Astroturfing: It’s Not Just Political

Astroturfing isn’t just about grassroots political campaigns anymore.

It is being increasingly used by advertisers and PR professionals to promote their companies and products online under the guise of consumers. It creates rigged word of mouth marketing usually in favor of one organization.

Why is this a problem? Well for one, word of mouth marketing has proven to be the most effective way of persuading consumers for years, and social media has now made it even easier. Now anyone can create an account, gain friends or followers, and spread their messages. However, the person behind that tweet, status, or blog post may not actually be a real consumer. The entire profile or blog may in fact just be a well planned marketing campaign.

Wal-Marting Across America

According to the Guardian online journalist Alex Wade in a recent article, the creation of a false persona online to support an opinion is called sockpuppeting. He cites the example of Orlando Figes, a well known Russian professor who created fake accounts to place negative comments on other historian’s works on Amazon.com. However, sockpuppeting doesn’t just happen at the individual level. The “Wal-Marting Across America” example from last week’s post shows corporate sockpuppeting.

Is astroturfing worth the risk? Keep in mind the 6 rules in the social media code of ethics presented by the Bundesverband Digitale Wirtschaft. According to this code, companies should be transparent and credible. Neither of which would apply if fake accounts to promote products and services are being created. Trust is one of the most important aspects in the corporate-consumer relationship, and according to an article on congress.org, it is just as easy to get caught with a fake twitter as it is to create one.

With new FCC and Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) regulations on social media coming into place this year, getting caught astroturfing can have even greater consequences than just loss of consumer trust. An article in New Media Age entitled Extension of ASA remit helps make social media safe for marketers,explains that online advertising will now be regulated in the same way as traditional advertising mediums. Astroturfing and flogging (or fake blogging) will not be tolerated. The FCC also will pursue cases in unfair or deceptive advertising practices online according to Information Today’s article Drafting Social Networking Policies.

Finally, it is also important to note that organizations can also be charged at a more local level. The New York attorney general received $300,000 in 2009 from a case brought against Lifestyle Lift when it was found out that the cosmetic surgery company was having employees write false testimonials online for the service.

An Introduction to Ethics

The use of social media for companies has given rise to many different ethical concerns. Issues such as privacy rights, brand-jacking, ghost-blogging, and astroturfing are on the minds of many social media practitioners especially with regard to what exactly is the proper ethical approach to handling them.

However, to begin, you need to know exactly what is ethics. Simply put, ethics are moral standards that one chooses to live by. This means that ethics is the determination of right and wrong, as according to an established set of personal guidelines usually influenced by a larger group such as culture or religion. It is important to note here that ethics and morals are not synonyms. Morals are much more individualistic ideas of good and bad whereas ethics is usually associated with some kind of larger group or institution. An individual’s own personal morals can clash with his/her organization’s ethical standards.

Note: To see a much more in depth explanation of ethics then take a look at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. If you’d like further clarification on the differences between ethics and morals then go to buzzle.com’s article on the subject. This is just a summary of the two sources.

Just as the law and ethics sometimes clash, ethics and business practices online can also clash. A clear example of this would be a blog from 2006 entitled “Wal-Marting Across America” which appeared to chronicle the adventures of a couple traveling from Las Vegas to Georgia in an RV and stopping at only Wal-Marts along the way to park for free. The catch of this blog, however, was that it later appeared to be a stealth PR campaign for WalMart. Is it ethical for a company to use social media to promote itself without being outwardly open about it from the start? This topic will be addressed more in depth in a later post but it points to the larger question of what is ethical practice in social media?

With so much gray area about what is acceptable, many organizations have seen the need to clarify what exactly is “best-practice” for social media by creating social media ethical codes. The Bundesverband Digitale Wirtschaft, a German organization focusing on interactive marketing, published a “Social Media Code of Ethics” in early 2010. The code gives six guidelines that companies must follow when interacting through social media. An article in MediaBuzz explains that these guidelines are to:
1. Respect other users
2. Welcome criticism
3. Respond to comments quickly and appropriately
4. Be credible and transparent
5. Deal with errors honestly
6. Be attentive to copyrights, privacy rights, and data protections.

Other organizations have amended their code of ethics to include social media, such as The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (or WOMMA). WOMMA has also included resources on their website to aid organizations wanting to create their own social media ethical codes.