Little Green Footballs

Monday, March 08, 2004

Here is a translation of the SPIEGEL ONLINE article about 'freeping' (click here for original)


You need to click "Abstimmen"

by Frank Patalong

Votes are a fine thing: they're the salt in the news recipe; they
give online media producers feedback on what their readers think of a topic;
such as the fact that 60 per cent of SPIEGEL ONLINE readers think George W.
Bush is a great president. Here's why.

Widow Vivian Freep from Midland (Texas) is "George Bush's biggest supporter".

Good for Bush, say Europeans. But Americans of conservative political inclination
get angry at that accusation, because it is an insult, no more and no less.

It means that Bush's success is based on the help of people who manipulate,
kick up a fuss, and fake elections.

"Freeping" is actually a slang term. It covers the late-night defacing
of election posters, organising loud counter-demonstrations, consciously disturbing
your political opponent's rallies, and - last but not least - forging Internet

This strange term was conceived at the end of the '90s and can be traced
back to the "Free Republic" website of the ultra-conservative activist
Jim Robinson.

"Freep", as fans quickly came to call the website, sees itself
as a "conservative news forum". Central to the site is a discussion
forum with, at times, pretty strong content.

The conservative click-guerillas

Free Republic began as a site for Clinton-haters but quickly evolved. The
"Freep-Movement" earned its first laurels when the site started
calling on users to "support" conservative candidates at various

In practice this meant disturbing Democratic events, tearing down or faking
posters, and actively supporting counter-candidates. At a time when Clinton
faced impeachment Freep groups organised "information events" in
various cities and placed ads in newspapers. The term "freeping"
came into being and meant: "outshouting your opponent".

Vote-Manipulation on SPIEGEL ONLINE

Little has changed since then. During the last week SPIEGEL ONLINE came to
the attention of the "freepers", in particular one of the polls
in the section on the US presidential election.

We asked our readers: "For three years George W Bush has been the most
powerful man in the United States - and the World. What do you think of his
term in office up to now?"

The result of this popular vote, which has already drawn over 38,000 votes,
could prove one of two things: either that Germans aren't as sceptical of
Bush as is often claimed; or it could demonstrate the power of the "freepers".

For since 5 March the latter have been calling on their supporters to "freep"
the poll on "Germany's left-left-wing SPIEGEL ONLINE". The extraordinary
thing is that the forum member who initiated this is no conservative American
at all: David Kaspar runs the weblog "Davids Medienkritik", a Forum
for "politically incorrect observations on reporting in the German media"

To Kaspar this means taking a strongly pro-Bush stance against the supposed
prejudice of the German media. Media expert Kaspar is also person who described
DER SPIEGEL as "left-left" - it's all a matter of perspective.

To quote his original posting on Free Republic: "Bush Needs Your Help!"
And further: "As of 5 March, 2004, 1 pm (Berlin time), Bush's results
are rather miserable. Only 3.3 per cent for "1" and 1.47 per cent
for "2""

Thankfully the posting on Free Republic quickly generated a positive response:
within a few hours the "freepers" had turned the poll upside-down.
At 10pm "Berlin time" on 5 March David Kaspar noted: "As of
5 March, 2004, 10pm (Berlin time), Bush's results are EXCELLENT. 41.23 per
cent for "1" (= Bush did a great job as President). Many thanks!!
a heart attack tomorrow morning... Keep up the good work!!"

Vote Manipulation: it’s the masses that swing it

Two days later Kaspar announced the "official" result: "SPIEGEL
ONLINE With Large Pro-Bush User Base". A euphoric Kaspar adds an imaginary
interview with an imaginary SPIEGEL-ONLINE editor to his posting about "59
per cent 1's": apparently the poll made DER SPIEGEL recognise that it's
entire "ideology" was wrong.

What is more, the SPIEGEL ONLINE editorial team had employed media consultants
to determine what the "future course" should be.

Literally, the dreamt-up interview goes: "In terms of ideology, everything
is now up for grabs," said the source. "We might even endorse Bush's
re-election. Kerry's is a Knackwurst, anyway."

And so as to make sure that the pressure is maintained Kaspar repeats his
call to manipulate the poll every day: "You could light up our miserable
lives by participating in this little poll! As an aside, you'll hurt the feelings
of some German Bush-haters."

Within a few days this call to manipulate the vote had spread like wildfire,
carried by a strong and previously hardly recognised conservative blogging
scene. Thus "Little Green Footballs" appealed to its audience: "Help
drive the German left crazy".

"Freep this Poll!"

But the masses came through Free Republic. The site has long admitted that
it loves to "freep". A search for the term "freep" on
Free Republic demonstrates how much unpaid enthusiasm Free Republic is able
to generate: On the morning of the 8 March Free Republic published John Kerry's
campaign dates and called on freepers to go to the events and take "more
realistic" pictures of them.

It also releases calls to take action against other "Democrats",
but in particular its users are repeatedly asked to manipulate online polls:
"Freep this Poll!".

The target of one of these campaigns: polls about gay same-sex marriage (56
per cent against). Other polls include the question whether the George Bush's
9/11 campaign ads were tasteless or not, which produce a clear result: at
times 78 per cent thought not, on other polls it's 85 per cent. Even on CNN
it's still 72 per cent.

Normally large numbers of participants prevent polls from being manipulated.
Big websites protect their polls with cookies that make repeated vote-casting
difficult because the cookie has to be deleted between vote-casting. Apart
from this the reliability of a poll depends largely on the number of people
participating in it; a far from secure method of protecting polls, but if
thousands of users take part it at least becomes difficult to manipulate it.

Freepers: on their way into the mainstream?

But freepers have shown that they are capable of mobilising their own masses
in order to overcome the masses of "normal" web users at any time.
From SPIEGEL ONLINE to CNN and the "Times", from various TV stations
to MSN Australia, and of course on the sites of myriad smaller sites, nobody
can rely on an honest poll if the freepers are on the march.

Even the most trivial polls are manipulated. During the last week freepers
placed great emphasis in demonstrating their country's influence: a poll on
a South African website asked whether Haiti's ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide
had left the country of his own free will was manipulated in such a way that
from one moment to the next 68 per cent thought the USA had forced him out.

In a poll on the greenhouse effect 86.5 per cent claimed it either didn't
exist or that it was completely natural. On 2 March Free Republic called on
its users to "freep" a poll at New York state primary schools because
the majority of pupils showed "democratic" voting tendencies.

The only organisations that Free Republic doesn't dare freep anymore are
the large American newspapers: back in 1998 the "Los Angeles Times"
and the "Washington Post" took Free Republic to court for copyright
infringement. Not until June 2002 did "Freep" webmaster Jim Robinson
manage to secure an out-of-court settlement that resulted in the agreement
that he would not quote from the newspapers or from their associated publications
any more on his website.

The "Freep-Movement", which saw a dip in popularity after the impeachment
against Clinton failed, hasn't stopped though: at least since the catastrophe
of September 11 and the resulting radicalisation of political discourse in
the USA the "Freep" is stronger than ever. The movement is seeking
to make in-roads into the mainstream: since the Gulf War "Freeps"
have taken part in demonstrations for the good cause: for Bush and for war.
On 2 September 2003 Free Republic announced that for the first time "one
of our very own", John Armor, would run for the US Congress. Armor would
try to make his forum name come true: up until then he had been known only
as "Congressman BillyBob".

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