You’d be surprised what’s in your lunch. When you look closer at what makes your American cheese melt well and your hotdog so delicious, you might cringe for a few minutes, but hopefully you also get curious about what other characteristics we like in our food and how food manufacturers have, for better or for worse, given our taste buds what they want.
Over at Wired, they’ve dissected Spam with Bacon, and what they find runs the gammut from “Hey, it’s cool that science can do that!” to “Maybe canned meat was a really bad idea.”
This is not real grass. And that’s not a real comment, either.
Most stories written about online crowdsourcing discuss the philanthropic aspects of people around the world pitching in on a task, like helping out in a study or identifying photographed objects for the blind. Sure, the microtasks are usually tedious, but they need humans to do them and they provide an income stream, albeit a small one, to people who have no other way to make a livelihood. It’s all good, right?
Well, as it turns out, there are other, darker tasks that only humans can do. Specifically, writing spam comments, participating in online discussions to promote brands, making new social media profiles specifically to skew the conversation on a particular topic, and other, similar practices that UC Santa Barbara professor Ben Zhao calls “crowdturfing.” (That’s a portmanteau of “crowdsourcing” and “astroturfing,” the process of faking grassroots involvement.) As detailed in an ArXiv paper, Zhao and colleagues found that this “evil crowdsourcing on a very large scale” consumes the vast majority of business on crowdsourcing sites: On the second-largest such site in the US, ShortTask, 95% of the transactions were crowdturfing (the largest, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which actively roots out such tasks, had 12%). Zhubajie and Sandaha, major Chinese crowdsourcing sites, turned out to be 88% and 92% ‘turfing tasks, with more than a million dollars paid for crowdturfing each month on Zhubajie alone. Read More
The spam ecosystem.
What’s the News: Every day spammers are thinking up new ways to offer you “vIaGrA,” whether you have any interest or not, and spam filters have a tough time keeping up. Researchers studying what they call the “spam ecosystem” have outlined the processes and services spammers use in committing their nefarious deeds—going as far as to actually buy stuff in order to identify what banks they use—in hopes of finding new bottlenecks where regulators can disrupt spammers’ business model. Their findings? Hit ‘em where it hurts: their bank accounts.
Last week an account going by the name @PeaceKaren_25 was suspended by Twitter.com. We wouldn’t normally care about some spambot getting picked off, but PeaceKaren is important because she wasn’t peddling porn or popups–she was a political puppet.
Karen and her sister account @HopeMarie_25 are examples of political “astroturf,” fake Twitter accounts that create the illusion of a “grassroots” political movement. In the diagram above, the two accounts are connected by a very thick band, which indicates that Marie constantly re-tweeted everything Karen said. Together they sent out over 20,000 tweets in the last four months promoting the Twitter account and website of Republican congressional leader John Boehner.
Such messages were cataloged and analyzed by Indiana University’s Truthy project, which takes its name from Stephen Colbert’s concept of “truthiness.” The goal of the project is to seek out propaganda and smear campaigns conducted via false Twitter accounts.
In a neat example of Internet-enabled “crowdsourcing,” the method of distributing a large task to many contributors, researchers are using an anti-spam program to get people to decipher damaged or faded texts, one word at a time. Chances are that if you’ve solved one of those distorted-word tests to secure an account with Facebook, Craigslist, or Ticketmaster, you’ve helped The New York Times inch a little closer to digitizing its entire print newspaper archive from 1851 to 1980 [CNET].
The program, known as reCAPTCHA, is widely used to ensure that humans, rather than spam bots, are commenting on blogs (including some of DISCOVER’s) and signing up for free email accounts. “More web sites are adopting reCAPTCHAs each day, so the rate of transcription keeps growing,” said [lead researcher Luis] von Ahn. “More than 4 million words are being transcribed every day. It would take more than 1,500 people working 40 hours a week at a rate of 60 words a minute to match our weekly output” [Telegraph]. The service is available for free to any site.