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Spammers? Use your controls

Here's a technological issue -- not a journalism issue -- but it shows how the technological difficulties can divert us from the journalism lessons.

One of the students in intro to news writing Section 7 discovered that a spammer -- presumably automated -- was trying to post an ad on her blog using the comment function.

The spam-bot was targeting Monique's comparison of news coverage of Fidel Castro calling Hugo Chavez' radio show (link here ).

Perhaps the program used a search engine and found Monique's reference to Castro's "health." Figuring that anyone reading that page was interested in health care generally, the spambot tried to post an ad reading:

Title: No prescription valium.
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without prescription.

Weirder, the ad included a link back to a web page elsewhere on the University of Minnesota system -- on the medical school's sub-domain ( http://gregorio.med.umn.edu/aspnet_client/system_web/1_1_4322/valium/).

No harm done: Monique had set her blog to require her approval before any submitted comment appeared. But I had suggested to students that they turn off that filter to make it easier for me, T.A.s and classmates to carry on a conversation without having to wait hours or days for them to approve each post.

There is a layer of defense against these vandals of the 'Net: The University of Minnesota Libraries' blogging system (UThink, which uses the TypePad platform). I reported the junk mail incursion to the UThink tech support folks, who informed me that I could activate UThink's "CAPTCHA service" to block spam. (Instructions at: https://wiki.umn.edu/twiki/bin/view/UThink/CommentCaptcha)

It's a minor headache, but it shows how, at the present level of user-friendliness, a student may not be able to step lightly into the blogging world without having to learn a couple layers of tech stuff. Admin settings. Filters. Etc.

To quote the UThink tech support person:
"Unfortunately, this is nothing new and is quite frankly a never ending battle with the spammers. The only way it will ever stop is if the spammers themselves decide to not do it anymore. Of course, that will probably never happen. ...
"We are doing our best to get rid of spam on UThink. Inevitably, though, some spam always gets through as the spammers figure out new ways around our efforts to fight them."

Daniel Lynx Bernard
Master of Public Affairs candidate
Journalism graduate instructor
University of Minnesota