Tech at Night: Pirate Bay DDoSed by copyright defenders? Net Neutrality continued. Issa takes on another treaty.

Tech at Night

Earlier we covered Microsoft’s new Pirate Pay, which I said sounded like a DoS attack against copyright infringers. Others agree and say it may be illegal, which is true. Sure enough, Pirate Bay is under DDoS attack. Has Pirate Pay gone rogue? Cybersecurity and copyright, all in one issue.

This week Less Government hosted a debate on tech issues in DC, and it got feisty at times. I found it fascinating though. Gigi Sohn and Andrew Schwartzman (Thomas Gideon was detained and missed much of the fun) on the left were constantly talking about how they don’t favor big government, they support only minimalist regulation to preserve a competitive, free market, and all that good stuff. They went to great lengths to sound centrist. I believe they also revealed a strategy of fighting one issue at a time, separately, whether the individual arguments conflict or not. This lets them advance the ball any way they can.

Seton Motley, Phil Kerpen, and Andrew Moylan were less conciliatory. They were aggressively vocal about a small government perspective, and in particular Kerpen was a beast on offense against Net Neutrality. This kind of passion and insistence on core principles may make it tougher to sever fights to build winning single-issue coalitions, but it keeps us consistent. I think we need to be mindful of the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. We could never build a coalition like Save the Internet, as the radicals did for Net Neutrality.

But Net Neutrality is still technically in effect, and will be unless and until the courts throw out the Open Internet order. As long as it’s there, it’s worth making strong arguments against it, such as Richard Bennett’s. It’s also worth noting that content-based services like Dish’s ad skipping could be considered non-neutral and illegal innovation if applied to the Internet.

Remember the ACTA treaty, negotiated in secret that threatened to be a global SOPA? Well, some appear to be say ing that the Trans-Pacific Partnership has similar provisions, or at least threatens to. So Darrell Issa is publishing key portions of the treaty for public scrutiny. Interesting.

Ron Wyden, like me and early opponent of SOPA and Protect IP, has come out against the Lieberman-Collins cybersecurity bill favored by the President. And, credit where it’s due: so has Al Franken, though both do so on privacy grounds, not power-grab grounds. But, referencing the above discussion of single-issue coalitions, I’m not going to complain, and instead will question whether a Democrat bill can pass when it’s losing both tech centrist Ron Wyden and reliable lefty Al Franken. Seriously: Obama has lost Franken on this issue. Wow.

On the Republican side, I sounded the alarm that Jon Kyl and Roy Blunt may be trying to form a Gang of Four to undermine the John McCain-led Republican team against Lieberman-Collins, and instead push a ‘compromise.’ That meeting has been put off to allow McCain and co. to attend and presumably to pitch the virtues of the SECURE IT alternative bill. I’m glad.

House Republicans question whether LightSquared was a victim of FCC’s troublesome, opaque practices as Chuck Grassley has moved on from LightSquared as his target to Google. This is remarkable. I remember when I’d make pro-LightSquared comments and get dogpiled by people insisting LS was the new Solyndra. Now, there seems to be a chance on this issue, to recognize how disappointing it is that LightSquared can’t add its technological distinctiveness to our own national 4G market, and raise the bar of competition.

I join these calls for spectrum to be freed up. Especially as FCC goes out of its way to destroy the secondary market for spectrum, in all its forms, we need a way for spectrum to be allocated to firms for faster, newer wireless technologies.

Google’s defeat in the Java/Android case goes to the damages phase, despite claims that Google didn’t really lose yet. I’m honestly shocked at how much defense Google gets even from the right, when nobody denies that Google lifted heavily from Java, and even hired former Java people to clone it for Android’s virtual machine technology.


Sacrificial Scams

The real class warfare in this country isn’t rich vs. poor, it’s government employees vs. we, the taxpayers, who pay their salaries.
Working for the government is supposed to be a trade-off: You can’t be fired and don’t have to exert yourself, but you will receive smaller remuneration than in the private sector, where layoffs are common (especially in the Obama economy!). Instead, government jobs are safe, secure, pressure-free — and now, amazingly lucrative!
Whether it’s in Wisconsin, Illinois, California or the nation’s capital, today’s public sector workers expect to ...


Let sleeping Germans lie

The newly elected French Socialist president, Francois Hollande, is warning Germany that Mediterranean ideas of “growth,” not Germanic “austerity,” should be the new European creed. No surprise there — reckless debtors often blame their own past imprudence on greedy creditors, especially if the latter are supposed to be guilt-ridden over causing two world wars.
All over Europe, the gospel is that tight-fisted Germans are at the root of the European Union meltdown: They worked too hard, saved too much, bought too little and borrowed not at all. All that may be ...


Will Gay Marriage Force Black Churches to Reconsider Democratic Party?

President Obama’s affirmation of gay marriage threatens to undermine the near-monolithic black support Obama enjoyed in 2008. Several members of the black clergy now say they intend to sit out the presidential election. One poll from last November found black opposition to gay marriage at 58 percent, higher than the rest of the country, which is about evenly split.
The real question is this: What took black church leaders so long to reconsider their near blind support for the Democratic Party?
The historical strength of black churches has been that of a ...


The president’s ‘other gospel’

It is one thing to talk about “fairness” when it comes to allowing gays and lesbians to marry; it is quite another to claim biblical authority for such relationships.
President Obama cited the “Golden Rule” about treating others as you would like to be treated, but in doing so he ignored the totality of Scripture and the Lord Himself, who alone gets to set the rules for human behavior.
The president says he is a “practicing Christian.” It is difficult to be one while simultaneously holding a low view of the Bible, ...


O Brave New World That Has Such Romneys in It

When presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s eldest son, Tagg Romney, 42, and his wife, Jen, 39, posted a birth announcement for healthy, happy twin boys on their Facebook page, they demonstrated how mainstream in vitro fertilization births have become. They gave “a special thanks” to their “gestational surrogate,” who “made this possible” for them.
The couple have six children; Politico reports that though there was no surrogate involved in the elder three children’s births, the couple used the same surrogate for their 2-year-old son.
E! anchor Giuliana Rancic just announced that after years ...


Recent News Could Cause Panic for Obama Campaign

Is it panic time at Obama headquarters in Chicago? You might get that impression from watching events — and the polls — over the past few weeks.
In matchups against Mitt Romney, the president is leading by only 47 to 45 percent in the average of recent polls. A CBS/New York Times panelback poll, in which interviewers call back respondents to a previous survey, showed Romney leading 46 to 43 percent — and leading among women.
That’s despite the Democrats’ charge that Republicans are waging a “war on women” by opposing ...


The President’s ‘Other Gospel’

It is one thing to talk about "fairness" when it comes to allowing gays and lesbians to marry; it is quite another to claim biblical authority for such relationships.

President Obama cited the "Golden Rule" about...


Moral, Now the Story

As a child, I was a voracious reader, mostly of fiction. I would read during class, during lunch, during the bus ride. When I was reading, I was not part of my boring normal life, but part of a deeper, more...


Yes, Many Republicans Supported Obamacare All Along

Many of us have taken it for granted that all Republicans would work for full repeal of Obamacare.  After all, not a single Republican voted for it.  However, it is always important to understand the reasons why politicians support or oppose a piece of legislation.

When you listen to many prominent Republicans voicing their disdain for Obamacare, you generally hear the following complaints: it raises taxes, it cuts Medicare, it contains death panels, it is 2,700 pages long – and most notably – the individual mandate.

The problem is that these are all ancillary to the crux of what is so offensive about Obamacare.  The overarching concern about Obamacare is that it harnesses the factors that have already driven up the cost of healthcare and health insurance, most prominently, the mandates and subsidies, and multiplies them to the nth degree.  The tax increases, Medicare cuts, and individual mandate are merely tools to fund those interventions.  Many Republicans never had a problem with them.  This is why they were never repulsed by Romneycare, which doesn’t contain tax hikes and Medicare cuts.  As for the individual mandate of MassCare, they contend that there is nothing wrong with a state mandate.

As such, it comes as no surprise to read these tidbits in Politico:

If the law is partially or fully overturned they’ll draw up bills to keep the popular, consumer-friendly portions in place — like allowing adult children to remain on parents’ health care plans until age 26, and forcing insurance companies to provide coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Ripping these provisions from law is too politically risky, Republicans say. […]

On Tuesday, the major options were discussed during a small closed meeting of House Republican leaders, according to several sources present.

Then on Wednesday, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) gave the entire House Republican Conference a preview of where the party is heading. His message: “When the court rules, we’ll be ready.”

But Boehner warned that they’ll relegislate the issue in smaller, bite sizes, rather than putting together an unwieldy new health care bill.

“If all or part of the law is struck down, we are not going to repeat the Democrats’ mistakes,” Boehner said, according to several sources present. “We have better ideas on health care — lots of them. We have solutions, of course, for patients with pre-existing conditions and other challenges.”

If Politico was the only source promulgating this, I wouldn’t be worried.  Unfortunately, top GOP leaders have expressed their desire to keep the slacker and pre-existing mandates in place on numerous occasions.  This sentiment has also been evident in the GOP’s partial repeal strategy in which they target the most “unpopular provisions.”  These mandates are emblematic of the worst provisions in the law – the ones that will drive up the cost of private insurance and force everyone into government-run healthcare.

I’ve long struggled with the question of whether Republicans lack a full understanding of the free market or whether they simply lack the communication skills and fortitude to articulate free market positions to the public.  I suspect that with most members there are elements of both.

Boehner is definitely correct is asserting that we should not make the same mistake as the Democrats by offering all our conservative reforms in one shot.  We obviously cannot expand HSAs, enact tort reform, institute premium-support Medicare, reform Medicaid, and eliminate all the insurance mandates in one bill.  But whatever piece-meal approach we take must reflect a conservative free market view, and it must only take place after full repeal of Obamacare, especially of the slacker and pre-existing conditions mandates.  It is better to give out pure subsidies to the real sick for healthcare than to destroy the entire system with the paradoxical pre-existing insurance mandate.

We better pray that the Supreme Court rules in our favor on severability and strikes down the entire law.



Bill Clinton: Only across-the-board tax increases can fix this mess

**Written by Doug Powers

Clinton is admitting here that the “Buffett Rule” would not solve any of our country’s massive deficit problems — which of course it wouldn’t. But that’s of little consequence anyway because the administration’s motivation behind the Buffett Rule ruse is one of fairness and not deficit reduction.

For a long time the government has been digging a hole we may never get out of, and Clinton is suggesting that part of the solution includes sending them more shovels? Yep:

Bill Clinton said Tuesday that President Barack Obama’s goal of hiking taxes on the rich alone is not enough to solve the country’s fiscal woes and suggested that middle class Americans must also eventually contribute more.

Clinton, who discussed a number of economic and political issues at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s third annual Fiscal Summit in Washington, D.C., prefaced his comments with the warning that he was giving his personal view and was “not speaking for the White House.”

“This is just me now, I’m not speaking for the White House — I think you could tax me at a 100 percent and you wouldn’t balance the budget,” said Clinton, who has earned tens of millions of dollars since leaving office. “We are all going to have to contribute to this, and if middle class people’s wages were going up again, and we had some growth to the economy, I don’t think they would object to going back to tax rates [from] when I was president” – before the Bush tax cuts.

Clinton’s idea is to wait for the economy to recover a little more and then crank up taxes across the board to start chipping away at the deficit. Spending cuts instead? He’d probably sooner invite Hillary to go through his text messages.

Trying to resuscitate the economy just so the government can then harvest the money reminds me of that death row inmate who got sick and the concerned warden spent countless hours helping him get better so he was eventually healthy enough to put in the chair.

**Written by Doug Powers

Twitter @ThePowersThatBe


Charles Krauthammer Goes “Hard Left” and Rants Against Domestic Drones: Or, Killing People Abroad is Okay, But Spying at Home is Wrong

America is currently in a bit
of a freaking out over domestic drones phase. The mostly ignoring
the murderous effects of drones overseas, even in countries like
Pakistan and Yemen with whom American is not technically at war
— well, that bit has been happening for a while.

A perfect example of the disconnect between something being okay
when used on alleged enemies but an utter outrage when used against
Americans is the recent comments by conservative syndicated
columnist Charles Krauthammer on America's rapidly approaching
future of drone-filled skies.
This by the way, noted Slate, is near indeed:

On Monday, the FAA released
new rules
 governing the use of surveillance drones (or
unmanned aerial vehicles) by domestic public safety agencies, such
as law enforcement and fire departments. Interested agencies can
apply for expedited approval of drones weighing up to 25
pounds.  The drones may not fly higher than 400 feet and must
be in sight of an operator at all times. They also cannot fly near

Krauthammer, who has a
high tolerance for American
overseas (and occasionally waves away
congressional safeguards like the
War Powers Act
 because to declare war properly is so
archaic) went downright libertarian recently on the question of
whether drones should be come a normal part of the skies, the
horizon, and the purple mountains' majesty. Because dammit, war is
war, but at home — Americans live there.

So Krauthammer went on Fox News this week and told
Brett Baier:

I'm going to go hard left on you here, I'm going ACLU. I don't
want regulations, I don't want restrictions, I want a ban on this.
Drones are instruments of war. The Founders had a great aversion to
any instruments of war, the use of the military inside even the
United States. It didn't like standing armies, it has all kinds of
statutes of using the army in the country.

To further lampshade the point, Krauthammer also said:

It ought to be used in Somalia, to hunt the bad guys, but not in
America. I don't want to see it hovering over anybody's

Somalia! There's the third in the trifecta of countries that get
drone-attacks, but no declarations of war. 

Krauthammer went on to bemoan the fact that London has a
terrifying amount of CCTV cameras and generally went on a bizarrely
great (especially given
his history
) pro-privacy and pro-liberty rant. He also said he
predicted "the first guy who uses a second amendment weapon to
bring a drone down that's been hovering over his house will be a
folk hero in this country." Though he was not "encouraging" that of

Krauthammer was part of a larger panel, and it was an
interesting one, and in some ways it was a libertarian's dream to
have mainstream voices talking so intensely about drawing lines in
the sand when it comes to government. The Daily Caller's man in
charge, Tucker Carlson, also spoke out strongly in favor of privacy
and an across-the-board ban of domestic drone use, as well as his
opposition to militarized police.

But there's still that fun-house quality of being all for
freedoms and safeguards for Americans, but never mind these drones
raining hellfire missiles from above upon people who live very far
away indeed. 

Friend of and contributor to Reason Andrew
 also went on Fox News this week to talk drones.
He, unsurprisingly, said that warrant-less
surveillance of Americans is illegal.
 Napolitano also
echoed Krauthammer's sentiments that the response to an American
shooting down a drone would (and should) be an elevation to folk
hero status (this is possibly giving Americans too much credit).
Napolitano at least managed to drop a disparaging comment about the
illegal war in Libya before he linked rhetorical arms with
Krauthammer and said he was quite right to be nervous and outraged
(I don't think the two of them often agree on things so that's
rather cozy).

It's nice that Krauthammer is on the correct side of this,
with his righteous and sensible paranoia. Even if, as
Conor Friedersdorf pointed out
, it's kind of horrific that to
be opposed to incessant drones is to be "hard-left". Still,
Krauthammer's thesis needs no digging or inference to find; To spy
on Americans without cause is a monstrous violation. To kill
foreigners without even an official declaration of war is merely
the correct use of such a technology.

Meanwhile, a drone is credited with the December
surveillance-gathering in Iraq that lead to Turkish air-strikes
that killed
30 civilians.

Reason on


Will the South Carolina Democrats Tolerate This Racism?

Phil Bailey sat next to South Carolina State Senator Jake Knotts when Knotts called Governor Nikki Haley, then a candidate for Governor, a “raghead.”

Phil Bailey did nothing.

Phil Bailey is the Executive Director of the South Carolina Senate Democratic Caucus. It seems he is now intent on one upping Jake Knotts.

Bailey, who had no problem with Knotts’ “raghead” comment when even the First Vice Chairman of the State GOP, Patrick Haddon, was calling for Knotts’s resignation, seems determined to one up Knotts with racism.

Bailey has been on twitter referring to Nikki Haley, a Methodist of Indian descent, as the “Sikh Jesus.” Governor Haley’s parents are sikh, but she and her husband attend a Methodist Church.


Not content to do it just once, Phil Bailey did it a second time, complete with a picture of a dog.


I know the South Carolina Democrats have low standards. But do they really want one of their employees to first be cool with the Governor of their state being called a “raghead” and then himself calling her a “sikh Jesus”?


Trayvon Martin Autopsy: Knuckle Injury Was Tiny, but Gunshot Was at ‘Intermediate Range’

More details are emerging on the autopsy results for Trayvon Martin, and earlier reports that his knuckles were skinned (as if from a fight) seem to have been inaccurate. The autopsy reported only a tiny abrasion about a quarter-inch long on his left ring finger.

And possibly even more interesting: the autopsy report says Martin died from a gunshot at "intermediate range."

Florida teenager Trayvon Martin died from a single gunshot wound to the chest fired from “intermediate range,” according to an autopsy report reviewed Wednesday by NBC News.

The official report, prepared by the medical examiner in Volusia County, Fla., also found that the 17-year-old Martin had one other fresh injurya small abrasion, no more than a quarter-inch  in size –  on his left ring finger below the knuckle.

Separately, a medical report on Martin’s alleged killer, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, prepared by his personal physician the day after Martin’s shooting in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26, found that the Neighborhood Watch volunteer suffered a likely broken nose, swelling, two black eyes and cuts to the scalp. That report, first reported Tuesday by ABC News, also was reviewed by NBC News.


Republicans Vitter, Murkowski Demand More Stimulus

Not shown: Callout reading "Keystone XL Pipeline" TransCanada Corp. is
for a federal permit to build the Keystone XL oil
pipeline, and there are plenty of good conservative reasons to urge
President Obama — who kiboshed Keystone in January — to allow
it this time. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. David Vitter
manage to find none of them

The reasons for approving the pipeline are straightforward: It’s
a shovel-ready project that’s great for our economy. It would bring
oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries, and would pick up
American oil produced in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska along
the way.

Keystone XL is exactly the type of world-class, private-sector
infrastructure project that a nation mired in debt, deeply
dependent on expensive foreign oil and desperate for jobs should
embrace. Its construction would ensure a secure, long-term supply
of oil from a close ally and provide well-paying jobs for thousands
of Americans. 

Writing in the Washington Times, Murkowski and Vitter
make no mention of free markets in energy or free trade, nor do
they appear disposed to believe the state should avoid interfering
in peaceful commerce between its citizens and those of other
countries. There isn't even a to-be-sure in there noting the
concerns of property owners whose
lives and livelihoods stand in the way
of the world-class
transnational project.

Instead, Keystone XL is worth doing because it's a "shovel
ready...infrastructure project" that would boost "our economy" and
"provide well-paying jobs." Why not throw in a "multiplier effect"
and a "summer of recovery" while you're at it? 

I recently changed my registration to Republican, so maybe I'm
overly sensitive when my new GOP buddies talk like Democrats.
Undoubtedly the party of constitutional principle and limited
government can make real arguments for Obama to allow the project?
Sure enough, Murkowski and Vitter have another big reason for
supporting Keystone: Because if our government doesn't protect our
economy, the Chinese will come and take it: 

At least two projects are now under way that will allow Canada
to send more of its oil through alternative pipelines to ports on
its west coast, where it can be shipped to markets in Asia.

Chief among those markets is China, which Canadian Prime
Minister Stephen Harper visited just days after Mr. Obama’s initial
rejection of Keystone. There’s no question China wants oil - from
Canada and anywhere else it can get it. China is already investing
heavily in the Canadian energy sector and appears eager to take on
the vast supply of Alberta oil that the Obama administration has

Canada is taking notice - and taking steps to ensure it can meet
China’s growing appetite for energy. The latest budget introduced
by Canada’s federal government would reduce both the amount of time
it takes to complete environmental assessments and the number of
reviewers. Mr. Harper and others in Canada’s government clearly
recognize the potential for long-term economic prosperity that
increased oil production can bring.

America is now in a race with China for Canada’s substantial
energy resources. 

I have no hope for any of the Murkowskis, but Vitter voted
against TARP and gets a grade of 85 percent (an uncharacterized B!)
from Club for Growth. In the Senate, he's what passes for
pro-market. The Washington Times isn't exactly the
Democrat-controlled media. If there's any place to make the
argument that Canadian oil sheikhs in their toques have a right to
do business south of the border, this is it.

Instead, Vitter and Murkowski urge the president to approve
Keystone for the jobs and the China-bashing. He's already got his
union cronies telling him that. 


How to Astroturf an Online Cause: the Story of “I Stand with Bill Powers”

From the diaries.

Texas is ground zero in the national higher education reform movement. While the Washington crowd tends to fixate on President Obama’s piddling slap fight with Congressional Republicans over government-secured student loan rates, the real action on fixing higher ed is happening in Austin, Texas. The battle between Rick Perry and the higher ed reformers on one hand versus UT-Austin President Bill Powers and the Ivory Tower status quo on the other hand has been marked by years of grueling and often dull trench warfare that was punctuated last week by a flurry of bombs, beginning with a tuition freeze, followed by rumors of the UT President’s termination, and culminating in a textbook social media public relations campaign that deserves serious examination. And the consequences of this fight? Well, what happens in Texas won’t stay in Texas.

This is the story of “I Stand with Bill Powers,” a remarkably well-executed example of online astro-turfing.

Bill Powers is the President of the University of Texas at Austin. He individually receives an annual income roughly twelve times the median household income of Texas, not counting six figures of deferred compensation or benefits. He commands a robust team of sharp folks internally at UT and has secured the big guns as outside public relations counsel. There is now an ongoing effort– a well-orchestrated social media campaign which appears highly inorganic– to “save” him. Save from what and for what is the difficult part to figure out.

This post aims to 1. provide some context for the UT kerfuffle itself, 2. cast some light on how people and organizations successfully astro-turf social media campaigns, 3. provide reasons why members of the media ought to be a bit more careful in how they report on the online/digital/new media horse race, and 4. offer some thoughts on what comes next.

1. Kerfuffle Context
First, some background on what the heck this “Save Bill Powers” stuff is all about.

There’s the very, very macro context, which is basically that the higher education establishment has become sclerotic and out of touch, tuition has skyrocketed well beyond inflation, and the next major economic shock in America could easily be the higher ed bubble bursting. It’s an iceberg straight ahead and we’re the Titanic, but there’s still time to steer the ship into safer waters. If we don’t, though, yikes.

This is the startling context for this kerfuffle:

Zooming in a bit further, to Texas, we see that tuition at UT went up 39.88% from Fall 2004 to Fall 2011. We also see a Governor, who happens to be a Texas A&M alumnus (that’s UT’s primary in-state rival, so there’s a built-in suspicion among Longhorns), and who has appointed the entire Board of Regents at The University of Texas system, who has committed to making public higher education in Texas more affordable, accountable, and accessible. Specifically, Governor Perry embraced various specific higher ed reforms over the years, including what are known as the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” as a starting point for reform. Not surprisingly, the higher ed establishment opposed these reforms. Despite UT-Austin receiving more dollars– and more dollars per student– in state funding from the State of Texas than UC-Berkeley gets from California, it seems like the only acceptable higher ed reform to the higher ed establishment is more money.

In the summer of 2011, battle lines were drawn, with the “Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education” (a.k.a. “The Coalition”) emerging out of the Burson-Marsteller P.R. shop to support Bill Powers and the higher ed status quo. In October of 2011, Natalie Butler and Keshav Rajagopolan (current and former Student Body Presidents, respectively) launched a “spin-off” group group called Young Texans for Excellence in Higher Education. Various groups formed on the other side (including “Rock the Ivory Tower“) devoted to affordability and reform.

The Governor also called for a 4-year tuition freeze for incoming college students (in January of 2009) and a $10,000 college degree in 2011. The $10K degree idea was met with scorn and incredulity from the higher ed establishment, but it’s now been adopted in public universities across the state. And the tuition freeze? Well, just this month, the UT Regents approved it for two years (not the four that Perry initially called for). Bill Powers lashed out at the tuition freeze idea online and in an email:

If all of this context (and the above context is certainly just the Cliff’s Notes version this story) was the collective geopolitical navigation of the Great Powers in the 1930s, then Paul Burka’s apocalyptic, all-caps Texas Monthly blog post was the bombing of Pearl Harbor:

2. How to Astroturf a Social Media Campaign
This is where it gets interesting. While most of the press coverage has focused on the numbers of people who “joined” a Facebook group called “I STAND WITH BILL POWERS,” at least one member of the press has hinted that something else might be afoot here. The Texas Tribune‘s Reeve Hamilton tweeted a note of caution:

While I already suspected that the anonymously sourced, (and still uncorroborated) BurkaBlog post and the apparent organic response to it was all a little too convenient, Reeve Hamilton’s tweet further piqued my interest, so I explored it further. Along with some others in the higher ed movement, it quickly became apparent that a handful of really sharp young folks, working with some powerful organizations with ample resources, synthetically engineered what appeared to be a natural groundswell.

Let’s take the url registration, just 100 minutes or so after the nuclear BurkaBlog post went live, the domain name had been secured:


Okay, that’s been known to happen organically, I guess. People just happen to read an unsubstantiated, rumor-mongering blog post at 7:30 pm on a Wednesday night and just happen to buy a domain name that just happens to become the focal point of a public relations campaign, within an hour and a half. And they just happen to buy the domain name anonymously. It just happens all the time.

Meanwhile, the issue positioning, keywords, and instructions went out via Facebook, from Natalie Butler of the “Young Texans”:

And at nearly this precise moment, #saveBillPowers began trending in Austin, Texas:

Accompanying the Save Bill Powers Twitter presence was an identically-branded Facebook page, formed at 8:10 pm (just 40 minutes after the BurkaBlog post hit the web):

Even with such robust branding, a matching website, matching twitter, implied institutional backing from President Powers himself, and a catchy slogan, the Burson-Marsteller team has only managed to gather mere hundreds of actual fans:

It can be frustrating to oversee such a meager social media presence, but luckily there is a solution. Ditch the Facebook page. Go with a Facebook group!

A bit later, two-time Teaching Assistant to Bill Powers Rachel Meyerson founded the “I STAND WITH BILL POWERS” Facebook group:

Immediately after the group was created, Meyerson added two admins to the group:

And they all started adding members to the group.

In order to boost its “groups,” Facebook allows individuals to not only invite someone to a group but actually add him or her to it, whether he or she is even interested. Many Facebookers, even young digital natives, aren’t engaged enough to even notice they’ve been added without their permission. And many Facebookers aren’t savvy enough to know how to leave a group after they’ve been “Facejacked.” Some people tend to fear leaving the group and insulting their friends who added them. Needless to say, spam-adding folks en masse to Facebook groups they may or may not agree with is not cool, and it’s definitely not true digital virality in any organic sense. Indeed, this guy showed how easy it is to add all of your Facebook friends to a group in only about 20 seconds.

That’s not a movement. That’s a line of code. And even if you don’t use a javascript code (some browsers have blocked scripts like that since the video was made) and have to manually click on each of your friends to invite them, you can still spend just minutes to add hundreds or even thousands of people. To quickly get 10,000 people in a group, you really only need a half dozen young people (who tend to have a lot of Facebook “friends”) spam-adding their contacts.

Pranksters angry about the loss of personal control even began adding Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to NAMBLA (North American Man Boy Love Association) groups in protest. It’s a problem, and it’s bad etiquette at the very least.

Bad etiquette or not, “Facejacking” is how the “I STAND WITH BILL POWERS” group grew and continues to grow. If you go in to the group, click “about,” then click to view members by date added, you can find the screenshots below yourself. Scroll down to the beginning (it’s kind of an annoying process), and you’ll see that nearly everyone was spam-added by just a couple of individuals (these first 120 or so members are in reverse chronological order):





See all of those “added” folks? The overwhelming majority: added, not invited. And all by two individuals.

But surely they just seeded it a bit, and it became an organic, sustaining organism of its own shortly thereafter, right? Not really. Yes, others got in on the spam-adding action, but look at a sample from Friday:

Lots of spam-added folks. Not really much evidence of a true newsworthy movement.

Or the 21 most recent additions:


Again, out of 21 new members, Callie Williams added 1, Shelah Flowers invited 1, Andrew Grant invited 2, Keshav Rajagopolan added 3, and Rachel Meyerson added 14. Rajagopolan and Meyerson alone spam-added 81% of the newest 21 members. In total, 86% of the newest 21 members were spam-added, while 14% were invited.

We’ve established that the response to this kerfuffle was astro-turfed. So what? People astroturf all the time.

Well, it’s one thing to astro-turf, but it’s another thing to actively lie to the press about it.

3. Why More Skepticism is Needed in Reporting on Social Media

Let’s look at Keshav Rajagopolan’s statements to the Houston Chronicle.

Did social media explode with support for Bill Powers? According to the Houston Chronicle, yes:


Some relevant points:

Keshav Rajagopalan, who was UT’s student body president in 2008-2009, said he started the Facebook group last night after Burka’s post was published. He said thousands have asked to be part of the group. He worked with Powers closely during his time as student body president, but thinks that many UT students who did not know him personally recognize him as a leader that cares about them.

Wait. We just saw that Rachel Meyerson started the group, and that nearly all the early members were spam-added by other people. Indeed, Rajagopolan was personally responsible for a great deal of the spam adding. “Thousands have asked to be part of the group” is just plain deceitful.

While the spam-adding continued at a fast and furious pace on the “I STAND WITH BILL POWERS” group, there was no activity overnight and into mid-morning on the “Save Bill Powers” page:


Again, a page (rather than a group) doesn’t allow you to spam-add. People can be invited, but they can’t be added without their permission.

So, the Save Bill Powers page was essentially a ghost town, and essentially the entirety of the social media operation to that point was astro-turfed by a P.R. firm. Jennifer Sarver of said P.R. firm tweeted:

Julie Shussler of the same P.R. firm posted to the group a bit later:

Matt Portillo said it was a piece of cake, and, sure enough, he (and Shussler) spam-added members as well:

Portillo is also an organizer for the Young Texans, which he calls “a subsidiary of kind of a larger group“:

That subsidiary stuff sounds so organic, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, the media drumbeat about how amazing this spontaneous social media movement has kept pounding.

Many uncritical headlines and stories were all over the web this past week. To give credit where credit is due, though, an Austin American-Statesman story did join the Tribune‘s Reeve Hamilton in noting that something wasn’t quite right with the numbers:

By 5 p.m. Thursday, a Facebook group called “I Stand With Bill Powers” had more than 9,800 members, although some whose names were listed said in subsequent posts that they had been included by friends without their knowledge and against their wishes.

Bottom line: the widely reported “I stand with Bill Powers” Facebook effort was not an organic display of support. It was, however, publicly held out by the organizers as organic.

It’s one thing to astro-turf, as that happens sometimes in the public relations field– it now ought to be clear how easy it is to do that. But it’s another thing to astro-turf and lie and say it was organic, then not only passively allow the media to inaccurately portray it as organic but actively feed that inaccuracy with untrue statements.

As for members of the media, more of them should turn a far more critical eye to claims of social media prowess based on what could very well be pure astro-turf.

4. What’s Next?

Moving forward, the higher ed reform movement will continue, and the status quo guardians will continue as well. The UT faculty this week voted to support their boss, although one professor abstained:

English professor Snehal Shingavi was the only member who abstained from voting at the meeting. Shingavi said it was dangerous for the faculty’s support of Powers to be coupled with tuition increases.“There is an unfortunate narrative in Texas that presents faculty as living off the fat of tuition,” Shingavi said. “It’s important not to connect these two. I abstained from voting because I understood the importance of having a unified vote.”

Meanwhile, the target of most of the negative social media content on the “Save Bill Powers” page(s) and “I STAND WITH BILL POWERS” group, Governor Perry, is not going away quietly on this issue:

“I don’t think it’s any big secret that I’m for keeping the cost of education down, so my suspicion is that no one in Texas thinks that I’m for tuition growth,” Perry said. “It’s a good message to send to the citizens of the state that we’re not going to just have tuition increasing with no regard for what’s happening economically for the citizens of the state.”

And, ultimately, that’s why this “movement” smelled so fishy from the get-go. You’re telling me that students are rallying around the guy who wants to raise their tuition? Yeah, no. It was always a fabricated social media cause via public relations firm. It was well done, no doubt– a great example of why my alma mater pays them so much to do what they do. But it was never a truly viral or organic cause.

As for Bill Powers, can someone please explain to me what exactly are his accomplishments, or, alternatively, what exactly are his goals, ideas, values, or policies that are worthy of support?

UT Professor Rob Koons bravely asks this very question:

Under President Powers, tuition has climbed over 23% in just 4 years (15% over inflation, as measured by the consumer price index). Average net cost per student (taking into account financial aid) has gone up 33% from 2005 to 2009, from $4534 to $6052 (the System stopped reporting this figure in 2010). In the same period, spending on administrative salary has gone up 86% at the university level, 55% in the College of Liberal Art and 45% in the College of Business, to take two typical examples of the Colleges. Spending on faculty salaries have gone up 21% in the same period (13% over inflation), with no increase in student learning, as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment (in which UT ranks in the 23rd percentile of its peer group).President Powers’ hand-picked student ‘advisory’ panels (whose discussions and votes have not been released to the public, despite the Open Meeting act) have simply rubber-stamped the views of Powers and his allies. For example, two years ago, after key lawmakers (including Senator Ellis) announced that any increase in tuition above 4% would lead to a reconsideration of tuition deregulation, Powers’ panel miraculously determined that UT “needed” an increase of exactly 3.95%. Amazing coincidence!

Change in rankings:
US News #44 in 2008, #45 in 2012. A drop of one position, paid for by at least a 33% increase in costs to students!

Four-year graduation rate
2005: 46.4%
2008: 47.7

Six-year graduation rate
2005: 74.8
2008: 77.5

Nursing exam pass rate (UT graduates):
04-05: 97.0
2008: 92 (A drop of 5%)

Engineering exam pass rate:
04-05: 90.2
2008: 89

Exactly what are his accomplishments?

More on that dismal learning percentile figure:

On March 14, Washington Post reporter Daniel de Vise, in his piece “Trying to assess learning gives colleges their own test anxiety,” reported that the University of Texas at Austin ranks very low in achievement of student learning. “For learning gains from freshman to senior year,” writes de Vise, “UT ranked in the 23rd percentile among like institutions. In other words, 77 percent of universities with similar students performed better.” The Post obtained this data through a public records request. The standardized test was conducted by the Collegiate Learning Assessment.Prof. Richard Arum, a New York University sociologist, “reviewed UT’s results at the request of the Post.” He found that “seniors have spent four years there, and the scores [on student learning] have not gone up that much.”


Again, what are Bill Powers’ accomplishments? Somehow vastly higher tuition with academic ranking and performance stagnation doesn’t seem like an accomplishment.

That all being said, the faster we can bring this back to a discussion about ideas rather than a quarrel between players, the better. For students. For parents. For alumni. For employers. For taxpayers. For everyone. Right now, the easy fixation is on Rick Perry vs. Bill Powers, but the ideas they are talking about are important. Tuition. Affordability. Accountability. Opportunity. The American Dream. Texas as America’s shining state on a hill.

Do we accept the broken status quo, or do we reform our higher education system in Texas? At stake: far more than parochial Ivory Tower politics.

Will Franklin is a proud graduate of UT-Austin. He also formerly worked for Governor Rick Perry. This post was adapted from an original post.