Caught Astroturfing: Bad Belkin Bayard Business..

Posted by Scott_Ruecker on Jan 20, 2009 8:39 AM
LXer Linux News; By Paul (FeriCyde) Ferris


LXer Feature: 20-Jan-2009

It seems a Belkin employee was caught red-handed looking for people to write positive reviews of one of their products. Our own Paul Ferris discusses his observations and some of the bigger social issues that 'Astroturfing' exposes.

[Here is a link for those who may be unfamiliar with what 'Astroturfing' is. - Scott]

Speaking as a person who's seen his fair share of AstroTurf (In this context -- Astroturf refers to the practice of generating "phony grass roots"), I can only say I'm not surprised. It points to one of the darker sides of social media -- the ability for a corporation to quietly influence the blog-o-sphere or other social media with misleading content.

And the sad thing is, there really isn't much we can do about it. Social media wouldn't work very well if there were "social media police" that checked each and every blog or facebook post for authenticity or even more difficult, intent. There is the occasional story posted like this one that serves to highlight the problem.

Is this a new phenomena? Not really. For years companies have paid writers to create authentic-looking story content for magazines, for example. It's just something that's likely to increase as social media's incredible power manifests in the digital ecosystem that is the new generation of marketing.

I should take a second to mention that I work for an interactive marketing firm and that my job is IT-related -- I'm more of a user than a mover and shaker. This post is more about my experienced observations in the space, being involved as the editor for a rather popular news site in the late 1990's that featured a lot of user-contributed feedback to news stories. Issues arose that made these ethical issues apparent and caused me to reflect upon them early in the game.

Marketing campaigns are interwoven into youtube "viral marketing" videos. These videos are more than tolerated by the users for one obvious reason; they're blatant advertisements. People know, after the smoke clears, that they've been watching something created to drive traffic toward a vendor. I've enjoyed almost all of these kinds of intrusions -- they're viral for a reason -- they market and entertain at the same time.

Things go bad, however, when a company exhibits this kind of behavior posting to technical message boards or worse, staging phony letters to the legislative bodies of our government (both real-world examples from the same company -- and not one I would ever be associated with). Things like this have a way of dampening community enthusiasm, to say the least. They make people wonder what kind of noise is being generated at the community level. The long term effects of sowing this kind of distrust in the potential customer base of a product can only be bad.

All of this is part of a general break-down of our society. Ethical matters matter. Societies have to have ethical foundations or they will ultimately crumble. Treating the social ecosystem as something that can be AstroTurfed will ultimately ruin the value. Transactions are ultimately more than financial events, after all -- they are fulfilled value propositions. Taint the perceived value and you're likely, as a vendor, not to win the business.

Pushing against this obvious motivation to build marketplace trust is the lure of the quick win in the marketplace. What did Bayard expect out of this? Maybe he was surprised when this news story broke, but it's hard to imagine that he didn't know somewhere in the back of his mind that he wouldn't get caught. Possibly he was focused on the short-term gain of shoring up an inferior product. If so, it was a rather dubious gamble -- one that cost not just the trust of Belkin, but potentially the social media marketplace as a whole.

In this particular example, we can only be thankful that Bayard was so blatant about what he was trying to accomplish. Possibly he didn't see anything wrong with it at all. Belkin's management has since apologized for the misstep and although a positive sign, they're going to have a hard time gaining the respect of their market.

Is stuff like this illegal? No -- but it's far more damaging than something that's illegal. You can serve your time for something illegal. You can be fined or correct the problem and your market will probably forget about it or not notice at all.

But trust -- trust can't be bought, and as this example illustrates, it can very easily be lost.


Paul (FeriCyde) Ferris is a IT professional and community member with over a decade of implementation and management experience focusing upon Linux in enterprise settings.

His articles have graced LXer.com, LinuxJournal, LinuxToday, VarLinux, LinuxPlanet and various other Linux news and technical information sites. Recently he has been extremely involved in US Ohio Linux community (reference Ohio Linux Fest for more).

His experience with enterprise-class implementations of Linux have lead to the creation of the the batchlogin project, a Free Software solution for large-scale infrastructure management. Presently, Paul Ferris is a Technology Director for Rosetta corporation. His technical expertise and team-building skills are utilized managing a talented group of engineers that supports and manages on-line commerce infrastructure for multiple fortune 500 clients.

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
Phony grass roots?? theBeez 7 1,176 Jan 24, 2009 5:08 PM
got a link or two? tuxchick 17 1,486 Jan 21, 2009 7:49 PM

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