GIYUS.org's Megaphone Desktop Tool - the web turns their 'malware' against them

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 10 August 2006

Thanks to Frankie who pointed me at Tom who had been pointed by Simon to the Megaphone software being used by GIYUS to direct people to online votes to register pro-Israeli opinions. I was immediately interested in it as I worked for about three years at the BBC on their online voting back-end systems. Whilst a lot of people have got rather hot under the collar about it, it doesn't seem to me to be as near to bringing about the end of online civilisation as we know it as some people have suggested.

In fact the whole GIYUS site is set up as one giant lobbying machine, directing people to messageboards with boilerplate ideas about what to write, and hijacking the 'send-to-a-friend' functionality of other sites to encourage users to lobby third parties like the UN.

The HuffingtonPost blog - Lebanon is not a victim - most comments are highly negative, please even the picture

Globe and Mail's Witness blog - tells of Hezbollah's media relations now and a while back in relatively peaceful days - talkback and support Mark MacKinnon for showing Hezbollah for what it is

The Telegraph's blog discuss the Reuter's photo scandal - while admitting it's good bloggers are scrutinizing the media, he claims Reuters admits its mistake and that's the end of it, dismissing bloggers' claims regarding Qana's pictures taken by the same photographer

George Monbiot writes in the Guardian that Israel has planned this assault for over a year and used Hezbollah's kidnapping act as an excuse to start a full blown war. He claims Israel should have folded in front of Hezbollah and release Lebanese hostages in exchange for our soldiers. Talkback and explain terrorists should not be negotiated with and request Hezbollah be disarmed for this conflict to end.

BBC asks: "Can UN resolution end crisis in ME?" - jump into the discussion, explain the requests for a successful cease fire in the region and recommend positive comments from other readers
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The interactivity of the internet, and the ability for people to become more pro-actively engaged with politics, debate, and make politicians more accountable for their actions are generally seen as "a good thing" - unless, it seems, you happen to disagree with the opinions being propagated. Having said that, working next to the BBC's community teams, I well understand that a herd of organised trolls sweeping majestically across the internet plains puts a lot of strain on communities and community moderation systems.

Of course, one of the other fundamental problems here is people taking at face value opinion polls on web sites which can never be representative, and people misunderstand the significance placed in online polls by broadcasters. One such example is quoted on Another Green World, which poses the fear that manipulating online votes will in turn manipulate the broadcast news stream:

For example, the results of a CNN or BBC opinion poll would in all probability be broadcast on their nightly news program. In the case of the BBC, it may also be broadcast on BBC World Service and their local Radio and TV networks. So one would be naive not to believe that any government, being the secretive beasts most of them are, would like to have the means to influence the said opinion poll in their favor, the more so in wartime.

That might be the case for other broadcasters - but the BBC has extremely stringent guidelines about how web based polls can be referred to in programmes - and I would be extremely surprised to see any figures from an online poll read out in the news on such a contentious issue. The BBC guidelines on online votes state:

On BBC websites which may relate to political or public policy issues, we must take care that online expressions of opinion are not translated into anything that could be construed either as an accurate representation of public opinion as a whole, or as the BBC's opinion.

Any summary of online voting or expression of opinion should:

* not be called a poll.
* make it absolutely clear that the results have no wider significance and represent only the views of the audience at that time.

Provided this is done explicitly and the numbers of the audience responding is reported at the same time, results of online votes may be expressed in percentages.

If the vote is to be about a political or controversial public policy issue it must be referred to Chief Adviser Politics or in the case of a website in a language other than English, to the relevant World Service Head of Region or National Controller, who may also consult Chief Adviser Politics.

There is also a specific section dealing with the reporting of internet votes elsewhere

We can report any summary of online voting on the radio or television programme associated with the website, but we should not normally report it elsewhere in news, or on other radio or TV programmes, or on other online services.

With votes within the BBC it was always clear that lobbying was fine, but that ballot-stuffing was not. And it doesn't have to be an issue as emotive as the conflict in the Middle East to spark off lobbying and cheating. Whilst I was at the BBC Radio Five Live had to abandon an online poll to give an award to the veteran player of the year, because the vote was hijacked by some fans using software to submit multiple votes, or, as presenter Nicky Campbell put it at the time - "there was some internetery-jiggery-pokery going on."

Lobbying software tools are a double-edged sword of course. You could just as easily use the alert system to counteract the lobbying for one side or another. But the best thing about the web, and why I don't see this kind of software as a massive threat, is that the online world itself has already delivered up equality with a rebranded version of the 'troll-supporting political malware' - Hacking for Lebanon - which rebrands the software, and directs users to exactly the same places where they can express exactly the opposite point of view.

5 Comments

Hi Martin,

interesting post here, would like to point out that in Another Green World, I am quoting Mick Hall from the blanket on giyus,

although I think his article is important and I am in general agreement...its his words you quote not those of 'another green world'

I am ofcourse keen to make the moderate Muslim voice a little louder (see http://another-green-world.blogspot.com/2006/08/if-shakespeare-had-been-muslim.html ) and we need to be aware that Israel is spending a lot of cash on the info war on the web.

cheers,

Derek

Hi Derak - apologies for the mis-attribution - I've changed the text above slightly to reflect that.

I actually pointed out that the last thing you say there would probably happen (ie. that the opponents of these people would use the same software to put forward their point of view), but I don't think that solves the situation as much as makes it worse. The voices of actual unaffiliated people get bombarded and buried under the organised noise of campaigning groups one way or another. Actual public opinion will be almost totally concealed by the comments that come from whichever of the two or three major teams has the best e-mail newsletters or the most members. A group of five hundred people can erase moderate voices completely. This is a terrible problem for online communities alone- who may find themselves more regularly invaded and co-opted by radicals of every persuasion.

And while clearly the BBC is solid enough to treat these online questionaires as trivial, that doesn't mean that they're no vulnerable to this kind of thing, or to it deforming the public discourse. After all -http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/springer12.html - 1500 people and a few complaints caused the BBC no end of trouble. Not being able to engage with your audience or know what they're thinking because you're at the mercy of organised extremists seems to me to be extremely troubling.

Which is not to say that it's a significant culture shift - it's not a new concept, it's just a mechanisation and facilitation of the bad things of the online culture. Given that we operate in a world where PR agencies pretend to be citizens to mock politicians who stand up for big issues, we have to start being aware that these tools will be used to massively up the rate at which current negative activities will occur.

So my pitch here is - significant uptake in the technology, public spaces co-opted by issue politics that always existed but is now supported by better technologies, technologies which are also likely to help any group of people who wish to mislead the public into thinking that the mainstream opinion is something other than it is - whether that be advertisers, broadcasters or politicians. These seem to me to be bad things.

And while we can't ban it we can and should lament it. It's not the end of the world by any means, but it's still really bloody depressing.

>> I actually pointed out that the last thing you say there would probably happen (ie. that the opponents of these people would use the same software to put forward their point of view), but I don't think that solves the situation as much as makes it worse.


I take the point - the first comment on the page offering the hacking for lebanon download asks whether "progressive trolling" is a good thing

But I still think, to be honest, that the kind of *software* itself is no different to Goldfrapp telling me to go vote for them in the Brits, but it is the background issue of the Israel/Lebanon crisis that is causing people to make the fuss.

Whilst I appreciate that it has the potential to skew debate and swamp the voices of non-lobbyists, I just can't imagine there would have been such negative attention about the software if it had been deployed to combat racism, or homophobia, or campaign against global warming.

I just wanted to comment that I'm going to use the software the opposite way: to make Israelí's "enemies" voices be heard...

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