Unethical Blogging

Jazz, over at Haphazard Life  posted a most interesting story on Tuesday. You can read the full sorry tale over at her blog, but the gist of it was that a corporation set up a cycling blog pretending to be 3 friends who are avid cyclists.

It was a great blog by all accounts with an associated Facebook page that had thousands of “friends”. Unfortunately it was all a shill to promote some sort of bicycle.

Many moons ago when I started my very first blog, it was as one of the Halifax Chronicle Herald’s online community blogs. There were about half a dozen of us blogging about various aspects of the different communities in which we lived within Halifax.

One day the Herald added a new blogger who called himself Direct from Afghanistan. He presented himself as a local boy who’d gone overseas to soldier and was missing Halifax and the people back home, so this was his way of keeping in touch.

He posted wonderful, glossy photos of smiling Afghanistani children, beautiful scenery and fun times among the troops. He told heartfelt stories of the good works he and his peers were doing over there and the gratitude and joy with which the locals were embracing our soldiers.

Of course, the people of Halifax ate this up with a spoon. As the only province in Canada that still designates November 11th as a statutory holiday for all, they are especially devoted to and supportive of the military. Most Nova Scotians have family or close friends in the military. So, of course this blog was very well received. They all wanted to hear that their loved ones were safe and happy in this paradise.

Some of his fellow bloggers, however, couldn’t help but raise our eyebrows over all this. Not only was the photography and writing a little too polished, especially for a humble soldier, but we were also finding his Utopian vision of the whole Afghanistan thing a little hard to swallow. Not to mention that we found it very odd that he would even be allowed to blog about his mission.

So we did a little digging and found out that our hometown soldier boy blogger was actually a Public Affairs officer with DND. He’d never lived in Halifax, but had lived somewhere in Nova Scotia when he was a kid.

We brought this information to the attention of the online editor of the newspaper, but she seemed disinclined to do anything about it since he was getting them lots of online hits. So we outed him in our blogs. This caused a bit of a mess. Some people were outraged. Some people didn’t care – they wanted to keep hearing good news. Lots of angry comments all around. Amidst all the controversy the Public Affairs guy just slunk off and was never heard from again.

This sort of stealth/viral marketing is not unheard of in the world of Public Relations. PR firms often set up fake grassroots organizations/groups and/or blogs to garner support for a corporate cause or to sell a product or idea. They know that all the advertising in the world isn’t going to woo the masses as cheaply or easily as a solid grassroots group can. Grassroots organizations have been proven to affect the most significant levels of change in society.

It’s a highly unethical practice however, called “astroturfing” (for obvious reasons). I find it personally reprehensible because it sets out to dupe well-meaning people while at the same time robbing legitimate grassroots groups of their power.

Blogs that astroturf are nicknamed, “Flogs”. Working Families for Wal-Mart was a famous example. The blog pretended to be by a small group of Wal-Mart employees supporting the company in the wake of union negotiations. Of course the blog was actually written by a PR firm hired by Wal-Mart.

Judging by the comments on Jazz’ blog, this stuff doesn’t seem to bother people too much – it’s just another example of the overall bamboozling we experience every day – but for some reason this stuff bugs me a lot.

It abuses, exploits, manipulates and ultimately destroys one of the things that is best about humans – their willingness to help, support and take on a cause because it’s important to another fellow human being.

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27 responses to “Unethical Blogging

  1. It’s gross misrepresentation – pure and simple. And this is of course not new as some form of “pretending to be something you’re not” dates back millennia.
    I’m sure that when “Org” killed the mammoth but was, in the process, dispatched himself. “Urg”, seeing an opportunity for advancement in the cave’s social hierarchy, claimed that HE was the one who brought down the great beast. After all – Org couldn’t really object anymore.
    Unethical – absolutely. But unavoidable, especially in this age of modern information transfer.
    It bugs me too XUP. And it is up to folks like you and I and others who find this disturbing to “out” these opportunists when we catch them.

  2. As I posted today, thre is at least one really annoyed person. He talked about the fake blog and basically was used as free publicity by the marketing firm. It’s pretty nasty stuff when you sit down and think about it.

  3. As he says (loose translation here) in his blog:

    I was misled, my name was used without my knowledge to popularize a service, and completely for free. I was used for publicity purposes, they used my words without paying me, and without my having any knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes. I was used, duped, because among other things, I have a voice on the Web.

  4. I agree with you. Creating fake blogs is pathetic and there must be other ways to get people to buy your product.

    Plus that fake soldier blog is really awful! Lying about how horrible the situation there really is morally repugnant and selfish. I’m surprised more people didn’t question his blog though, because the newspapers and television report on Afghanistan pretty regularly.

  5. Ok, you got me. I don’t exist, my blog, which has been around for 3 years was just a clever ploy to market Barbie Dolls and bleach. I am actually a 29-year-old male ad exec at a marketing firm who hired an actress to play Alison at the bloggers’ breakfasts. Damn. Outed myself.

    Kidding aside, yes it bugs me too. Hypocrisy and deviousness seem to be the watchwords of the day as far as advertising and the Internet are concerned. Good on you for outing the fake soldier. What he was doing *was* morally repugnant, as Hannah says.

  6. Hmmm..may be there is some fun in being somebody else.May be world wide web was the God who gave him the ability to be in Afghan without having to swallow bullets or getting his head smashed.

    As some one who writes shameless personal diary online [with the sound knowledge that no one other than best of friends know the author] and lives peacefully with very little traffic, can vaguely understand the guy.

    But, Walmart should be made to deliver their goods for free for fake blogging

  7. If there is a bandwagon to be jumped on, marketers will find it, exploit it and destroy it. And if they mislead people in the process, so be it. As long as they get eyeballs on whatever they’re promoting they don’t care if they piss people off.

  8. Trashee – I’m not sure the caveman thing is exactly the same. That’s just taking credit for someone else’s work and being a big braggart. This flogging/astroturfing is almost the opposite where you’re a parasite, living off a structure to which you don’t belong for personal gain.

    Jazz – Good for him. I hope he yells long and loud and gets some action against these creeps.

    Hannah – Politics and big business are so hot to break into the blog world. Don’t you get offers all the time from companies who offer you free stuff in exchange for talking about their products in your blog? Or all that spam that creeps into your blog disguised as Comments? Blogs and Facebook are spreading information and gaining support for causes so quickly and efficiently, it’s no wonder everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon.

    Alison – I knew there was something fishy about you. You’re just too glib, too perfect …just a tad too funny all the time to be real. And to be clear, I think the guy was an actual soldier and probably actually in Afghanistan. But he was a PR guy, too and paid to blog lovely things about the place.

    Lost – As I said to Alison, I think the guy was actually in Afghanistan and an officer of some sort, but not the “gee shucks” grunt soldier he presented himself as being. Instead, a polished PR guy with carefully crafted info and pics, vetted and edited by higher ups for publication.

    Mo – And yet, all the way through our PR program they kept telling us how hard the international PR community was working to cleanse their tarnished reputation as hucksters. Seems to me they’re just getting more sophisticated and sneakier

  9. Thanks for this. I was vaguely aware the practice existed, but you’ve added a good bit to what I know.
    I tend to dodge all sites that seem to be selling stuff or are too polished, or whatever, even when the selling is obviously a one person show. For me, a blog has to be personal thought before it is any fun. I guess we just have to be super careful. Good for you on finding a ringer.

  10. I really couldn’t agree more. The Halifax soldier persona was disgusting. I’d like to say that I can’t believe someone could do that, but I can. I honestly can.

    Fast Food Nation (the book, not the movie) is full of underhanded tactics like that. It’s amazing what large companies will do for customer retention. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.

  11. hmmm… i wasn’t aware that there are some blobs that will actually do that type of thing. to make it so personal with the hidden agenda of selling something.

    i put a LOT of weight on blobbers, and their opinions on certain things. (i’m still eating my sandwiches with toasted bread now!) i don’t get too much into the mommy blobbers b/c they are typically suspect with all the ads flying around on their blobs, all saying the same things.

    i’m not against blob advertising, if a person can make money by blobbing, i’m for that.

    it is unfortunate for me, but i have to consider on some levels that folks that become friends of my blob may not actually be who they say they are. i guess that’s a risk with any human contact.

  12. There’s a sucker born every minute.

    And there will always be ten people lined up to separate him from his cash.

    This kind of thing has been going on since the first human walked around on dirt. It’s unfortunate, but it is human nature (the worst kind of human nature).

  13. Kinda off topic here, but it’s somewhat related to this post.

    The Amazing Randi is a magician/author who likes to debunk hoaxers and fake psychics.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Randi

    There was a famous case, where he coached this one person to fake psychic abilities. This “Carlos” guy was apparently able to channel spirits, and everyone in Australia was falling for it, even on their 60 minutes show.

    And then later, Randi deliberately TOLD people how he did it, and that it was all a fake.

    Thing is, people still believed in the Carlos. Even after Randi admitted it was all made up.

    Just goes to prove, people will still hear what the WANT to hear, even when confronted with the truth.

    Kinda like with fake blogs.

  14. EECK!!! Didn’t know about the soldier blog. That’s horrible!

    Funny you speak of November 11th. When we moved to Toronto we took the day off thinking that it was a holiday. It did not go over well the next day when both of us went back to work.

  15. Mary – It’s also really maddening to keep getting fake comments from companies that just want you to click on their links. Or those “bloggers” that are nothing but links to other people’s blogs. They’re just set up to sell stuff.

    Maven – It wasn’t a person doing it – it was the military PR machine. I doubt it was even written by one person

    Becky – Really? I didn’t know that. For what purpose? To get an argument going? To support the political views of the paper?

    Leah – Yup. I think a smart cookie like you would be able to tell when you come across a blog written by a PR firm – especially now that you know they exist. And just in case you’re wondering I don’t represent any toaster manufacturers.

    Wendy – Separating people from their cash is one thing, but some of these astroturfers/flogs do much worse than that by playing with people’s minds.

    Friar – I’m pretty sure Randi used my blog post “How to Become a Successful Psychic” for this experiment. And he seems to have forgotten to give me credit for it, the bastard.

    Helen – I had a reverse problem. I started in Toronto, but work for the feds so I always got Nov. 11 off anyway. I always thought it was cool to be the only one off that day when everyone else had to work and go to school. Then when I lived in Halifax I was kind of bummed because EVERYTHING was closed. After they relaxed the Sunday shopping laws a bit back in 2006 or 2007, the one day that kept its mandatory closing was Nov 11 — outranks even Christmas! Very cool.

  16. Oh sure you tell your audience all about the “fake Afghanistan Blogger” but fail to mention how you personally and all alone destroyed the one chance we had to free the women, build the schools and bring the nation into 21st century consumer society.
    Shame on you. If the government is behind it it must be right.
    If business is behind it it must be even righter.

  17. Nothing gets under my skin more than someone misrepresenting him/herself using a pseudonym to pawn off products on the rest of us.

    That’s why MayoPie only uses Tide, now with new and improved fabric softener.

  18. There are some pretty classic astroturfing examples in the book world (especially in Sci Fi/Fantasy and Romance), where authors and/or their publishers set up fake “fan sites” and accounts at places like Amazon, leaving absolutely awesome reviews on mediocre crap books. http://www.davidlouisedelman.com/book-promotion/ethical-self-promotion/ describes one particular author who used pretty blatant astroturfing to make his self-published books seem more popular than they actually are.

  19. Do you still live in Halifax? I’m sure you must know the St Anne’s University. I came very close to going there for Intensive French.
    I guess I can’t be surprised that some blogs aren’t real. There will always be people ready to take advantage of open forums.

  20. One of the webs more successful blogs Belle de Jour is long thought to be the work of an imposter. It is supposed to be the diary of a high class call girl, but for a long time there have been suspicions that it is actually written by a journalist. Whoever has written it has had a book deal and then the book was made into a fairly successful TV drama. The identity of the writer has never been found out.

    As fiction it works, as fact it works too. But fiction portrayed as fact, it works even better. Who says that all blogs have to be non-fiction? I think the temptation to write as a fictional character is highly tempting. Although in this case it does sound a little immoral/propagandist.

    This is the part where I come clean about being a 60 something divorced male bank manager from New Zealand pretending to be a harassed working mum from NE Scotland who doesn’t like boats.

  21. This is awful, but doesn’t surprise me. I get annoyed even when I feel like people aren’t truthfully themselves even on a small scale, even on their personal blogs. (Not exactly on topic but it made me think of this.)

    People want to trust and believe and hope and this kind of unethical blogging that you’re talking about here just preys on those good qualities.

  22. Like Lesley, I think this is bad but I’m not surprised. I do think our personal blogs should be ours to write what we want for creative reasons (but not to manipulate or extort) so it is hard to find that line that shouldn’t be crossed. I guess, we should all just read blogs for entertainment and not expect them to be necessarily factual or honest.

    Let’s face it, I could be a 62 year old man with one arm who likes to eat kittens for breakfast. That whole single 40-something vegetarian woman with a lust for Vincent D’Onofrio may just be my cover. 🙂

  23. Bandobras -It was all so unnecessary, too, since Haligonians were all big supporters to begin with.

    Mayopie – Tide, you say? If the smell didn’t knock me senseless I’d be all over your recommendation.

    Louise – How sad. The same thing goes on with those online restaurant and hotel reviews. Damn! If you can’t trust unknown people on the internet, who can you trust?

    Linda – no, I’m in Ottawa now, but I think I mentioned to you before that I took a French course at Sainte Anne’s. Very good place.

    MisssyM – I’ve actually toyed with the idea of doing a blog as a completely fictional character. I think it’s one thing for someone to do it as a research thing –which is what I was thinking — develop the character online, see what the feedback is, etc… But it’s a totally different thing for a PR firm to pretend to be a couple of cyclists or a soldier abroad or a group of hippies all in favour of nuclear arms.

    Lesley – That speaks to the core point. There is an implicit element of trust among the blog community. Whether it’s naive or not, we do trust each other to give opinions on stuff happening in our lives; we trust each other enough that we feel for what’s happening in the lives of the bloggers we read. We cry for them, we worry for them, we laugh with them, we are happy for them. So it’s really, really nasty to exploit that for financial gain. I hope they all Nortel.

    Debra – Big L&O CI night tonight. “Most disturbing episode ever” the trailers claim. I’m all acquiver. But you don’t care since you’re busy eating kittens with your one arm.

  24. This kind of sneakiness burns me up. The Maven mentions the book Fast Food Nation which is excellent…but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you want your heart broken.

  25. Lola – Fast Food Nation hasn’t said anything that I haven’t read somewhere in my own research over the years already. It IS heartbreaking and so frustrating.

  26. Most people prefer crap to the truth anyway, it takes many decades for people to begin to even consider asking the right critical questions.

    You can devote your life to sharing the truth, but for most people it will take an eternity to listen or understand it. Even the people who claim to be truth seekers are limited.

    The media doesn’t even have an obligation to tell the truth or look deeper, it’s sensationalism. So how could we expect the blogs to representative of the truth. We’re all being lied to, everyday.