Is unethical behavior just a part of the human condition?
- A Techcrunch contributing author outlines the secrets of manipulating online videos to push them to become viral, with one technique using employees to have fake arguments in YouTube comment streams
- A move by the Target Rounders program in Facebook to minimize the growth of the Rounders brand over the Target brand, asking participants to hide their true purpose and identity as a Rounder (via hyku)
- The Shelfari bookshelf sharing site using an intern, without revealing his ties to the company, to post astroturf comments across more than 50 blogs encouraging people to “add him” as a friend and use the blog widget (the proof)
This current rash of incidents may seem like an epidemic; but it is just an extension of the age-old desire to game the system.
“Astroturfing” is a technique that goes back to an offline practice in the Nixon White House whereby an angry mob of paid professionals, acting like concerned citizens, would lob their “grievances” at the press or speakers who criticized the President.
A Cry for Change
In July of 2006, disgusted with the many astroturfing campaigns they saw on and offline, PR bloggers Paull Young and Trevor Cook started an Anti-Astroturfing campaign.
In response to this campaign, I laid out my own four-part code of ethics for people engaging in online communication. It was later adopted into the Anti-Astroturfing Wiki.
Anti-Astroturfing Code of Ethics
- I will not fabricate a public concern by paying or coercing individuals to falsely act as concerned citizens. I will only seek to help give voice to those who already hold an existing concern and/or provide education to stakeholders that might be affected by a particular issue.
- When supporting grassroots efforts, I will ensure that I am transparent in all my actions and clearly and publicly state what actions I am taking and which organization or client I represent.
- I will never knowingly distort of falsify information to help my client/interest achieve a strategic/emotional advantage in a public debate.
- I will encourage all grassroots supporters to be open and honest in all of their communications, just as I will be open and honest in mine.
You can read on the NewPR Wiki that there have been plenty of astroturfing campaigns since this campaign launched and I suspect there will be many more to come.
Preaching to the Choir
These efforts to uncover and change these unethical practices will go far to educate the choir, or those already inclined toward ethical practice, but I am afraid that it won't really change the ways of the determined element that is looking to score 100,000 video views at any cost.
What amazes me is the creative energy that gets wasted putting together “black arts” campaigns that could go toward building a better product and relationship with customers. It is an age-old concept called brand loyalty, and it comes from investing in the relationship – not pulling the cap down over the eyes of the customer.
A Glimmer of Hope?
But there is hope, Chuck Colson, the guy who probably invented astroturfing, now works to reach out to prisoners and help them change their lives for the good.
If he can change his evil ways, so can others, but I am afraid there for every one that “sees the light,” there will be 1,000 more in line to replace them.
Excuse me while I go and delete my spam.
Update: It seems that Todd Defren and I were on the same page today. He was asked by a WSJ reporter, “How is [astroturfing] different that the Blair Witch Project?”