Spamming the 2012 election; tablets for bonobos!

Molly Wood Apr 2, 2012

More presidential primaries on Tuesday, and with them — most likely — a surge in political spam. I’m not talking about emails from the campaigns, though some of you may be fending off plenty of that, too.

I’m talking about spammers invading our political conversation using social media. The security company “Impermium” is charting the rise of spam in the 2012 election cycle. Mark Risher is the CEO. “Many people think of spam as things like Viagra advertisements, or replica handbags and fake Rolex watches,” he says. “But what we’re seeing here is something new. We’ve observed political-themed messages that are either pumping up a candidate or misleading or denigrating a particular candidate.”

He’s talking about, for example, fake accounts on Facebook or news websites that do nothing but post suspiciously similar comments. Everywhere you go, you see the same anti-Romney screed that showed up on a hundred blogs overnight. (Risher says Romney has been the biggest of focus of spam assaults so far.)

“We see spikes that number in the hundreds or thousands,” Risher says. “So this is big enough that it can create a groundswell of support because people can say, ‘Oh, I just saw that on news site 1 and 2 and now I’m just getting it on my Twitter feed as well.'”

Who’s behind it? Risher says it appears to the same technology — and perhaps some of the same people — that power much of the non-political spam. “What we saw was not an individual person typing into his web browser, but instead used some form of automation, or even at the most sophisticated end, used these botnets, these collections of computers that are all controlled by a single master, to launch a broad-based attack in a very short period of time.”

“What we worry about is that these techniques will be used to coerce or to misinform voters,”Risher says. “One of the benefits and challenges in the social space is that users tend to trust things more when they read them in these contexts. We’ve all developed a healthy skepticism over the last many years that things in your email inbox may or may not be believable. But when something shows up in a social network, we tend to give it a higher credence.”

Did you see “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” last year? So imagine an alternate path to that same ending: instead of genetic engineering, suppose we taught them all how to use tablet computers that could open doors and pilot robots.

I know, right? “Take your paws off my iPad, you (darn) dirty ape!”

But at the Great Ape Trust sanctuary in Des Moines, they are doing exactly this — giving tablets to bonobos, man’s closest relative. Dr. Ken Schweller’s in charge of the project — he says it’s mostly about communcation. He wrote the apes their own Android app, where the pictures they tap out are translated into English. It’s called “Bonobo Chat.” It turns out, bonobos basically want lots of stuff.

“Many times they want to know if you’ve brought them something,” Schweller says. “Kanzi’s always interested in whether you’ve brought him a surprise, perhaps a ball or something. Pambenisha may ask you if she can have a car ride.”

Bonobos can also use their tablets to work vending machines, open doors. And soon, they’ll be able to pilot a bonobo-lookin’ robot that can move among the humans on the other side of the glass — and squirt them with water.

The sanctuary’s raising money to buy tablets for all the apes. Donate $500 and you get to Skype with a bonobo. Cool.

Our longer interview (six minutes) with Dr. Schweller is kind of fun, and you’ll learn a bunch more — give it a listen.

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