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Monday, 16 February 2009

Astroturfing: Fake Grassroots Campaigns

This week, I learned a new word. My staff sent me a link to Wikipedia's article on Astroturfing and a link to a Dilbert cartoon (click for the full size).


Astroturfing is when something is meant to look like a grassroots, spontaneous show of support for something (or railing against something) when in reality, it's being manipulated in some way people may not find totally ethical. Some will find it ethical. You make your own call. But because this effort isn't really grassroots, it gets the term, "astroturf," referring to fake grass. Clever!

Some of you may remember some of my January 2009 whistleblowing in which, among other things, I was outing some blog shilling and hired-gun forum posters that another company was using. Paying your staff to post in blogs or forums as people who just HAPPEN to love one company and hate certain competitors by name... I'll call that astroturfing. Staff pretending to be happy customers of the company they work for, people I don't know pretending to be my unhappy clients... I think these are unethical.

I remember when the eBay Solutions Directory came out. One of the first ratings I saw was a guy who worked for Marketworks gave it a good rating as if he were a customer. Even if he did use the system, I'm not sure that's a completely unbiased opinion or rating. :)

I remember another one from a few years ago. An infamous eBay seller FINALLY got his permanent suspension, and went on to try and be an eBay author and seminar guy (you know what I think of that!). He had been caught shill bidding (and shill feedback) AGAIN, this time the shills included his accountant, his wife's account, and evidently his mother's eBay account. His off-eBay "eBay expert" efforts offered all kinds of "make money on eBay" products. Years after the suspension, I remember looking at his testimonials page one day, and reading a testimonial from a guy who went on about how much this guy's system helped his sales.

Well guess who wrote that testimonial? It had the accountant's name on it, the same guy who was caught up in the shill bidding and shill feedback scandal, and the same guy who ALSO got a permanent suspension for his role in the whole thing. I really wanted to know how someone who isn't allowed to sell on eBay anymore could be using a product, and giving an "unsolicited" and "honest" testimonial about it. All very bizarre. But I think we can call that astroturfing!

Wikipedia gave some other recent examples:

  • In Aug 2007, Comcast was experiencing tough negotiations with the Big Ten Network. So they allegedly sent staffers to pose as college students, and post negative things about the Big Ten Network on various message boards.
  • Hands Off The Internet (HOTI) purports to be a campaign for internet users' rights but in fact the site is owned by big telecom companies and is actually a front to push the telecom industry's objections to internet neutrality.
  • In late 2008, in Osaka, Japan, McDonald's acknowledged hiring people to stand in line for a new hamburger release. The part-time workers were given a stipend for the product that were to be included in the store's sales figures.

As Was doesn't astroturf. Never has, never will. Anything nice you see written about us was what someone wanted to write. No payment, no reward. Anything written about us on the web is real. I do not hire, pay, or reward anybody to write about us or against other companies. And if I have something to say about someone, I come out and say it, for better or worse, under my own name. I don't hide behind other people and pretend I'm not involved. I think people deserve honesty and everything up front.

And this isn't just about any particular company. I have named some companies here, but there are heaps of companies doing this with varying degrees of cleanliness and dirtiness. :) I believe that astroturfing is killing people's faith in who they meet in forums and blogs, and if testimonials can be believed.

So what do you think of astroturfing? Ethical? Not ethical? Dirty? Not dirty?

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