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The corruption of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk

By now, most people are familiar with's Mechanical Turk business.  Here's how it works:  if you have a job that needs to be done that really requires a person to do it, you can post the task and the price you're willing to pay to have it done on Amazon's marketplace.  The jobs are called HIT's or Human Intelligence Task.  For example, one posted right now asks workers to find the names and email addresses of PTA Board members for a number of different school boards.  They pay is nothing to write home about, but for folks who have limited time or mobility or who are in between other gigs, it's a way to earn a little cash.  For those sponsoring HIT's, it's a way to get little jobs done without taking on a fixed cost burden or burning through a full-time employee's time.

But all is not well in this marketplace, according to research conducted by Panos Ipeirotis and his students at the Stern School of Business in New York.  Ipeirotis has conducted a systematic analysis of the Mechanical Turk system and came to a pretty shocking conclusion:  at least 40.92% (he's a computer scientist, of course we have double-digits!) are spam!  Among the things he had his own cadre of HIT workers do was classify as spam tasks that fell into the following categories:


  • SEO: Asks me to give a fake rating, vote, review, comment, or "like" on Facebook, YouTube, DIGG, etc., or to create fake mail or website accounts.
  • Fake accounts: Asks me to create an account on Twitter, Facebook, and then perform a likely spam action. 
  • Lead Gen: Asks me to go to a website and sign up for a trial, complete an offer, fill out a form requesting information, "test" a data-entry form, etc.
  • Fake clicks: Asks me to go to a website and click on ads.
  • Fake ads: Asks me to post an ad to Craigslist or other marketplace.
  • Personal Info: Asks me for my real name, phone number, full mailing address or email.
  • In other words, what the workers are being asked to do is "fake" social interactions, social media or interest in whatever the poster is flogging.  I found that pretty shocking.  It is also a cautionary warning for those who depend on Internet statistics to do things like price ads, assess the interest of web readers, determine site attractiveness and so on.  And the insidious thing is that these are real people doing these things, so a lot of the automated spam-preventers (such as captchas) won't pick up the spammy nature of their activities.

    Very creative, if a tad creepy. 


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