When Carissa Snedeker went to log into her Blogspot account Wednesday evening at about 7:30, she had no idea what would be waiting for her. She had created her blog,Blue Lyon, three years ago and up until this point had very few problems posting new content. But this time a message from Google came up when she visited her dashboard.
“This blog has been locked due to possible Blogger Terms of Service violations,” the message stated. “You may not publish new posts until your blog is reviewed and unlocked.”
When Snedeker clicked on the link at the bottom of the message she came to another one that told her that her blog “has characteristics of a spam blog” and, because of this, it had been locked. It allowed her the chance to send an “unlock request” but told her she’d have to wait up to four business days before someone at Google could review her blog and confirm it wasn’t publishing spam.
“At first I thought it was just this random thing with Blogger’s spam bots,” she told me in a phone interview. “I thought that perhaps in their looking across the blogger universe, that I got accidentally flagged somehow. Stuff like that happens.”
But a short time later Snedeker received an email from another blogger claiming that a number of anti-Obama blogs had been “hacked” that same night. After some digging it became apparent that several Blogspot accounts had been shut down because of similar spam issues, and nearly all of them had three things in common: Most were pro-Hillary Clinton blogs, all were anti-Barack Obama, and several were listed onjustsaynodeal.com, an anti-Obama website.
A “Flag Blog” link sits at the very top of every free Blogspot account. If a person finds objectionable content on a Blogspot site or suspects it’s publishing spam, he or she can click on the link and it will send a notice to Google requesting “human review.”
I spoke to several of the bloggers who had accounts locked and every single one was convinced that it was Obama supporters who had flagged the blogs in some kind of concerted effort to silence them. But when I asked for specific evidence of this, most simply pointed out that only anti-Obama blogs were targeted — a fact that is certainly suspicious but not especially conclusive.
The incident highlights the often-contentious relationship between online Hillary and Obama supporters. Popular sites like Digg.com have consistently posted anti-Hillary links and popular liberal blog Daily Kos experienced a “boycott” a few months ago when several Hillary supporters left the site.
A blogger who uses the pseudonym “GeekLove” (she wouldn’t agree to a phone interview and wouldn’t tell me her real name) said to me via email that when her blog,Come A Long Way, was shut down she thought it was a fluke as well.
“I also felt a little bit humiliated that someone would think to characterize my Blog as ‘spam,’” she said. “I had no idea why it would be ‘spam’ I assumed it was just some sort of mistake. I did think it was an isolated incident. I requested the Blogger review. I then went to the Hillary Clinton Forum, a place I frequently participate in on line discussions, and I saw Nobama‘s post ‘Blogger just shut down my NObama Blog!!‘ Then when other Blogger blogs were affected, I knew it was more than coincidence.”
Like the others I spoke to, she immediately became convinced that Obama supporters were behind the outages.
“I suspect that it was Obama supporters because I think the block was timed to affect blogs prior to the unity event so that we would not ‘rain on the unity parade,’ GeekLove said. “Also, Obama has ads out hiring people with no experience, except the ability to use computers. I presume these are the individuals responsible for silencing any opposition. His campaign has really harnessed the power of the internet and in the process learned to game the system in a way that I find frightening.”
When it comes to butting heads with Obama supporters, perhaps nobody has more experience than Larry Johnson. If his name rings a bell, it’s because Johnson, who worked for the CIA in the ’80s and now does military consulting, was the origin of the famous “whitey” claim. Not long ago he reported on his website that people connected with the McCain campaign are in possession of video footage of Michelle Obama saying derogatory things about white people. However, he admitted that he hadn’t actually seen the video and his two sources hadn’t seen it either. He quickly became a target of bloggers from both the right and left.
Several of the bloggers hit by the Blogspot outage also write at his site, No Quarter, and so Johnson has been watching the controversy with interest. Like the others, he believes wholeheartedly that Obama supporters are behind the “attack,” and he told me in a phone interview that his website had experienced similar problems a few months ago.
“We were contacted by our host in March and they claimed we were draining too many resources,” he said. “They shut us down completely. But when we went in to look at our site statistics it was evident that something else was clearly going on — we were the subject of some kind of spam attack that was putting a strain on the site.”
To ward off such attacks, he decided to go with his own server, a move that he said would make it harder to shut him down. But after he published the “whitey” claims, he had more direct conflicts with Obama supporters.
“The problem with these people who had their Google accounts shut down, they’re intimidated by it,” Johnson said. “They don’t want to get themselves in a situation so they would be identified. Some of these people who get identified, the Obama folks start picking up the phone and calling. I had phone calls into my office, threatening me, saying that you’re going to be fired, let me talk to your boss. I told them to go fuck themselves, because I am my own boss. It helps to be self-employed.”
Johnson and the other people interviewed for this article all agreed that Google was partly to blame for the outages. It was because of the search giant’s “guilty until proven innocent” approach, they said, that allowed the attackers to shut down the blogs so easily.
“My biggest objection is not necessarily that these people did this, but that Blogger had the policy that basically locks you out,” Snedeker said. “In other words you’re guilty until proven innocent, instead of the other way around, and that was what frustrated me.”
“I understand the need if you have some complaints from people that you need to investigate it,” Johnson said. “But you also have to make sure that the person filing the complaint is legitimate.”
An email I sent to Google requesting comment was not immediately returned. Nearly all the bloggers who were targeted by this spam crusade are not waiting around for their accounts to be restored. They’ve flocked to WordPress and opened free accounts there (including Blue Lyon and Come A Long Way), and they don’t have any immediate plans to return to their original URLs once the dust settles.
What’s perhaps even more notable is that none of the people I spoke to is planning any kind of backlash against Obama supporters. It seemed to me that, for the most part, they just want to be left alone.
“While I am expressing my political beliefs, on Blogger it was a simple push of a button to mark my blog as spam and silence me,” GeekLove said. ” Pushing the button set me back a couple of days and I was unable to post anything during the unity event. The prospect of starting over on another blog was also daunting [and] I briefly, only briefly considered [giving] up blogging. Tactics like this work to silence opposition, why wouldn’t we expect more of that in the future?”