intellectual integrity of your blog.

2. Comments are angled one way. When an old or new article gets a flood of comments that all make the same “talking points” or hammer home similar ideas you know you’re being Spammed. You know this because the internet is a wide and deep place with lots of different perspectives. When everyone starts commenting with the same tone and intent — and even the same vocabulary — you know that is not the usual, organic way a conversation grows on the web and you need to clip the comments and, perhaps, even prune back previously published comments if you believe they are in violation of your Spam posting policy. With this kind of coordinated Spam attack a few early comments get posted because you haven’t yet been able to discern the posting pattern. You need at least a few pieces to see if they perfectly fit together to form a larger puzzle of self-interest.

3. Regional posting. There’s an old saying “all politics are local” and that’s true of the internet as well. We’re all members of a virtual community but we’re all grounded by wires somewhere to a specific location someplace on this earth. Regions stick together. When you begin to see a lot of postings from one part of the country or one part of the world you know there has been a coordinated notification effort between vested interests to post on your blog “to set you straight.” Those notifications are made via phone calls, mailing lists, other blogs, and by word-of-mouth. Keep an eye on the IP Addresses of those you suspect of Spamming your blog and look for regional patterns that suggest a narrow interest framed by geography in trying moving public opinion their way against the better neutral interests of your blog.

4. Fake Names. When new commenters with a legitimate vested interest post a serious message on your blog they use their real name. They want to be on-the-record and they want to share facts and not opinion. When a flood of new commenters use cute names or names that happen to support their position you should being to smell suspicious activity is starting to take over your blog.

5. Identical Email Domains. If you get a slew of new suspicious comments, look at the email addresses. Most Spammers are smart enough not to use their personal email address so they’ll go get a throwaway email address. People who have legitimate email addresses
— even those who want to protect their personal or work email address
— are still vested in the email address they choose and it has some personal meaning for them. When you see lots of, let’s say, Yahoo.com email domains popping up with a gang of numbers for the email address @yahoo.com you immediately know that is a throwaway email address because there was no thought or personal satisfaction used to create that address and that is yet another clue something may be wrong on your blog.

6. No Homepage. Most people with blogs or websites post on other blogs and websites to get traffic and visitors from other sites to their site and they do that by providing a URL. Coordinated Spammers who are out to influence public opinion never put a valid URL in their comments because they are either new to the web and came online just to Spam you or they want to hide their real persona. Homepage-less comments are always suspicious because not having a home on the web goes so keenly against the idea of self-preservation and self-promotion on the internet.

7. New commenters agree with new commenters. Once the initial seeds of the Spam attack have been meticulously planted on your blog by new commenters you will soon see other brand-new comments mentioning other new commenters and how much they agree with that position. When you see new people agreeing with new people who have never posted on your blog before you know you’re in the midst of a Spam attack and you need to either moderate comments, require registration, or close that post to new comments. If you decide to close comments for that article, leave a final comment explaining why you are closing comments so the Spammers know they’ve been caught, confiscated, and controlled. That clarification will help the casual reader identify precisely what happened and why you had to take action.

8. Spammers Spin You. When you finally become aware of the Spam flood and you put an end to it you will always hear from those you caught if you have an active email address or a Contact Form on your blog. Their claims of innocence are their last gasp to cover their tracks and to spin their Spamming from their behavior onto your decision to stop them. You’ll get lots of arguments concerning “free speech…” and “I only did a Google search to find you…” and “I’ve never posted on a blog before today…” and other weak arguments that might hold some merit if 10 other people weren’t using exactly the same nasty tone and transparent, identical, phrasing to strike home their final points. My advice is not to engage them in email because you’ll never be rid of them unless and until your make it clear you agree with them and you concur they are brilliant, non-Spammers, who were just floating by and happened to see your blog. Put their email in the trash where it belongs: That’s why we have a Delete key!

9. Own your blog. If you start to see this kind of Spam takeover of your blog by coordinated comments, my suggestion is you stop the Spam attack by cutting them off. If you don’t want to permanently close comments for a post then just close the comments for a day or two so the Spammers will lurk away defeated. Those kinds of attacks come fast and angry because they’re trying to get out ahead of the curve to influence public opinion. By slowing them down and restricting their ability to post, you cool the heat they need to spread their position. Your blog is your blog and no one has the right to use your bandwidth and your platform to celebrate their narrow self-interest at your expense. Sometimes, however, it can be good to leave a few of the Spammers’ comments in place along with your commentary pointing out why those comments are Spam. That teaches others how to recognize a similar attack. When you help others see the pattern in a keen Spam flood, you blunt future attacks elsewhere.

10. Don’t Play. Some of those Spammers are professional. They know how to push your buttons. Do not engage them on your blog or in email unless you want even more “new commenters” banging on your blog door. They will tempt your idea of fair play and access to information. Don’t play with them. They wouldn’t be pushing you so hard unless they’d done something beyond the normal ebb and flow of your blog. Time and tide wait for no one and you should not spend a moment of your time defending your turning of the tide. Spammers are trespassers of the mind and shoving them away and ignoring them is the best remedy to resurrecting the good spirit and organic intent of your blog.

33 Comments

  1. Hi David,
    I was curious and did a search for some of the keywords that fit the pattern that alerted you to possible spamming on a certain thread in this blog. It came as no surprise that similar comments written the same way popped up on every blog that had a certain keyword.
    In some ways, it should be flattering. It shows that blogs have the power (or at least are perceived) to have the ability to change or shape opinions, even for highly localized issues.
    In this case, the issue can’t get any more highly localized than it is because it relates to only a few people in a specific fact pattern.
    The only people who benefit from these activities are the guerilla marketers and lobbyists who get paid to put the message out for their clients in unconventional ways. Whether it’s trying to “free” a doctor, passing legislation to admit dogs to restaurants, or regulate “Big Box” stores, most of the sound and fury in these issues is meaningless hype generated by lobbyists with an agenda.
    All of these things are distractions from other more pressing issues that probably deserve time and attention from the media, public, lawmakers and other opinion leaders.
    For all of the noise and fuss that is generated with various campaigns and causes, the real winners are the lobbyists and political organizers who try to convince people to think a certain way about a particular issue depending on who is paying them.
    None of the issues really make any difference to most people in the long run, except for those paying the bills to try to influence people to think a certain way.

  2. Hi Chris!
    I love it that you did some further investigation to confirm what we saw here in the two links I provided in my article today showed a verifiable pattern of Spamming elsewhere.
    One of our loyal readers and sometime commenter asked me in email why that Spamming was happening.
    I replied that I felt it was a test of a defense to see what kind of reaction was created in the public at large as a jury pool will likely be assembled from a group similar to the readership of this blog.
    By pressing the “falsely accused hero” label instead of the “intentional killer” charge one can see if that fuzzing of circumstance works or not.
    I think there is a large hill for them to climb, but by clambering up the backs of others to steal backbone and bandwidth to put forth their defense on our time and out of our wallets won’t play fairly in the open minds that frequent this blog.
    The indignant email flurry from the Spammers after I closed comments in those two articles was blinding! I’ve never read such a hollow, haughty, defense of indefensible Spamming.

  3. Or, it was some sort of political movement.
    If you were trying out a defense, it seems like it would be easier and more efficient to just hire a focus group and run all sorts of things by them to see what they respond to and to get their opinions.
    Frank Luntz is the master at doing this for politicians with his “People-Meter.”

    While attitudes differ by region of the country, gender, age and a host of other demographics, the best lines developed using the Instant Response technology are likely to work everywhere with everyone. We have never delivered a line from an Instant Response session that failed with the general public.

  4. People should also be aware of some truly insidious spammers who create dummy websites (much like dummy email accounts that may disappear) noting that some sites will allow users to pre-date blogs to days before they ever signed up.

  5. Hi Chris —
    I agree it was a clumsy attempt to try out a defense, but if you can “poison the well” enough with re-direction and confusion you dilute the immediate, gut reaction animosity of a doctor charged with murdering patients in the wake of Katrina.
    That’s an interesting and unique way to try to mount a defense in “the virtual world” where noise sometimes matters more than content.
    The words and phrasing were too precise to be a coincidence or plain conversation.
    There was a definite medical defense spin to the legal charges as they tried to press the assumption that, if you were not a health professional, you were not intellectually able to fully comprehend the situation at hand.
    Now that sort of “blame the blogger” defense won’t work in a courtroom but it does have a chilling effect in the blogosphere if they are allowed to get away with it.

  6. I wonder if there is a nascent pro-euthanasia movement that is behind the commenting — not necessarily in defense of the doctor per se, but in support of the furtherance of their cause?
    There’s a libertarian blog that echoes the same talking points brought up here earlier.

    I am not the only one outraged. These medical providers were working in war-like conditions. No electricity. No food. Shootouts in the street. Backed up sewage. No assistance. They stayed behind to care for the sickest patients, and this is how they are thanked? I think that every government agency that took tax money to fund inept agencies like FEMA should be named as co-defendants. Perhaps a jury would then come back with a not guilty verdict for the three people in this situation who actually did their jobs. And maybe then, the government can be held accountable.

  7. Hi Chris!
    Gosh, that link and comment sure do ring familiar!
    😀
    I think they are trying to spread the blame around to lots of people and things including the weather and the government and then also blame the mess of the situation for bad chart-keeping so when the doctor checked the charts she didn’t know how much of whatever medication had been administered and in that mass confusion to “help” people the wrong amounts of medication were mistakenly given. “A mistake,” they may claim, “does not a murder make.”
    They have a problem in that the dead bodies will not lie. There must be deadly high traces of medication in those bodies or the DA would never have filed murder charges.
    So the first thing they have to do is establish the confusion, the despair, the bad record-keeping and then finally… the “innocent intent” that lead to deaths but not murders.
    The crux of the defense will be intent: Doctors were saving lives not taking them. If they try to play the euthanasia card in the courtroom they will have a terribly hard road because the general public wants doctors and nurses and hospitals and all medical people to heal them not kill them. To even let the “E word” slip from their mouths — even in denying it — will doom them.

  8. Hi David,
    I took a look at NOLA.com’s reader’s comments about this issue and they also echo the same song:
    Everyone trusts the doctors and nurses who were left behind to perform their heroic service, no one can understand what the medical personnel was going through, and the politicians should be blamed. Many leaving comments self-identify as medical professionals.
    I have my own opinions about the issue, but my commentary about this topic isn’t needed since that’s not the focus here.
    It’s interesting to see a campaign like this play out since it seems to be historically unprecedented considering the usage of blogs to spread the seemingly hegemonic “expert” medical opinion.
    I’ll have to ask my doctor what he thinks about the subject the next time I see him — it’s probably good information to have just in case I’m trapped in a hospital with him during a crisis.

  9. Chris!
    Thanks for that link digging!
    I agree this is a daring attempt to make this a universal cause of “abandoned doctors in crises trying to save lives” instead of “medical staff injecting patients with drug overdoses so the staff can seek safer shelter” and using the internet to get out that message is new and curious.
    I also don’t think they’re worried about “expert” medical opinions — I just think they want to muddy the water enough so no one knows what really happened, therefore, no one can be found guilty.
    I have to remember that most of the comments posted did not make it out of moderation or my email inbox so I may have a little more access to their orchestrated hardcore Spam intent that hit us than may be publicly visible.
    I do think, however, I left a comment intact that said something about “we won’t know anything until we see the charts” — that particular comment overplayed their hand because it stuck out too much as too medical and too legalistic for blog comment chatter.
    That was the first signpost of a defense and my initial inkling we’d been Spammed hard. I also think that “charts” argument cuts too many ways to be credible in a jury deliberation.
    I have a feeling your doctor will not be on the DA’s side of things. The medical community tends to protect their own even more than attorneys!
    😀

  10. Hi Antoinette!
    Yeah, it’s important to discuss in detail — but if I’m too specific in the body of the post then the Spam cycle churns all over again when it gets indexed and becomes web searchable.
    So I have to refer back to the articles in links and then try not to use certain names of people or hospitals or they’ll be on us again.
    I don’t fear them on us again. It just takes time to clean up.
    😀

  11. Part of me wonders if there are people out there paid to spam these special interest agendas. It doesn’t seem that people who rarely use the internet would all of a sudden read through that many sites in order to spam them. I looked up the name of the doctor mentioned in the previous posts via Google as per the information given by the spammers. Even with all the recent people traffic there, your more recent post is approximately the thirty-sixth listing while the original post from several months ago falls on approximately the sixty-eighth listing (I didn’t actually count them, I used the Google’s count at the top of each page). It makes me wonder how someone who isn’t paid to spam would have that much time on their hands to visit each and every site hoping to get in on the discussion.

  12. Hi David,
    It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the prosecution says something along the lines that injecting medication in sufficient quantities to kill someone is the same as shooting someone with a gun.
    It’s just a different modality with the same effect.
    The proponents of the campaign suggest the situation at the hospital was similar to wartime and that the people on the scene were just trying to help.
    Do they feel the same way about another incident:

    A U.S. Army tank company commander accused of murdering a man in Iraq fatally shot him out of pity at his injuries, a witness testified Wednesday at hearings to determine whether he should face a court-martial.

    Did the soldier deserve to be punished?
    What if we apply the same standard we are being asked to accept as the standard of care for “hopeless” patients?
    From the BBC:

    Capt. Rogelio “Roger” Maynulet convicted of assault with intent to commit voluntary manslaughter in shooting death of wounded Iraqi. Received no prison time but was dismissed from armed forces.

  13. I just saw AS’ comment about Google.
    Around the time of the spamnation, the post was in the first 10 listed on Google using the doctor’s name. That’s how the people found the blog. (I “Googled” the doctor’s name since all of the posts referred to her by name.)
    Since the flood of news reports, the position has changed.

  14. I love your analysis, A S!
    If they aren’t paid — then they have a vested interest in the outcome — they could be lawyers, friends, students, law students, medical students, family, etc.
    I’m sure there are other, perhaps more commercial, cases where people are paid to Spam blogs — but they’d likely be quieter and more subtle and they wouldn’t be as obnoxious as the effort that hit us because that style can too easily backfire it did here.
    Ours Spamming had a coordinated amateur feel to it.
    If they’d done the job over three weeks instead of three hours and also been less obvious, they just might have been able to start an interesting re-conversation here.
    I see one of the MDs who commented here about the character of the accused is linking to this blog from his blog now. Interesting!

  15. Here’s more information about the “mercy killing” in Iraq that mirrors arguments used in favor of what happened at the hospital:
    From CBS:

    Nothing could be done for him and at that point Capt. Maynulet told you he stepped back and shot him in the base of the neck or back of the head,” said prosecutor Capt. Daniel Sennott, quoting (1st Lt. Colin) Cremin’s earlier statement.
    Cremin confirmed the statement. At another point, he described the act as a mercy killing.
    “It was something he didn’t want to do, but it was the compassionate response. It was definitely the human response,” Cremin said.
    He testified that it was impossible to transport the injured man to get medical care …

    Emphasis added.

  16. Chris!
    You are precisely right! It’s going to be a tough thing to defend especially since there are eyewitnesses who may not support the party line the medical staff may present as a unified defense.
    We all know the whole hurricane was a horrible event and many injustices must be forgiven by fate and acts of God — but when a doctor is accused of playing God by the district attorney’s office, you know they must have a substantial case with hard evidence that will overwhelm the forgiveness of “special circumstances.”

  17. Chris!
    Thanks for clearing up the Google thing — see, that’s the price we way when we get Spammed. If we’d had a lively, non-Spammed discussion with earnest medical professionals open to questions and wondering those two articles could have leapt to 100 comments each with ease.
    Those articles also would have retained their high search return position with those comments extensions.
    When you turn off comments on an article you’re basically killing its future influence.

  18. Thanks for this post David.
    I’m wondering if this ever happens on my blog how long it will take my ego to settle down and realize it is not my eloquent writing but blog spamming. I’ve been guilty of taking the amount of comments as a sign of a good posting. Your 10 rules will definitely help!

  19. Hi prying1!
    Thanks for the comment and it is always good to have your mind and feedback here!
    Thse Spammers do play on our sense of wanting to be noticed and to be on the cutting edge — that’s why some bloggers have such a hard time cutting them off.
    😀

  20. I have enjoyed the conversation you (David) and Chris have had in these comments. Good digging Chris.
    Next job for you David is 10 rules to recognise and deal with blog comment trolls.
    By the way come see my site. Look at me, look at me! Want to exchange links? Leave a comment on my site and I’ll come back and leave another comment on your site. Will you be my friend???

  21. prying1!
    I agree with you on Chris’ outstanding research and detective work! Huzzah!
    I don’t deal with blog comment trolls. I let Bad Behavior and Akismet delete them so I never have to set an eye upon them!
    😀