Opinion: Are online comments full of paid lies?

A thriving industry of paid-for user comments pollutes social networks with fake opinions. Even Samsung does it

Taiwan's Fair Trade Commission this week fined Korean conglomerate Samsung $340,000 for "astroturfing."

Specifically, the Taiwanese FTC said Samsung paid two "marketing firms" more than $100,000 to hire people to "highlight the shortcomings of competing products," engage in the "disinfection of negative news about Samsung products," positively review Samsung products and, (in a bizarre turn of phrase), do "palindromic Samsung product marketing," whatever that means.

Wait, what's 'astroturfing'?

Samsung was fined for paying a "large number of hired writers and designated employees" to post comments in online forums praising Samsung and criticizing competitors.

Astroturf is a brand of fake grass; "astroturfing" is a reference to a fake "grass-roots" movement.

The practice of astroturfing has a long and sordid history. The term was coined by U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas in 1985, referring to a letter-writing campaign orchestrated by the insurance industry. In fact, astroturfing has been a major tool of political dirty tricks since the Roman empire.

The rise of the Internet, online messages boards and social media -- and with it, the rising influence of "the crowd" -- has brought the practice to business, including the mobile computing industry, as well as other types of businesses.

Sites like Fiverr host astroturfing transactions openly. A Fiverr user named " Jay from India," for example, offers to promote your iOS, Android or BlackBerry app on 25 online forums for $10.

Astroturfing scale ranges from the local business where the owner asks family and friends to write positive online reviews to the biggest sustained astroturfing campaign in history: China's 50-cent army.

The Chinese government reportedly pays as many 300,000 people to post pro-Chinese government comments on forums, message boards and social media sites within China and all over the world. It has reportedly being going on for years as part of a sustained policy.

(This effort of disinformation bolsters that government's massive monitoring system for social media worldwide, which reportedly employs 2 million people.)

While China allegedly relies upon sheer manpower to overwhelm global public opinion about the Chinese government, other organizations use automation.

A class of software called " persona management software" magnifies the effectiveness of each paid fake opinion writer by auto-generating a credible but phony online persona (also called a "sockpuppet"), including a fake name, email address, web site, social media profiles and other data. The software creates fake online activity to give the non-existent users a "history" or online "footprint."

"Persona management software" specific to social networks is called a " social bot."

Some industries rely almost entirely upon web-based reviews, and so astroturfing is rife. Hotels, restaurants and books are heavily reliant on customer-generated reviews to attract new business.

In New York alone, recently, the New York attorney general shut down 19 companies engaged in the astroturfing of online sites like Yelp, Google Local and CitySearch.

Commenters were recruited on sites like Craigslist, Freelancer and oDesk and paid between $1 and $10 per "review."

A new book by NPR's David Folkenflik, called Murdoch's World, claims that Fox News engaged in " institutionalized astroturfing of the Internet" by using Fox employees using untraceable wireless connections to post pro-Fox posts online. One even used a dial-up AOL account. Another used 100 fake personas, according to the book.

What's so bad about astroturfing?

A Nielsen study from last year determined that 70% of people surveyed trust online user reviews and that 83% are influenced in their buying decisions by these reviews.

A Gartner report from about a year ago predicts that by 2014, between 10% and 15% of all social media "reviews" will be fake astroturfed opinions paid for by various companies.

This is problematic because buyers can be misled, and in unpredictable ways.

When I posted a short item on Google+ about the Samsung fine this week, an alarmingly large percentage of commenters expressed a belief that astroturfing is a common problem in the industry and that all major companies do it.

This belief is a problem for two reasons. First, just as astroturfing itself leads consumers astray by making them believe fake opinions, the belief that astroturfing is common leads consumers astray by making them doubt real opinions.

Second, a widespread belief that "everybody astroturfs" is itself an incentive for companies to engage in astroturfing. Why not benefit from the practice if consumers already believe you do it?

What to do about astroturfing

Some day soon, there may be a widely deployed software solution to the problem of paid astroturfing of online comments.

Cornell University researchers have created an algorithm that can detect astroturfed comments. They claim they can identify fake opinion posts 90% of the time. It would be helpful for a company like Google to deploy something like this to get a "second opinion" about whether comments posted online are real or fake.

In the meantime, we're each on our own. Helpfully, Time magazine recently published a handy guide for how to spot fake online comments and reviews.

The bottom line is that Samsung is not the only company engaged in astroturfing -- not by a long shot. It's a widespread practice, and one that's difficult to detect.

Yes, we should all consult user options, but approach them with healthy skepticism. But more importantly, we should heavily favor reviews by professional reviewers in reputable publications before buying products.

Such journalist reviewers are not only skillful and experienced at writing product reviews, they're actually paid to be objective.

This article, Are online comments full of paid lies?, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about social media in Computerworld's Social Media Topic Center.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Show Comments

Latest Videos

Launch marketing council Episode 5: Retailer and supplier

In our fifth and final episode, we delve into the relationship between retailer and supplier and how it drives and influences launch marketing strategies and success. To do that, we’re joined by Campbell Davies, group general manager of Associated Retailers Limited, and Kristin Viccars, marketing director A/NZ, Apex Tool Group. Also featured are Five by Five Global managing director, Matt Lawton, and CMO’s Nadia Cameron.

More Videos

Hi,When online retailers establish their multi channel strategy and they are using or will to use live chatbot to support their customers...

Alice Labs Pte. Ltd.

CMO's top 8 martech stories for the week - 6 May 2021

Read more

Thanks for nice information regarding Account-based Marketing. PRO IT MELBOURNE is best SEO Agency in Melbourne have a team of profession...

PRO IT MELBOURNE

Cultivating engaging content in Account-based Marketing (ABM)

Read more

The best part: optimizing your site for SEO enables you to generate high traffic, and hence free B2B lead generation. This is done throug...

Sergiu Alexei

The top 6 content challenges facing B2B firms

Read more

Nowadays, when everything is being done online, it is good to know that someone is trying to make an improvement. As a company, you are o...

Marcus

10 lessons Telstra has learnt through its T22 transformation

Read more

Check out tiny twig for comfy and soft organic baby clothes.

Morgan mendoza

Binge and The Iconic launch Inactivewear clothing line

Read more

Blog Posts

Getting privacy right in a first-party data world

With continued advances in marketing technology, data privacy continues to play catchup in terms of regulation, safety and use. The laws that do exist are open to interpretation and potential misuse and that has led to consumer mistrust and increasing calls for a stronger regulatory framework to protect personal information.

Furqan Wasif

Head of biddable media, Tug

​Beyond greenwashing: Why brands need to get their house in order first

Environmental, Social and (Corporate) Governance is a hot topic for brands right now. But before you start thinking about doing good, Craig Flanders says you best sort out the basics.

Craig Flanders

CEO, Spinach

​The value of collaboration: how to keep it together

Through the ages, from the fields to the factories to the office towers and now to our kitchen tables, collaboration has played a pivotal role in how we live and work. Together. We find partners, live as families, socialise in groups and work as teams. Ultimately, we rely on these collaborative structures to survive and thrive.

Rich Curtis

CEO, FutureBrand A/NZ

Sign in