Time rendered moot

Are you partial to absurd lists? So is Time Magazine! This bastion of old media has been developing a “World’s Most Influential” franchise over the past few years, addressing or cultivating some mysterious need to rank Vladimir Putin against Miley Cyrus on a fuzzy scale of “influence.” You can watch a Time editor fumble for a rationale for the whole enterprise, but really why bother.

This year’s list does pack a punch though, even if it makes a complete hash of Time’s list fetish. Time threw the list open to online readers with a poll that got relentlessly, ingeniously hacked. Despite Time’s best efforts, a person called “moot” ended up topping the poll as the world’s most influential person, heading a list that defined and maintained across days of voting a mysterious acrostic: “Marblecake also the game.” This phrase means something to tittering hackers clustered around a bulletin board called 4chan.

Unable to run a real poll online, Time is now trying to laugh the whole thing off: “To put the magnitude of the upset in perspective, it’s worth noting that everyone moot beat out actually has a job.” Be that as it may, it’s worth further noting that “everyone moot beat out” was deliberately positioned on the list by “moot,” who did a fine job, actually, of endangering the jobs of hapless Time employees.

Of particular interest in this embarrassment is the testing of reCAPTCHA, the defense against spam comment submission once used by this website & still in use all over the web, including at Time’s ill-fated poll. The blog Music Machinery has been tracking Time’s losing struggle to shore up their poll against a flood of bogus submissions, and has a particularly detailed rundown of hackers’ manipulations of ReCAPTCHA.

As I described a while ago, reCAPTCHA provides two words for a person to recognize and type: an image of a ‘control’ word that been identified by consensus, along with another image of an ‘unknown’ word. It’s a clever way to check if a captcha interpreter is trustworthy and then apply her interpretation to an ‘unknown’ word — and actually harness a comment/poll submission utility for text digitization projects.

In this instance, according to Music Machinery, the hackers tried to distinguish the ‘control’ word and match that, then flood reCAPTCHA with fake interpretations of the ‘unknown’ word (every ‘unknown’ word was interpreted as ‘penis,’ heh heh), creating a bogus consensus around ‘unknown’ words that would turn them into zombie ‘control’ words. An overwhelmed and standardized control, in turn, would facilitate autovoting.

In the end, again according to the Music Machinery narrative, all this business of distinguishing control words in reCAPTCHAs was enough of a speed bump that the hackers resorted to “brute force”: ie, interpreting both reCAPTCHA words and voting as frantically as they could by hand, with the help of some basic productivity utilities. This took a grimly dedicated team of devoted voters interpreting two reCAPTCHAs and casting votes over 200 times per hour per minute, for 40 or more hours while the poll was still open.

So what are we left with? Time embarrassed, reCAPTCHA tested, and a real contest, after all, for influence.

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