We found fake, politically-motivated comments on BikePortland

We can’t say it enough: comments are an integral part of BikePortland, and tending to our comments section is something we care deeply about.

Our goal is to provide a space that encourages expression of a range of opinions, where people feel they can discuss and disagree (or agree), but with guardrails in place that keep the threads from nose-diving into a lowest-common-denominator sewer, like has happened with comments on so many other news sites.

They are trying to flood the public sphere with a certain political stance to make it appear as if it is widespread.

We do this by moderating the comments. In other words, either Jonathan or I read and approve each comment before it gets published.

It takes a bunch of time, but we are all rewarded with being one of the best places to go to share experiences about riding in Portland, for serious discussion of transportation issues, and yep, some politics.

A few weeks back, I commented about what I do to keep the site clear of “soft trolls.” A few people reading that comment thread had no idea of the work involved in keeping our threads clear, or the extent to which some actors will go to manipulate them.

Jonathan wanted to elevate that discussion out of the comment thread and onto a front page post. So here I go.

For about a year and a half, I’ve noticed that BP has one, or a small handful, of commenters who use multiple identities to post a barrage of comments all with the same point of view. You might recognize some of these identities: Happy Guy PDX, Yoko Chen, Mary Vasquez, Mauri Rocco, Ralph Chang, Randi J, Arturo, Marika S, Jim Knox, SeaTacgoride, Jimmie Green, Romy G, Jerry Perez, Susan Portier, Jeremy Pascal, Jenny Parto, RationalcycleGuy, Priscilla B, Priscilla T . . .

Read enough yet? because I can keep going.

What all of those names have in common is that they have posted from the same handful of IP addresses (often the identities will rotate between IP addresses), with similar political talking points, and often the same writing style.

Comments like these three, which were submitted a couple of weeks ago:

None of them stand out as being offensive. They had no swear words or blatant hate speech. But they are part of a barrage of similar comments from multiple IDs. Let’s look more carefully at what’s going on here.

First HappyGuy posted Thursday evening, with a veiled swipe at city council candidate Angelita Morillo. We didn’t publish it. So that same IP address tried another comment with a different user name, Priscilla. Still not published. Finally, the commenter returns to the HappyGuy identity, but uses a different IP address, one that connects this person to the Margo J identity, who is connected through yet another IP address to at least three other identities . . . Get it? Chains of identities which can be linked through IP addresses. I have been loosely keeping track of this in a folder for about a year and a half.

So why is this person or persons doing this? My guess is that they are trying to flood the public sphere with a certain political stance, and to make it appear as if it is widespread. The comments always hit a disciplined set of talking points: what a mess Portland is; how the commenter doesn’t feel safe; mentions the need for more police; takes a swipe at liberals; takes a swipe at elected officials, especially women (former Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty was a favorite target).

I’m not going to guess at who is doing this, but we thought we would let people know it is happening. Again, it is not the opinion that is the problem, it’s the sneaking around with multiple IDs, among other things, that raises suspicion. What is the result of this barrage? It creates fertile ground for a strongman autocracy — or on a lesser scale, a tilt towards the “law and order” approach more popular with conservative or right-leaning politicians. The comments also stoke cynicism. They wear you down. Some people might be swayed by a narrative of general disorder when they fill out the ballot.

I’ve gotten sick of it, and I recognize the writing. So I’m comfortable just not posting it without having to perform IP traces to justify the trashcan treatment. But I expect this activity to increase because of the elections, as I expect the flow of legitimate comments to pick up.

So you hang on to your hat, and we’ll do our damnedest to keep the ride from getting too wild. Jonathan always says if you care about keeping this comment section productive, the worst thing you can do is quit on them when something rubs you the wrong way (but by all means do so, if if it feels right). The best thing you can do, however, is tell us if you see one that looks suspicious and leave great comments of your own to drown it out.

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)

Lisa Caballero is on the board of SWTrails PDX, and was the chair of her neighborhood association's transportation committee. A proud graduate of the PBOT/PSU transportation class, she got interested in local transportation issues because of service cuts to her bus, the 51. Lisa has lived in Portland for 23 years and can be reached at lisacaballero853@gmail.com.

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jakeco969
jakeco969
2 months ago

Wow!! You’ve mentioned this in the past and I’m glad you spelled it out for those of us (myself) who are not all that computer/network literate. It seems crazy that people (or person) would waste energy doing things like that, but it’s a crazy world for sure. On a positive note, it seems like BP has been identified as a strong means to get a message out which….is……good…..maybe kind of??

Vans
Vans
2 months ago
Reply to  jakeco969

And therein lies the rub.

These people thrive and excel at this sort of thing, they get it and are good at it where as you and I are blissfully ignorant of it having not ever viewed it through that lens. Many of these folks are predisposed for the various rants, rabbit holes and lanes they have gone down. They are easily identified, recruited, indoctrinated and exploited by other like minded folk that take the mission very seriously so they become seriously adept at it while many of us don’t see a thing while they are all the while refining their skill at a furious clip.

David Hampsten
2 months ago

When I was younger, there were a lot of newspapers, not just the Oregonian but lots of local rags in every city and town. Most died out because of the internet – why buy news when you can get it for free on the internet – but all those writers are still out there, likely retired and with nothing to do. The style of the samples you have provided is much the same as those small-town newspapers – innocuous gossip pieces, pointless sports stories, food reviews of YMCA cafeterias, and so on – so my guess is that your author or authors are a bunch of older folks with some mediocre writing ability and way too much free time.

maxD
maxD
2 months ago

I am super impressed, thank your for hard work and dedication- truly above and beyond!

Fred
Fred
2 months ago

Well, that’s interesting. I remember Randi J going on and on about the homeless, and JM chastising her for it. I’ll bet he didn’t realize he was yelling at a bot!

idlebytes
idlebytes
2 months ago

I notice the same thing happens to the Portland subreddit come election time. They don’t really moderate it for those kind of comments so it gets pretty toxic over there leading up to the primary and again at election time.

I post from work which has other cyclists that I’m sure also occasionally post too. I’m guessing you can tell us apart though. When I’m at home or posting from my phone it’s through a VPN with a rotating IP address so I assume you have quite a few IP addresses associated with my posts. Anyway I appreciate all the effort and if posting from the VPN is problematic for you let me know and I’ll bypass your site / turn it off.

Lowell
Lowell
2 months ago
Reply to  idlebytes

Yeah I remember in the run-up to the last local election, every single violent crime that occurred in Portland got a post in the /r/portland subreddit. Each one would have hundreds of upvotes, and highly upvoted comments blaming Hardesty for the problem. Literally the day after she was voted out, the posts stopped.

The astroturfing of online local communities to influence public opinion is very real. I’m glad BikePortland staff cares about this stuff, because other platforms do not. All traffic/engagement is good traffic/engagement to them.

Charley
Charley
2 months ago
Reply to  Lowell

Fascinating.

I’ve been reading r/Portland for a while. Your comment has me wondering about the shifting of various Overton windows on subjects like homelessness, policing, and even public utility districts and tree code.

Even if *most* of the comments are organic, the possibility of a large number of well-crafted, on-message comments created as Astro-turf could really shift one’s perception of popular sentiment! Which of course would influence one’s own politics.

Karl Dickman
2 months ago

I definitely recognize several of those names because of the shared talking points. the talking point that I remember most is “I was just downtown a few hours ago and it was a nightmare” because I’ve offered my own experience as a counter to comments like that several times. The funny thing is, I have eyes to see that some bad stuff is happening downtown, alongside the good. I occasionally walk past people smoking off of foil on my way to work or lunch or whatever, I just don’t write about it here because there’s no shortage of writing about that. The market for positive news is under-served so that’s what I focus on here. But I do have eyes to see and I know that there is plenty of genuine disgust and anger about the state of Portland. That’s why I find it so perplexing that people would resort to sock-puppetry to get their message out. There’s no shortage of people in Portland who would say the same thing as the puppeteers under their own name or under a stable pseudonym.
Indeed, the lying involved in such widespread sock-puppetry is actually undermining their message, at least with me. I try to keep an open mind, and I have certainly noticed that downtown is not all sunshine and roses. But I make a point of looking around at who’s on the sidewalk. People of all ages: plenty of them hurried and purposeful, but many talking and laughing. I see kids all the time, with their parents or on school trips. Toddlers even. All this sock-puppetry has got me thinking that I need to trust my own eyes more, and trust Bike Portland commenters less.

Steven
Steven
2 months ago
Reply to  Karl Dickman

Smoking fentanyl is a proven way to reduce overdoses and other harms of opioid use compared to IV injection. So anyone who cares about saving lives should be glad people are smoking it instead of shooting it. Of course people whose understanding is limited to “drugs are bad m’kay” assume visibility of drug use & users is the problem rather than part of the solution.

Don Courtney
Don Courtney
2 months ago
Reply to  Steven

Overdoses are way up since Fentanyl became the drug of choice on the streets.

how can you make this argument? It defies logic.

Solar Eclipse
Solar Eclipse
2 months ago
Reply to  Steven

You really have no clue about the dangers of fentanyl do you?
We should be doing everything we can to get people off drugs period. Not cherry picking what drug you may prefer to use in your life to somehow excuse its use.

“Oh this terrible drug is a smidgen less terrible than that one so everything’s ok, just move along folks!” How very sad and disgusting at the same time.

Steven
Steven
2 months ago
Reply to  Solar Eclipse

Read my comment again. I didn’t compare fentanyl to other drugs. I compared different ways of using fentanyl, of some of which are more likely to cause overdose deaths.

Fred
Fred
2 months ago
Reply to  Steven

Couldn’t disagree more strongly with your POV here, Steven. I think you were also the person telling us how great M110 has been for Oregon generally and Portland in particular.

Drug addiction is bad! Enabling drug addiction is even worse. There – I said it.

Steven
Steven
2 months ago
Reply to  Fred

Dangerous driving is bad. Things like seat belts that enable people to drive faster are even worse. So let’s get rid of seat belts. There – I said it.

360Skeptic
360Skeptic
2 months ago
Reply to  Steven

Maybe you think you’re being edgy, but the “Tullock spike” — a similar thought experiment about driving safety equipment and behavior — is more than 60 years old. I know, you “have no idea.” But you could.

Itsyk
Itsyk
2 months ago
Reply to  Steven

There’s just no point in getting in a tussle with someone who uses such empty designations as “bad” and “even worse.”

Steven
Steven
2 months ago
Reply to  Itsyk

True, but I think it’s worth highlighting the ridiculousness of those kinds of statements for the benefit of any undecided readers.

John V
John V
2 months ago
Reply to  Fred

His POV is objectively correct though, so if you actually have evidence to the contrary, go ahead and share it here.

360Skeptic
360Skeptic
2 months ago
Reply to  Steven

So you’re saying what, precisely — that smoking fent is less likely to cause OD than injecting fent? Isn’t that kind of a red herring?

Really, how popular was it ever to inject synthetic opiOIDS (fent, oxy)? Isn’t injection more associated with less potent, plant-derived opiATES (heroin)?

If that’s true, isn’t the important metric whether fent use _of any method_ reduces OD compared to use _of any method_ of the opiates and opioids that it has largely replaced? If so, here’s the skinny (in Figure 2).

Given that, what kind of ghoul shills for fent? Have the cartels turned to much the same kind of social-media manipulation described in the article? If so, is the money worth your soul?

Steven
Steven
2 months ago
Reply to  360Skeptic

Is injection more associated with naturally derived opiates? I have no idea, and it doesn’t really matter since fentanyl is the main street drug nowadays.

“Findings suggested that people who injected fentanyl were at higher risk for overdose and skin and soft tissue infections than people who only smoked fentanyl. Distribution of safe smoking supplies may facilitate transitions from injecting to smoking fentanyl, thereby reducing health risks associated with fentanyl use.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/38128362/

Not sure how someone could read wanting fewer overdose deaths from fentanyl as “shilling for fent”, but go off I guess.

360Skeptic
360Skeptic
2 months ago
Reply to  Steven

Don’t mind if do:

Yep, shocker: Smoking a substance is less deadly than injecting the _same substance_. Now that you’re in a linking mood, do one that establishes how often anyone _ever_ injected fent, compared to smoking it. Maybe a nice pie graph with two slices.

Then do one for OD rates of smoking fent compared to injecting heroin — which is the thing that people _actually_ used to inject.

Do that legwork and you may find it apparent “how someone could read…” as I did.

Or you could keep claiming ignorance as a virtue. (“I have no idea.”) That’s, like, super-credible, not shill-ish at all.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago
Reply to  Steven

assume visibility of drug use & users is the problem rather than part of the solution.

I don’t believe that people smoking drugs in visible public places is part of the solution to anything. I see it as a big problem that has done great damage to our city, and doesn’t seem to have done much for the smokers either.

Steven
Steven
2 months ago
Reply to  Watts

What this says to me is that poverty, homelessness, and drug use only become an issue of public concern for some people when they can no longer simply be ignored. Until then it’s “out of sight, out of mind”.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago
Reply to  Steven

How do you draw that conclusion from what I said?

That public use of drugs is damaging our city and not helping drug users (what I actually said) is not the same as asserting “but its OK for people to suffer and die in private” (what you projected on to me).

I don’t know if that reflects your views, but it certainly doesn’t reflect mine.

The public nature of the crisis and its consequent damage is what’s driving the effort to recriminalize drugs, so if you think smoking drugs in public is part of the solution (what you said), and that drug possession should not be criminalized (what I suspect you believe), then your position is simply incoherent.

Middle of the Road Guy
Middle of the Road Guy
2 months ago
Reply to  Steven

Nah, I still think people who use fentanyl are part of the problem.

M
M
2 months ago

My guess is that they are trying to flood the public sphere with a certain political stance, and to make it appear as if it is widespread. 

https://www.opb.org/article/2024/02/08/portland-oregon-economy-livelihood-voter-survey/

Johnny Bye Carter
Johnny Bye Carter
2 months ago
Reply to  M

Wow, 200 people (which the article claims is the majority of Portland voters) think the quality of life in Portland is getting worse?!

Pack up your bags people, there’s nothing here for the other 640,762 of us!

This was a phone and text-to-online poll. How many people still answer unknown numbers? How many people click a link in a text message asking for their opinion? None that I know of. So it sounds like they got a few of the gullible old people to respond. That’s not even newsworthy.

And a 6.2% error margin for an 80% result? Why do they even bother?

So yes, this article is exactly the kind of junk science that’s swaying all the people who can’t be bothered with facts.

Paul H
Paul H
2 months ago

Well it was 500 people and a 4.4% margin of error, for starters. I think you should read up on demographics and polling and representative sampling. Smart statisticians can do a lot with good demographic information and relatively small sample sizes.

Also, the concept of quality of life trending downward doesn’t mean that it’s currently unacceptable. And it should go without saying, but the survey is reporting people’s perceptions of the city. The survey itself doesn’t claim to conclude that things are bad, only that they are perceived to be bad.

I suggest you read that article again. This comment currently reads as reactionary to slightly disingenuous.

Pockets the Coyote
Pockets the Coyote
2 months ago

As someone who posts from different devices, and has once or twice chosen to post with additional layer of anonymity I’m sure I’ve been swept up with the house cleaning, and will take the opportunity to apologize for any past headaches I’ve induced.

Having comments is great as it’s allowed for a lot of discussion that may not happen otherwise. Having them moderated case by case is quite the service, thank you again for that. Having them accessible, open and effectively untangled from an account with BikePortland is mind boggling to me, and I’m sure has proven a mess of unique challenges. Personally I would be interested in hearing more about those finer details, but also understand that this probably isn’t the place for me to learn about them.

Since you did not use the opportunity to, and I haven’t *yet* been able to follow my own advice, allow me to remind those that can to bump over and make a contribution or subscribe to help keep the lights on, comments moderated and the reports coming in. I’m sure the challenges of moderation will have a steep uptick with local and larger elections coming, and I wish you the best. Thanks for all of it.

nic.cota
nic.cota
2 months ago

Awesome work, Lisa! I really enjoyed the ‘revealing of the curtain’. I hope it’ll help brush some of these frequent, bad-faith commenters from posting on BP. Would really be interested to see a conglomerate of account names some of the top bad-faith commenters have.

prioritarian
prioritarian
2 months ago
Reply to  nic.cota

Would really be interested to see a conglomerate of account names

I change my account names often only because a YIMBY-aligned person contacted my employer to complain about online comments made with my real name. I also had the tire of my EV punctured the evening after a heated discussion of “zoning” on BP. Several acquaintances have also been repeatedly harassed by YIMBY-aligned people so my experience is not unique.

PS: I no longer live at my old address and my new address is no longer listed in any public database (or identifiable online).

Watts
Watts
2 months ago
Reply to  prioritarian

contacted my employer, punctured my tire

Those are pretty shit things to do regardless of your views.

prioritarian
prioritarian
2 months ago
Reply to  Watts

I don’t know for certain that the BP discussion triggered the tire stabbing but the timing made me remember that online anonymity is always a good idea.

Michael Andersen
Michael Andersen
2 months ago
Reply to  Watts

Agreed. I’m not aware of any of this or who might have done it if these events are connected, but it shouldn’t have happened.

SD
SD
2 months ago

Thank you for sharing these details. Looking back, there has been a ton of astro-turfing for years now, even some groups like people for Portland that pretty much do it in the open. Some of it seems obvious, but for most of us there isn’t time or a reason to delve into it. I remember when there was a coordinated push to attach the term “enable” to all of the grievances about homelessness and drug use. It was pretty heavy-handed and obvious, but probably convincing for some.

Given the recent Trimet grift by Gonzalez, it seems like some of our politicians are completely wired to be pushing these similar messages that are easily propagated on social media and in line with BP pseudo-commenters. I am sure this same source is putting out similar messages on other platforms. It would be amazing and hilarious to see how far it actually goes and get the Scooby-do reveal. Also pretty sad.

Todd/Boulanger
Todd/Boulanger
2 months ago

I always recommend to my soft troll friends…to send their comments in by letter with a stamp or get elected to public office.

Matt
Matt
2 months ago

I did quit using the BP forums because they felt like a never-ending garbage fire. I haven’t given up on the main site comments section yet, though; and I thank y’all for your efforts against sockpuppetry.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin
Reply to  Matt

I hear you Matt. Thanks. Also, we’re shutting down the Forums.

Jolly Dodger
Jolly Dodger
2 months ago

Diabolical, if they had been smart enough to reset their router – ever. It’s wild that so few folks actually feel such angst that a few trolls have to beat that drum extra loud.

prioritarian
prioritarian
2 months ago
Reply to  Jolly Dodger

Resetting their router would not necessarily reset their IP as they are almost always assigned by the ISP based on the MAC address of the customer’s modem (ISPs really don’t want customers to be able to reset their IPs at will). There are far, far easier ways to switch IPs at will so this person is not some operative but rather a sad person with an awful lot of time on their hands and very little tech knowledge.

curly
curly
2 months ago

This is why I only scan BP briefly. Most of the information doesn’t apply to what I’m looking for (funding) and the comments get a little stupid.
I appreciate you and JM’s efforts to adhere to the initial vision of BP.

Mark Remy
Mark Remy
2 months ago

Thank you!

360Skeptic
360Skeptic
2 months ago

Technically you didn’t “find” it. It’s been obvious for years, so maybe you should change that naive headline. What you did is _rationally establish_ it. And that’s good work deserving of congrats.

Steven
Steven
2 months ago

Why let any comments through when the user(s) are clearly trying in bad faith to abuse the public comments feature? What this says to me is that sockpuppetry on BP is mostly fine until the moment Lisa herself gets tired of dealing with it. That doesn’t seem like a fair or sustainable policy.

Trailmike
Trailmike
2 months ago

Thank you for sharing this. Keep up the good work.

Aaron
2 months ago

Reading that list of screen names I certainly recall a few as commenters to whom I made snarky replies about them making disingenuous arguments. Overall I have felt like you’re very conservative about the amount of comment deleting, considering what still gets through. I appreciate the work you all do keeping it civil in the comments here though, it’s the only website I comment on these days because it’s so hard to find actual productive conversations in internet comments.

squareman
squareman
2 months ago

I appreciate the hell out of y’all for doing this diligence. There was a time where all these snipes were getting through and I’d just avoid the comments altogether, because the bickering it led to was exhausting. I have definitely noticed the clean up. Again, thank you. I’ve always valued the BP commenters, unlike so many other places on the internet.

Michael
Michael
2 months ago

Oh man, what a hassle. But, I have to admit that I like the image of a “soft troll” (though the reality is less endearing). Keep up the good work, it is appreciated.

MarkM
MarkM
2 months ago

Thanks, Lisa and Jonathan!

Ted W
Ted W
2 months ago

This sort of activity reminds me of the tactics of a group that neighbors encountered in Montavilla during 2017 – 20 (and later, using different names). Thank you for all the hard work you did to uncover and identify these bad actors. I’m very glad I decided to become a subscrber.

Nick
Nick
2 months ago

another thing you might find valuable, (not sure to what extent you can customize that comment approval UI and backend) would be browser fingerprinting, there’s a strong probability that this spammer is using a VPN to switch IP addresses, but is using the same browser on the same physical device, check this out for a demo of how it works: https://coveryourtracks.eff.org/ more here https://www.chromium.org/Home/chromium-security/client-identification-mechanisms/

there are a few libraries that do this:

Michael
Michael
2 months ago

Have you done any searches around different forums to see if you see the same posts or very similar posts or phrases?

It’s not a particularly sophisticated operation but it’s persistent. The effort to use multiple VPNs, emails, and logins is trivial, however it is not nothing. I find it really strange that any individual, groups of individuals, or organization would target this particular website. It has a “stalker” type feel to it.

Michael
Michael
2 months ago

Well most IP addresses aren’t static so I would expect them to occasionally change unless they are just using VPNs or have multiple dedicated servers for this purpose, but if they never change, that’s not a normal household user. I think most VPNs have only one box per city so it would be fairly obvious they are using a VPN like that but an IP lookup would probably tell you that anyway.

Anyway it would be interesting to track down who is doing this and where else they are doing it. Like is it a state sponsor or just “some guy in his basement” with a grudge against Jonathan?

Jeff Rockshoxworthy
Jeff Rockshoxworthy
2 months ago

Again, bogus analysis of tech. There’s nothing in an IP address that denotes it as static, it’s merely a number assigned to a device. And many of these endpoints are shared by multiple users.

You’re making a bad faith conclusion based on misconceptions about how all this works. I suggest BikePortland stick to bicycling.

Michael Andersen
Michael Andersen
2 months ago

Thoughtful article, Lisa! Thanks.

Steven
Steven
2 months ago

I don’t know about anyone else, but I have zero interest in using my limited time and resources trying to “drown out” a bunch of fake accounts making inflammatory posts in service of someone’s political agenda. Just block the accounts already.

John V
John V
2 months ago
Reply to  Steven

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t make an “account” on BP. There is no account to block, all they can do is use these heuristics.

Pierre Roseau
Pierre Roseau
2 months ago

Lisa, Is possible that you are more anxious than need to be? Not such a large problems it seems.

360Skeptic
360Skeptic
2 months ago
Reply to  Pierre Roseau

Oh? “Seems” based on what, mon ami d’outre-mer? Do share.

joan
joan
2 months ago
Reply to  Pierre Roseau

(Fully support you all blocking comments questioning the mental health of BP staff.)

Robert Rothery
Robert Rothery
2 months ago

This was helpful to read. Thank you!

 
 
2 months ago

Thanks for sharing this. One reason that the BikePortland comment section is the only open internet comment section I post on is that the quality of discourse here tends to be way higher than elsewhere — even if I don’t necessarily agree with it all the time. Glad to know you’ve been able to weed out these bad-faith actors, and know that I and others appreciate the work you put into maintaining the comment section.

<small>Also, just for the sake of transparency, my IP address does not geolocate to Portland because I don’t currently live in Portland these days, but I used to live in Portland for many years before recently moving away.</small>

360Skeptic
360Skeptic
2 months ago

FWIW, a few years ago AFSCME Local 328 exposed similar behavior from OHSU administration, though similar sleuthing. Likely relevant: Among those represented by Local 328 is OHSU’s IT staff.

Details are mostly in these two Local 328 blog posts:
https://www.local328.org/blog/930
https://www.local328.org/blog/882

Serenity
Serenity
2 months ago

A lot of times, I post from my phone instead of my computer.

Serenity
Serenity
2 months ago

I guess my computer got caught up in your housecleaning.