Social spam: Endorsed by Viagra hawkers, online gambling -- and GOP?

Web security firm says political operatives are using black-hat spammers to spread propaganda about Republican candidates

While the GOP's presidential hopefuls have been busy eviscerating each other in public, an even nastier war is going on between them on social networks involving sock puppets, botnets, and Viagra spammers. It seems Nixon's dirty tricks team were punters compared to these guys.

In a blog post published last Thursday, Mark Risher, CEO of social Web security company Impermium, wrote:

Political propaganda has infiltrated the social web. The latest edition of the Impermium Index has uncovered widespread social spam campaigns attempting to sway votes in the GOP Republican race. Our research shows that since the summer of 2011, organized political-spam tactics have been in use on the social web, with activity peaking around Super Tuesday.

[ Also on InfoWorld: The astroturf doesn't grow far from the tree, as Cringely reveals in "The best fake news money can buy." | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. | Get the latest insight on the tech news that matters from InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. ]

Founded by three former leaders of Yahoo Mail's antispam team, Impermium acts as spam cop for commenting systems used by media heavyweights like CNN, the Washington Post, Time, Fox News, and others, as well as social networks like Bebo and Formspring. Impermium has analyzed tens of millions of comments in real time, looking for false accounts created by botnets that are used to hawk Viagra, promote online gambling, perform black-hat SEO, and so on.

According to Impermium, those very same social spammers have been hired to perform online hatchet jobs on Republican presidential candidates -- mostly attacking Mitt Romney -- by publishing tens of thousands of fake comments, social media updates, and blog posts.

I spoke to Risher and asked him how Impermium determines whether an account is fake and who's behind it. One way is simple: The same accounts that were used to promote a spammy product also logged on to leave nasty comments about a particular candidate. Or the same account left the exact same comment across hundreds of different sites. Or there were multiple accounts all created at the same time, using the same IP address, same browser version, and same operating system, all making similar posts from a similar location at the same time.

"Somebody is hiring spammers to do this," says Risher. "We just don't know who."

Whoever it is, they had a particular animus for the front-runner, Mitt Romney. There were five times as many negative comments about Romney as about Rick Santorum, and ten times more than those directed at Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich. Impermium found "zombie sleeper cells" of social media accounts that lay dormant for months, then woke up for three days and posted 500 negative comments apiece about Mitt Romney before vanishing.

1 2 Page
Mobile Security Insider: iOS vs. Android vs. BlackBerry vs. Windows Phone
Recommended
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies