Astroturfing (verb): The act of a biased stakeholder imitating an unbiased consumer via social media comments, blog posts or reviews. In essence trying to fake a “grassroots” movement.

This practice, while repugnant to most social media enthusiasts and practitioners, is rampant. It may be something as seemingly innocent as giving a friend’s podcast a 5-star rating on iTunes, all the way to companies sending an all-staff email asking employees to praise company products by masquerading as fake clients.

According to Ars Technica, a New York based Cosmetic surgery company called Lifestyle Lift has agreed to a $300,000 settlement for engaging in astroturfing practices. The accusations range from instructing staff to post positive reviews of services, attacking negative reviewers and even setting up bogus “independent review” sites for the company.

While I am happy that a company has been taught a lesson (and hopefully a few others by example), prosecuting astroturfers is not likely to have an effect beyond the most obvious abuses. The less obvious and borderline corporate examples may get outed and create a tempest in the social media expert teapot. However, the most frequent and likely personal and understated cases underlie just about every rating and review site from Amazon to Yelp!.

The only certain way, in my opinion, to make individuals truly accountable for their expressed ratings and opinions would be bake a personal identity into every interaction one has on the web, like an online bar code that tracks all your interactions. This would in essence ban anonymous and pseudonym postings (while at the same time destroying privacy on the Internet). Therefore I can’t imagine this being a logical solution technologically, nor would it be a desirable solution socially (e.g. do we want to announce our true identity to every site visited? Should a legitimate whistle blower be publicly identified? ).

I would contend that there really is nothing that can ever filter out the biased from the unbiased in social media except massive aggregation (which doesn’t work on niche companies with small audiences). Subjective viewpoints are a part of the human condition and we are all likely to tweak our opinions based on how close we are to the subject matter or content author.

The plain and simple fact is that most people who will take the trouble to rate or review a product will likely have a very positive or negative position on it. We don’t often see people blogging, twittering or even talking about average or satisfactory experiences with companies. So we had all better get used to the sound of axes grinding in social media.

I would like to believe that in general there are more honest people who knowingly follow a few basic rules:

  • Be honest
  • Express yourself authentically
  • Identify yourself whenever possible
  • Disclose personal connections, conflicts or biases wherever relevant

For a more humourous look at the issue, be sure to check out The Onions classic I’d Love This Product Even If I Weren’t A Stealth Marketer article.

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