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The Shoebox

The Zumabot's Tale

Last summer, a friend of mine told me he was setting up a special magazine issue on email and the net, and I suggested that perhaps I should write something about the zumabot, a story (and a word) that never ceases to amuse me. He replied immediately:

Oh lordie, what's zumabot?

This is what eventually came out.

Three years ago, Usenet's culture and history discussions suffered under a flood of huge swaths of repetitive propaganda concerning the supposed Armenian murders of Turks in 1918 (history shows that the killing was the other way around), coming from a poster named Serdar Argic at a site known as zuma.UUCP.

Serdar responded to, seemingly, every and any Usenet post he could find that mentioned Turkey or Armenia, even in newsgroups that had nothing to do with either country. The poster was generally harangued with such phrases as "your criminal Armenian grandparents" (even if the poster happened to be, say, Japanese) and with over-the-top subject headings such as "The Self-Admitted Crook and Liar", "The Criminal SDPA-ASALA Grandparents of The Gum Brain", or "A mouthpiece for the fascist x-Soviet Armenian Government". This was usually followed by a lengthy essay concerning the alleged Armenian mass murders.

Some participants tried to argue with Argic, but that only made matters worse as he replied to each post with more harangues, along with successively more hysterical accusations concerning secret Armenian conspiracies. Some watched in amusement, and some even wrote parodies mocking the overwrought style of the posts. But the amusement quickly turned to annoyance when it became apparent that the sheer volume of Serdar Argic posts was overwhelming the discussions on the hardest-hit newsgroups.

It quickly became apparent, however, that his responses didn't have much intelligence behind them. For one thing, they followed a distinct repeating pattern. For another, Argic did not appear to distinguish between the nation and the bird: posts containing references to Thanksgiving turkey were as likely to become targets as posts discussing Turkey's foreign policy.

Over time, a consensus built: Serdar Argic was not a person, but a computer program which scanned the news articles and responded to any article that contained certain words, plugging in the name of the article's writer ("John Sugaharo's criminal Armenian grandparents") and other random phrases. Because of the robotic nature of the responses, this program was promptly dubbed "the zumabot".

One of the net's traditional methods of dealing with problem users is to ask their system administrators for help. Unfortunately, since "Serdar Argic" seemed to be zuma's system administrator and only user, that wasn't likely to help. Each computer on Usenet must connect to the rest of the network through one or more other systems, so the next step is to consult the administrators of those systems. Research revealed that zuma connected through - but was registered in the name of Ahmed Cosar, a student who had previously posted material that looked suspiciously like the zumabot's ravings, and who in fact was widely supposed to be the bot's programmer. No help there. Desperate netters, finding that connected via Uunet, a large commercial site, petitioned the administrators there. But Uunet was reluctant to take responsibility for posts made from zuma, which was not its direct customer.

Meanwhile, participants in various newsgroups attempted to take defensive action. The newsgroup soc.history, Usenet's main forum for general discussion of history, was so hard-hit by the zumabot that non-zumabot-related conversation had all but died out. So participants formed a new newsgroup, soc.history.moderated, which was set up so that each post had to be approved by a moderator who could filter out the zumabot and the futile responses to it.

The long-term results? Well, many people were motivated to learn how to use thir software to filter out unwanted posts. Usenet as a whole learned about a new method of destroying conversations; the use of this tactic to disrupt newsgroups continues to this day, with attempts by parties unknown (but widely thought to be affiliated with the Church of Scientology) to drown out criticism of the church by posting reams of repetitive drek to the Scientology newsgroup. Newsgroups acted to make themselves less vulnerable to the zumabot and to other floods of off-topic messages; some of those actions also served to blunt the worst of the commercial spamming that was to begin in later years. A sardonic t-shirt commemorating the incident was created.

And what of the zumabot?

In the spring of 1994, the zuma site went off the air and was never heard from again. Rumors abounded - had Uunet finally cut the site off? had the person running it been deported? had, improbably, the point been made? - but the exact fate of the zumabot remains a mystery.

Late-breaking news:

The following further intelligence appeared in April 2001 on Slashdot:

Longstanding UseNetters will remember the activities of Achmed Cosar, a member of the Turkish Secret police who posted hundreds of messages a day to the soc.culture groups of Usenet under the aliases Serdar Argic and Hasan B-) Mutlu.

The clear intention was to drown out any discussion of the 1918 massacre of Armenians by the Turks. The massacre is a touchy subject for the Turkish government and Turkey recently withdrew its ambassador to France after France recognised the massacre as genocide and made vehement complaints to the British after the Armenian masscre was amongst those recognized on 'Holocaust day'.

What Cosar did was to run an AWK script that scanned several USEnet groups for any occurrences of certain keywords. The script would then return the first paragraph of the post, append a randomly chosen insult and add a piece of Turkish government propaganda to the end. Cosar's activities stopped when the US cancelled his H1B visa. [Don't ask how I know this stuff, I am not going to discuss my sources on /.]

And there you have it. (Maybe.)

A few links of interest:
Jeanne A. E. DeVoto
Copyright © 1994 Jeanne A. E. DeVoto