Tag Archives: Wag the Dog

Wag the Dog, or How Falsifying Crowdsourced Data Can Be a Pain

I had the pleasure of finally meeting Robert Scoble in person at Where 2.0 last week. We had a great chat about validating crowdsourced information, which he caught on camera below. In the conversation, I used Wag the Dog as an analogy for Ushahidi‘s work on Swift River. I’d like to expand on this since open platforms are obviously susceptible to “information vandalism”, ie, having false data deliberately entered.

The typical concern goes something like this: what if a repressive regime (or non-state group) feeds false information to an Ushahidi deployment? As I’ve noted on iRevolution before (here, here and here), Swift River collects information from sources across various media such as SMS, Twitter, Facebook Groups, Blogs, Online News, Flickr and YouTube. In other words, Swift River pulls in visual and text based information.

So where does Wag the Dog come in? Have a look at this scene from the movie if you haven’t watched it yet:

If an authoritarian state wanted to pretend that rioters had violently attacked military police and submit false information to this effect in an Ushahidi deployment, for example, then what would that effort entail? Really gaming the system would probably require the following recipe:

  1. Dozens of  pictures of different quality from different types of phones of fake rioters taken from different angles at different times.
  2. Dozens of text messages from different phone using similar language to describe the fake riots.
  3. Several dozens of Tweets to this same effect. Not just retweets.
  4. Several fake blog posts and Facebook groups.
  5. Several YouTube videos of fake footage.
  6. Hacking national and international media to plant fake reports in the mainstream media.
  7. Hundreds of (paid?) actors of different ages and genders to play the rioters, military police, shopkeepers, onlookers, etc.
  8. Dozens of “witnesses” who can take pictures, create video footage, etc.
  9. A cordoned off area in the city where said actors can stage the scene. Incidentally, choreographing a fight scene using hundreds actors definitely needs time and requires rehearsals. A script would help.
  10. Props including flags, banners, guns, etc.
  11. Ketchup, lots of ketchup.
  12. Consistent weather. Say a repressive state decides to preemptively create this false information just in case it might become useful later in the year. If it was raining during the acting, it better be raining when the state wants to use that false data.

Any others you can think of? I’d love to expand the recipe. In any case, I think the above explains why I like using the analogy of Wag the Dog. If a repressive state wanted to fabricate an information ecosystem to game an Ushahidi install, they’d have to move to Hollywood. Is Swift River a silver bullet? No, but the platform will make it more of pain for states to game Ushahidi.

Patrick Philippe Meier