Is John McCain Encouraging Comment Spam?

By Josh Catone
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Encouraging your supporters to get out and support you through social media, including blog comments, seems like fair game, but US presidential candidate Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is taking a step further and perhaps a step too far, according to some observers. McCain’s web site has an area under the header Spread the Word in which the campaign encourages visitors to “spread the word about John McCain on news and blog sites” by leaving comments about why to support McCain. The site links to a number of prominent political blogs, both liberal and conservative, with instructions to “go there, and make your opinions supporting John McCain known.”

What has rubbed people the wrong way is that McCain is incentivizing blog comments with a points system. “Once you’ve commented on a post, video or news story, report the details of your comment by clicking the button below. After your comments are verified, you will be awarded points through the McCain Online Action Center,” says the site. The points can be redeemed for McCain merchandise and items, such as signed books and VIP seating at events.

In essence, McCain is paying supporters to comment on blogs with McCain talking points (the “Spread the Word” page links to daily talking points, though to be fair it does fall short of providing an actual script for comments, as implied by some media reports).

The Washington Post compares the points-for-comments scheme to “political AstroTurfing,” an old practice in which volunteers or paid staff are used to seed radio call-in shows or newspaper editorials with what seems to be genuine calls and letters. We don’t think it’s quite that bad — McCain is encouraging actual supporters to post blog comments, not paid staff or campaign volunteers, so he isn’t really manufacturing grassroots support. But he is leaning on his supporters to do something that sets a bad precedent.

And there are some real problems with how he’s set up the program, points or no points, according to the Washington Post:

[Michael] Cornfield (an executive with a company that markets political-organizing software) says McCain’s program has a couple of bugs.

The first, he says, is the lack of disclosure instructions to participants. To rise above AstroTurf — a practice considered ethically dubious by many political operatives — Cornfield says participants should use their real names and identify themselves as part of a campaign participation program (as in, “I’m Mike Cornfield, and I’m part of the McCain Action Team”).

He also says “germaneness” is an issue: “Talking points are fine, but a comment should refer specifically to something that was said or written previously in the thread where it is intended to appear.”

By essentially paying to seed third-party blogs with comments from supporters, McCain’s tactics remind us of BuyBlogComments, a service that was launched last summer and was almost universally panned by bloggers (including by me). Paying for blog comments is not a good way to win support among the Internet grassroots, and we’d advise McCain to drop the program and focus efforts elsewhere (like perhaps trying to keep his surprising new lead in YouTube views).

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  • Anonymous

    Yeah. I don’t really care for this either. There was a story some time ago that Obama was doing the same thing. McCain is just trying to play catch up.

  • @Anonymous: I tried to find evidence of Obama doing anything similar on his site, but couldn’t find the equivalent. That said, Obama asks his supporters to phone potential voters and ask them to vote Obama — which may be just as annoying. ;)

  • Conservative

    Well, after seeing some SitePoint articles about how to be green to save the planet from destruction, I’m inclined to believe that SitePoint supports Obama anyway.

  • Mislav

    Annoying or not, this sort of things wins the elections.

  • angie123

    now why do i feel that those McCain supporters are here now to get the points?

  • “Conservative”, I’d say your comment is a little low. Democratic or Republican, everyone should want to go green and help the environment. It’s not just a “liberal” attitude. My dad is extremely Republican but is still somewhat of an environmentalist. Don’t go around giving republicans a bad name.

    Now, onto the topic… If I were the owners have these political blogs I would be extremely annoyed if someone came and left what would essentially be a spam-vote-for-McCain comment. I’d be just as annoyed if it were for Obama as well though.

    Maybe they’ll release Askimet: Political Edition. =D

  • stog301

    I am not getting points but I believe John McCain should be the next president of the united states. :D

  • grandmoffspiker

    Maybe Sitepoint should focus on web development and not worry about politics.

  • “Conservative”, I’d say your comment is a little low.

    I’d say it’s a little insular. Most of Sitepoint’s staff are based in Australia. Sure some Australians care who the next president of the US is (so we don’t end up with another muppet like Dubya), but we’re not all totally caught up with what’s going on in America, ya know?

  • why do we talk politics here ?

  • Sojan80

    I really don’t see the difference between what John McCain is doing and comment spam. This whole points for merchandise thing just so belittle the political process and what the office, and running for it should be about that it makes you sick sometimes.

    It’s like all these negative political advertisements in General (not just the ones by McCain or Obama), I think they should all be banned from the airwaves because anyone can spin anything you do around to sound like something else completely. It’s bad enough the candidates have to live under a microscope they way they do. But that’s politics right?

  • I just think it’s funny that you rewarded a quality one-way link for comment spamming :o)

  • Lee tracey

    Posts like these make me less likely to return to sitepoint.

  • tgoyer

    Why exactly are we discussing American politics on a Web Design site? I come here to read about the new w3c recommendations and the latest CSS hackery, not a tit-for-tat political discourse.

    Can we please stay on topic?

  • tgoyer, point taken, but we do try to cover a range of stuff. Occasionally it might relate to politics and the web, but not often. Hopefully you can judge the content by the title, and simply wait for the next post that’s more useful to you (i.e. like the recent ‘blockquote’ post).

  • SSJ

    Why we are going to discuss the politics over here :)

  • tgoyer

    Let me guess, the US didn’t go to the moon, there were multiple JFK gunmen, and the Bush administration blew up the World Trade Center. I’m sure you have the smudged grainy pictures to prove it. Someone please get Mr and Mrs. Calabria their medication STAT!

    Again, this is a web design forum. Why again are we discussing politics??

  • The point of this post was actually not political. The thrust here is that a major web publisher is encouraging comment spam — which is a very relevant issue to other publishers. The only reason politics enters it is because that major web publishers happens to be a US presidential candidate.

    Feel free to skip any posts about where the web and politics intersect, though. (This actually isn’t one of those, as I just explained, but I do write about politics and the web occasionally.)

  • Anonymous

    Hey Josh,

    I wasn’t talking about your blog post. I was actually referring to the post above mine — apparently now deleted. It was a three-page paranoid, rambling screed blaming all the world’s evils on those “… nazi-loving, gun-toting, racist Conservatives… “. It had nothing to do with the topic at hand which is why I replied the way I did.

  • tgoyer

    Sorry.. that was me. :D

  • @tgoyer: Someone else at the office must have zapped that one before I saw it. :)

    Though my comment was directed at any of the commenters decrying “politics at SitePoint,” not just you. … Then again, I suppose any of them might have been replying to that other comment as well. ;)


    nice site

  • Karlonia

    Two methods that can help to encourage (hopefully non-spammy) comments are allowing DoFollow links (removing default nofollow attributes so that “link juice” is passed to the sites) and installing the KeywordLuv plugin, which significantly helps commenters with SEO because it allows them to choose the anchor text for links.

    Overall, it is a good thing to encourage comments because the extra content provided by other people adds more keywords to your posts, which in turn brings in more traffic from the search engines without costing you any more time than it takes to write the original post.