Post details: Where's the Political Spam?

Where's the Political Spam?

Posted by Andrew on August 6th, 2006

Spam can be a trailing indicator of voicelessness, a sign that alternative avenues of speech on the Internet are so far foreclosed that speakers choose instead to accept the opprobrium and legal liability risks that will attach to their generally unwanted and unread messages.  Given the points I have made on this blog and elsewhere, though, there seems to be far less political spam on the Internet, and particularly on the Web and in the blogosphere, than one might expect. 

First, the numbers.  Brightmail, a leading anti-spam software vendor, used to publish a monthly report on the prevalence of spam emails, including a detailed breakdown by category of the emails' content.  Brightmail apparently discontinued the report in July 2004, around the time they were acquired by anti-virus software vendor Symantec, but their reports live on, thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.  The table below summarizes a few representative months:


Category 5/03 1/04 3/04 5/04 7/04
Products 25% 22% 25 22% 28%
Adult 19 17 15 17 17
Financial 17 20 20 16 15
Scams 8 8 7 10 9
Health 11 7 7 9 7
Fraud -- 4 5 5 6
Leisure 8 6 6 5 5
Internet 7 5 7 5 4
Political -- 2 2 3 4
Spiritual 2 2 1 2 1
Other 3 7 5 6 4
Spam as % of all emails 49% (6/03) 60% 63% 64% 65%

The numbers do show a small but significant rise in the prevalence of political spam -- enough for Yale Law School student Seth Grossman to write a 2004 law review note calling for its regulation.  Maybe political activists were slowly waking up to the fact that the new media wasn't going to empower political candidates and causes to break through to the public consciousness any more than it would enable Viagra and porn merchants to do so.

But even 4% seems a very small share of the email "spamosphere" when compared with the 11% of the blogosphere devoted to political discourse.  And I don't have the numbers, but to my eyes, political content seems even rarer in comment spam, Google spam, and other Web-based spam -- surprisingly so, since political spam ought to have a much better chance than commercial spam of surviving anti-spam filters and comment moderation in the blogosphere.

Some commentators have complained that the federal CAN-SPAM Act regulates only commercial email advertisements and does not reach political spam.  If, however, political spam is a corrective for the persisting inequities in our campaign finance system, as Stanford Law School Professor Larry Lessig told Electronic Frontier Foundation Chairman Brad Templeton, then there is no need to regulate or ban it -- its prevalence will grow only to the extent that the blogosphere, viral emails, etc. become ineffective as alternative avenues into the public forum.  When we start seeing links to the Green Party in our comment spam, we'll know that the structural unfairness of the blogosphere has come home to roost.

Comments, Pingbacks:

Comment from: Doug Ferguson [Visitor]
Conversely, there seem to be very few blogs devoted to poorly-written ads for marital aids.
The reason, I think, has mostly to do with the audience for the different types of speech. Political speech of almost every kind can find a willing Internet audience. There's simply no need to resort to spam tactics for political speech.
Sales pitches, around 85% - 90% of all spam, according to the Brightmail numbers, are another story. Nobody seeks them out, so they come to us.
Spam is less an indicator of voicelessness than of audiencelessness.
Permalink 08/07/06 @ 10:02

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