Column: The dark side of crowdsourcing


Column: The dark side of crowdsourcing

We are indebted to the tireless investigators from the University of California, Santa Barbara who have doggedly trawled Chinese crowdsourcing websites and uncovered a multimillion-dollar industry.

An evil multimillion dollar industry, in my opinion. But nevertheless, it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. There are lessons in their methods for all of us...

An ethically questionable form of crowdsourcing has emerged, say boffins. That's putting it mildly. 

Ben Zhao, associate professor of computer science at UCSB used RenRen to track malicious activity on the site. 

(Does one assume that RenRen is the Facebook of China? You do RenRen, Ron, you do RenRen)

Zhao was intrigued to see a lot of relatively sophisticated attempts to send spam and promote brands by users that appeared to be working with specific agendas (reports MIT).

They found evidence of evil crowdsourcing on a massive scale with many incidents of crowdturfing, that's fake grassroots activity normally known as astroturfing, but when achieved through crowdsourcing sites, it becomes known as crowdturfing.

Put simply, there are companies that specialise in manipulating sentiment on line, by paying students, housewives and the unemployed to register their opinions on websites.

In other words, for five cents a time, there are millions of desperados in the world biggest, fastest growing nation, who will say anything, like comparison website adverts are really brilliant, or Piers Morgan is honest, or Ed Milliband is the man to lead us out of the recession.

You could even manufacture outrage over the latest column by Jeremy Clarkson, or call for the sacking of anyone who gets in your way.

It's disgraceful, but what are you going to do? There's no point swimming against the tide, is there? You might as well hire them to help your business gain more visibility, enjoy the best customer feedback and top all the opinion polls.

Investigators identified two main crowdsourcing sites, Zhubajie, the largest in China, and Sandaha. Their agents do things like create accounts on particular sites, post biased answers about specific products on Q&A sites, and create and spread positive messages about products on social networks.

If you win marketing manager of the year, you're automatically guaranteed to get headhunted and will double your salary. Having won tha accolade, everyone will assume that everything you do is the work of a genius. And since there are no individuals in PR and marketing, that guarantees you a lifetime of success.

Well worth the initial investment of a few hundred quid with a Chinese profile boosting service. You really can buy votes in this industry. Get in! This beats Amazon's Mechanical Turk into a cocked hat.

ShortTask, the second-largest US crowdsourcing site studied, was found to be 95% crowdturfing tasks, and helped workers get paid for over half a million astroturfing tasks in the last year.

There are two lessons from this. Don't believe anything you read online [except everything on this site - Ed]. And you might as well exploit it before the general public wise up to this fact.

This was first published in December 2011

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