The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus.
Is Ron Paul's Internet popularity fake?
The Paul campaign has been on a high lately. First there was the surprising five million dollar fundraising in the third quarter. Then Paul began to show up in the polls. Mainstream news media took note--Time magazine wrote about the "Ron Paul Revolution." And at seemingly every political event, there is a group of Ron Paul supporters waving signs and cheering, even at Tuesday night's Democratic debate.
The Paul base is most famous, though, for its use of the Internet. Comments by Paul supporters appear all over blogs, so much that conservative website Red State put a ban on them last week. They flood text message polls after every debate, and Internet polls as well. TechPresident noted that the GOP Straw Polls site dropped Ron Paul from its polls because they felt the Paul supporters were somehow rigging its polls.
Then on Wednesday, Wired magazine sprung a Ron Paul Halloween surprise, with a report that stated that a recent barrage of pro-Paul email was actually spam. Gary Warner, the Director of Research in Computer Forensics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, explained that the university's Spam Data Mining for Law Enforcement Applications project selects 100,000 spam messages a week and analyzes them. Following the last Republican debate, a group of messages with subject lines related to Ron Paul showed up. The messages included random groups of characters at the end of the subjects, for example, "Ron Paul Wins GOP Debate! HMzjoqO." The alphabet soup of characters is a typical spammer ploy that helps junk mail get around spam filters.
When the researchers checked out the origins of the emails, they found that they all appeared to be from one IP address, they were intended to look as if they were coming from a multitude of US addresses. Further investigation showed that the emails were actually generated from a variety of foreign countries, such as Brazil, South Korea, the UK, and Nigeria. Botnets, malicioius software that can infect computers and generate email that looks like it came from that address, unbeknownst to the user, were suspected.
Needless to say, the possibility that the Ron Paul Revolution might really be only a few people working with thousands of infected computers was met with a mix of glee and chagrin. USA Today's headline screamed, "Wired magazine: Researchers say 'criminal botnet' is behind Ron Paul's Web support." FOXNews.com declared, "Ron Paul Supporters May Be Using 'Botnets'." ComputerWorld described it as, "Republican Ron Paul Gets the Botnet Vote." The title on the post over at liberal blog Mother Jones was somewhat disheartened: "Ron Paul -- It's Slightly Less Real Than I Thought."
The Paul campaign had lately gone from slightly annoying to annoying but no longer able to be ignored. For those who were just sick of the constant Internet aggression of the Paul supporters, as well as the conservatives who felt Paul wasn't a real conservative, this story was the kind of bad publicity they had been waiting for, something that would hopefully put a brake on the Paul pests.
Jesse Benton, a Paul spokesman, responded to the Wired article: "This is the first I've heard about this situation." But the fact that the campaign was not itself connected to the spamming didn't matter. The storyline had already been set: the Ron Paul support wasn't real. And to many, this made sense--after all, he barely registers in the single digits in non-Internet based polls.
Some began to wonder if the bad publicity was just a little too inconvenient. Benton suggested that the emails came from either an overzealous supporter, or perhaps "someone with bad intentions trying to embarrass the campaign." The researchers at the McAfee Avert Labs Blog wrote that some of the suspicious emails contained links to YouTube videos. YouTube takes down videos that are linked to spam, meaning that the Ron Paul spam resulted in the removal of pro-Paul videos, not the viewing of them. The McAfee blogger suggested that "this would be a really efficient way to remove your competitions videos from youtube."
The Paul supporters are usually attributed with geek superpowers, wiles that allow them to control the Internet. If this is true, wouldn't they know YouTube's policy? It seems contrary to on one hand accuse them of launching a spam attack to delude the world into believing Ron Paul has more support than he really does, but then make a simple mistake like not knowing the links will take down campaign material.
TechNewsWorld spoke to Mike Haro, a senior securoty analyst for Sophos. "I would first say that this is the latest example of how a botnet can be used and misused," said Haro. "This is obviously politically motivated, and as a result this could be damaging to Congressman Ron Paul's reputation."
At this point, it's hard to say where all this came from. Was it a well-intentioned idea gone bad from a supporter who wasn't as clever as he/she thought? Or was it a malicious trick by a rival? There are people who may want the Paul campaign to just go away, and would be glad to reveal that it's all been just a sham. But even if it were revealed that there were true pro-Paul bots powering emails and comments, the increase in fundraising for Paul can't be denied, nor can those dedicated (perhaps too dedicated...) Paul supporters who pop up with signs everywhere.
There is one person--besides Ron Paul, of course--who undoubtedly wishes this story would go away. Gary Warner, the UAB researcher who found the spam connection was widely quoted in almost every Paul-bot story, saying, "This is clearly a criminal act in support of a campaign, which has been committed with or without their knowledge."
The words, "criminal act" jump out at people and have generated some unwelcome attention for Warner. On his blog, Warner gives a careful, detailed explanation about the projects he works on, his cyberforensics credentials, and who he and his students work with, "...All of that to make clear to the many dozens of Ron Paul Supporters who have taken their valuable time to send me their thoughts, including a few profane ones, that I am not making this crap up."
Warner goes on to say, "How many people do I think were behind the Ron Paul spam? One. And not one that is officially recognized in any capacity by the Ron Paul campaign.
Let me make something very clear. I never said anything that was intended to imply Ron Paul does not have a lot of online support. Is it interesting that others have seen online regularities? Yes. But that doesn't mean that there not truly a large number of online supporters....There. Gary Warner of UAB says that Ron Paul's online following is dramatically larger than the offline polls would lead one to believe."
And that's the truly important part of the story and the one that is easily left out. Was there suspicious spam in support of Ron Paul? Yes. But these rogue emails are only a tiny portion of the Internet support Paul has. Those Paul pests, those constant commenters, are real--mostly.
(Note: unfortunately, we are not accepting any comments from bots at this time.)