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fake user "posts" on public forums and newsgroups

By kipple in News
Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 05:55:26 PM EST
Tags: Internet (all tags)

Yesterday I met a couple of guys from a local web-marketing company that showed me their proposal for our website. Among other interesting suggestions (user forum, mailing lists, and so on) they "suggested" some form of Internet marketing. And one of those really made me sad and thinking: the possibility to posts "user comments" on public forums and newsgroups about our product. Here I would like to discuss what will be my decisions, and what are my thoughts about such an ethical dilemma.

I cannot obviously name my company, nor the web-marketing one that I met. But the "Internet marketing" thing they proposed me REALLY made me sad, and thinking.
This is what they suggested me (without saying it explicitly... they were good at that):

1. sending e-mails to potentially interested users, by using e-mail addresses collected from mailing lists or other publicly available sources
2. posting comments on public forums and newsgroups about our type of products, saying that our product was good and other products are bad.

Which translates into
2. paying people (kids, mostly) to post such comments, to make the word spread in an "non-official" way.

Now, I don't know about you, but I really re-considered my opinion about newsgroups. I were used to consider a product "good" if I saw a lot of different and convincing opinions from regular users. I trusted much more a newsgroup than an "official" website, full of marketing bloats.
What about now? What were you going to do, if you were in me? This is the small story what I would probably do, and what I did so far.

First, let me state that I am writing this on kuro5hin because I would like to know what other reasonable human being think about such a situation, and what would they do if they were in me. I am not playing the "poor me" drama - I want to be sure that I am considering all options in such a situation.
My first and only answer to them was clear; I said, "Ethically, I'm not interested in such services. Period." They understood and promptly changed topic of discussion (ah, marketers!). I now have to make a decision: is it ethical to accept services from such a company? It is ethical to give money to them, once I felt that they may be doing that?
Their proposal was really interesting; they hit the problem and came to me with clear and smart solutions, they look prepared, their techs have skills and know how to make a good job. If I accept their service, surely my company will have a benefit.

Tomorrow I'm going to talk with my boss about that, and explain him why I have an ethical problem with that, providing full details of what they said and what I see spam do every day. I think this is a necessary move - I don't want to hide my opinions from the people I work with, and I don't want to tell my boss that their services aren't adequate to our needs because it is not simply true.

Then I'll see. Probably my boss will agree with me, and the whole thing will just go away. I will keep searching for a company that can make our website, and this time I will check if they might do things such as faking Usenet posts and/or spamming. I'll have learned something new.
Maybe my boss will tell me to accept their services, and just forget about all the rest. And here I will have a problem. I don't want to give money to a company that has no ethics, especially in a field where a wrong move can compromise a whole company. What happens if the press know that "my company" is "paying people" to "post fake comments"? It is not true, we aren't paying anything. But it is "mostly" true - and the damage to the company itself will be great.

In such a fast-moving world as the Internet is, will I have to jump on the wagon sooner or later, not to be left alone in my ethical world? If they came to propose that to me, they or someone else will go to our competitors. What happens if our competitors will pay for this "service"? We could have been moving earlier than them, but on the long run they may win - due to "unofficial" and fake user comments that talk badly about us.
In capitalism it's the market that decides if a product is worthed buying it. What if the market is so manipulated, that in order to sell it's no longer enough how good your product is? Where is the fairness of all that? Will all of us be forced to "buy" customers?

Last, but not least, they only use Microsoft products (ASP, IIS, windows DNA and so on), so since I don't like supporting Redmond, I tend to avoid using their products where I can. And here I really *can*. But that's just another issue, and I am digressing.

After all, I think I will take the ideas they suggested me and give them to someone else that will make our website, someone I trust, someone that will require all our needs - including ethical ones. I refuse to close my eyes on all that.

Now my thoughts: since yesterday I am really sad about what happened. They told me that "some" Italian companies already do that: they pay kids to write good things about them, and to write bad things about the other products. Sorry if I cannot be more detailed, I hope you'll understand.
I might be too naive, too romantic, whatever. But that really shocked me. I mean: this could be have gone ahead for years. But they came to my company, which is pretty small. Are they running out of big companies to propose that? Are all big companies doing that? The Internet has always been seen as the place where "you can get true people opinions" (true being the opinions and the people) about almost anything. Now that seem gone.

What do you think? What would you do if you were in me?


Voxel dot net
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Do you trust forums and usenet?
o Yes, definitively. 2%
o No, not at all. 14%
o Yes but only when I see many posts. 11%
o Yes, but the posts must be convincing me. 57%
o I trust more my friends and/or people on chatlines. 15%

Votes: 126
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Kuro5hin
o Also by kipple

Display: Sort:
fake user "posts" on public forums and newsgroups | 116 comments (71 topical, 45 editorial, 0 hidden)
I like the idea (4.48 / 31) (#1)
by psychologist on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 07:47:21 AM EST

I used to have a small penis, but now it has GROWN 3 to 4 INCHES IN JUST 2 WEEKS. Similarly, I wasn't aware that mortgage rates were going down, till a friend told me to STRIKE NOW MORDGATE RATES ARE GOING DOWN.

And I had no credit card. Now I ACTED FAST, and got a credit card AS EASY AS 1, 2, 3. I DIDN'T MISS THAT OPPURTUNITY!

Even my sex life has improved. Now I have REAL LIFE XXX BARELY LEGAL TEENS all over my house.

Do I look crazy? Do you think I will give up all these things I have gained in my life just because of your ethics. No way dude, stay away. IMPOTENCE GOT ME DOWN, but now I have HERBAL VIAGRA, and you ain't taking it away from me.

uh..? (3.00 / 1) (#2)
by kipple on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 07:51:58 AM EST

did I miss something important in your post?
--- There are two kind of sysadmins: Paranoids and Losers (adapted from D. Bach)
[ Parent ]
Yes (4.75 / 4) (#9)
by Cloaked User on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 08:16:27 AM EST

The humour :-)

(Which, imho, makes a change for psychologist ;-) )


"What the fuck do you mean 'Are you inspired to come to work'? Of course I'm not 'inspired'. It's a job for God's sake! The money's enough and the work's not so crap that I leave."
[ Parent ]

One question (4.62 / 8) (#11)
by Rogerborg on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 08:30:06 AM EST

Who are you, and what have you done with the real psychologist?

"Exterminate all rational thought." - W.S. Burroughs
[ Parent ]

the real psychologist (none / 0) (#89)
by codemonkey_uk on Wed Jul 24, 2002 at 06:11:24 AM EST

There is no "real psychologist".
"The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way." - Bertrand Russell
[ Parent ]
Actually mine was a mere xth of an inch long (none / 0) (#102)
by ragnarok on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 07:55:09 AM EST

BUT, THANKS TO VIAGRA AND SOME MIRACULE CURES I FOUND ON THE NET it's now three miles and growing! Even as I speak!

and you ain't taking it away from me.

"And it came to healed until all the gift and pow, I, the Lord, to divide; wherefore behold, all yea, I was left alone....", Joseph Smith's evil twin sis
[ Parent ]

Company should talk to its lawyers (4.88 / 9) (#5)
by FlipFlop on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 07:58:45 AM EST

I am not a lawyer. But I believe that when you advertise (in the U.S. anyway), you are required to make it obvious that you are advertising. If it is not obvious, you must explicitly state that you are advertising. If you pay people to promote your product, you are advertising.

If your company tries to ruin its competitor's reputation by posting false information, it will be committing libel, and it will be liable for damages.

People hate spam. It works for pornography and other high demand products because it only takes a few customers to cover the expense of sending out tons of spam. However, spam offends countless other people. If your company serves a niche market, you may be offending more customers than you gain.

I believe that hiring kids under the age of 16 is a criminal act in most cases (baby sitting, lawn mowing, etc excepted).

AdTI - The think tank that didn't

Nothing new (4.12 / 8) (#24)
by Nick Ives on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 09:20:13 AM EST

I remember seeing a report on News 24, it was 6 months or so ago now or maybe longer, about a marketing firm in Manhatten that paid people to go out to exclusive bars and clubs with expensive trinkets (like the latest model of palm, a new rolex watch, etc) and show off with them. At no point were they meant to act like a salesperson, they were being paid to just act normal and just be a bit showoffy and mention where it was they were meant to have bought it. I mean, imagine if you'd just bought yourself a brand new model of Palm and you started talking to a random stranger in a bar, its the kind of thing you'd flash around.

Apparently marketing types are quite excited about this, they think its great that they might be able to manufacture the buzz that accompanies any really useful product. I'm fairly certain that this kind of marketing has been happening on the 'net for more than a couple of years now, after all this kind of thing is easier to pull off when your not sat right next to someone.

If I were you I'd put aside any ethical concerns about such marketing and do it. Everyone else does, so your just putting yourself at a disadvantage. Make sure that you vet any mailings to make sure they aren't obvious spams because otherwise you'll suffer a backlash, but beyond that you probably should go ahead with it. After all, this is just the natural progression of advanced capitalism working to pervert all of our relationships. Horrible, isn't it?

when was the last time you socialed a root password out of a frog?

Sleaze won't make you happy (4.50 / 2) (#29)
by QuickFox on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 10:02:34 AM EST

If I were you I'd put aside any ethical concerns about such marketing and do it.

I disagree strongly. The fact that others are sleazy doesn't mean you have to be sleazy. Sleaziness has always existed. This fact has not made all companies turn sleazy.

Doing business isn't only about making money, it's also about doing things that you like to do. Making money in ways that you yourself despise won't make you any happier.

Give a man a fish and he eats for one day. Teach him how to fish, and though he'll eat for a lifetime, he'll call you a miser for not giving him your fi
[ Parent ]

awesome (4.00 / 2) (#36)
by tps12 on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 10:29:06 AM EST

I had this idea a few years ago when it occured to me that sponsoring athletes and contracting with celebrity spokespeople is an attempt to associate a product with someone respected and looked up to. I realized that most people respect and look up to their peers and friends at least as much as they do to "role models" like Michael Jordan.

So why didn't companies sign deals with people who are not celebrities, but are charismatic, well-known and -liked? It's an interesting idea. I think we will start to see more of this as traditional advertising becomes less effective.

[ Parent ]

You assume it works. (4.00 / 1) (#50)
by haflinger on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 12:44:14 PM EST

I've seen lots of examples of attempts at astroturfing. I've seen them all fail.

Let's face it. Most people don't trust message boards for purchasing decisions. You're only going to hook stupid people, and while that may have been an effective way of marketing stocks in the dot-com boom, where are those idiots now?

Did people from the future send George Carlin back in time to save rusty and K5? - leviramsey
[ Parent ]

"Seen" any that worked? (5.00 / 1) (#87)
by clark9000 on Wed Jul 24, 2002 at 03:58:08 AM EST

I've seen lots of examples of attempts at astroturfing. I've seen them all fail.

If astroturfing works, then you're not aware that it's astroturfing: you think it's just normal everyday users giving their honest opinion about something. So how do you know you haven't already been taken in by astroturfing?

And to go further, suppose you are "taken in" by it, and you end up buying a great product you would never have known about otherwise. Everybody wins, right? Er, right.
Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.

-- E. Dickinson
[ Parent ]
Well, I've never bought anything for that reason. (none / 0) (#90)
by haflinger on Wed Jul 24, 2002 at 07:28:04 AM EST

Seriously. I started on Usenet back in the fall of '90. I've never bought anything because of what net.users have said, at least not directly (I have gotten CD shopping ideas from them, but that's about it).

This is why I suspect it would not work. You'd have to pay somebody for about four or five years to build up a persona that people would trust to give product recommendations. I just don't see it happening.

With that said, though, I have used FAQs as sources for stores that I might want to buy stuff from. But an internet advertising campaign that's able to subvert a FAQ is going to be pretty extreme. And also, nearly all of these stores have simply been in the I'll-visit-if-I'm-in-the-city category. Thus, the investment required for maybe a couple dozen sales just would not be financially worth it.

Did people from the future send George Carlin back in time to save rusty and K5? - leviramsey
[ Parent ]

they hired marketing people from japan (none / 0) (#109)
by bolthole on Mon Jul 29, 2002 at 09:38:45 PM EST

Supposedly, this is exactly what japanese tech companies do; build up a base of high school kids to publically demo their latest gear,and impress their friends.

Hey, makes sense, though. if hte kid actually likes the product, then by definition, its a good product.

[ Parent ]

'toxic sludge is good for you' (4.25 / 4) (#34)
by turmeric on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 10:26:17 AM EST

this is a good book about what PR (public relations) industry is all about. what you describe is called 'astro turfing', because its basically forming a fake impression of a 'grass roots' movement around a product. politicians and issue-groups use it all the time, paying people to write letters to the editor of local newspapers, or paying teachers to mention products in class. hell microsoft has even used it.

This was happening years ago (3.85 / 7) (#35)
by thebrix on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 10:27:20 AM EST

I ran a very successful campaign which occasionally received messages purporting to be from British Telecommunications employees on its forums and guestbooks. The text was superficially convincing; it adopted the slightly hurt and defensive tone common to BT's press releases at the time, although it silently skipped any awkward issues.

We did a bit of checking with journalists and BT PR (which was surprisingly helpful) and found that the people making these posts (who named themselves) were either not BT employees or were posting under false names; in addition, the IP addresses mapped to ordinary home dialup accounts (Freeserve et alia). In any case, no matter who these people were, the posts were not authorised by BT PR; however, we spent some effort knocking down what they said and, after a while, they stopped and never came back.

The dead giveaway was that the posters never responded to anything; they always posted to start a new thread then ignored what happened thereafter.

by the way, oh noble computer person (1.87 / 8) (#37)
by turmeric on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 10:29:06 AM EST

what nasty little secrets does your industry have? You wouldnt be using social-security numbers as keys in databases, would you? no, of course not. and the computer industry never abuses its control of peoples email servers.... of course computers would never be used to kill people in weapons systems (ok maybe only bad people) ... oh yeah, btw, how do you think a multi billion dollar PR firm gets its work done? hell they probably use mySQL running on linux!

heh that was cool (3.50 / 2) (#39)
by kipple on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 10:52:59 AM EST

please post more comments like that, it's fun :)
--- There are two kind of sysadmins: Paranoids and Losers (adapted from D. Bach)
[ Parent ]
Hey Turmeric (none / 0) (#88)
by Tatarigami on Wed Jul 24, 2002 at 05:14:04 AM EST

Can I be just like you and pitch a tent on the moral high ground too?

[ Parent ]
there's nothing inherently wrong... (3.25 / 4) (#41)
by Shren on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 11:05:34 AM EST

There's nothing inherently wrong with sending somebody a description of a new product they might want to buy. Inherently. The problem is that email is cheap for the sender to send, so the temptation to send your advert to everybody is overwhelming. Opening a pizza parlor in Calcutta, India? Mail the world! Why not? This is how commercial email got the dirty name spam.

Despite it's reputation, however, there's nothing wrong with doing it if you do it right. If you wrote a science fiction book, is there really anything wrong with sending mail about it to recent posters to rec.arts.books? There is some degree of middle ground between being silent and being a spammer, even if few in the field try to reach it.

You might be suprised at what this company can sell you. Not all commercial email is unethical. Ask them about thier methods - maybe they have something that meets both your needs and your ethics.

Astroturfers should still be shot, though. *grin*

What we really need is some kind of penny protocol, some kind of micro-micropayment. When I send someone an email, I give them a dime - or, more precisely, the email contains an attachment that tells them how to get thier dime. When I get an email, I get a dime. I reject (receive but delete) all incoming emails that don't give me a dime. So when a friend and I have an email conversation, there's no net transfer of money (we pass the dime back and forth, so to speak), but when someone sends out a million spam emails, they better have a hundred thousand bucks if they expect those emails to be read.

How to kill mailing lists stone dead: (4.00 / 1) (#65)
by Russell Dovey on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 03:00:24 PM EST

What we really need is some kind of penny protocol, some kind of micro- micropayment. When I send someone an email, I give them a dime - or, more precisely, the email contains an attachment that tells them how to get thier dime. When I get an email, I get a dime. I reject (receive but delete) all incoming emails that don't give me a dime. So when a friend and I have an email conversation, there's no net transfer of money (we pass the dime back and forth, so to speak), but when someone sends out a million spam emails, they better have a hundred thousand bucks if they expect those emails to be read.

How do one way mass mailing lists continue to be viable under the five-cent scheme?

"Blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light." - Spike Milligan
[ Parent ]

Mass mailing lists (4.00 / 1) (#79)
by whatwasthatagain on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 07:12:49 PM EST

What we really need is some kind of penny protocol, some kind of micro- micropayment. When I send someone an email, I give them a dime - or, more precisely, the email contains an attachment that tells them how to get thier dime. When I get an email, I get a dime. I reject (receive but delete) all incoming emails that don't give me a dime. So when a friend and I have an email conversation, there's no net transfer of money (we pass the dime back and forth, so to speak), but when someone sends out a million spam emails, they better have a hundred thousand bucks if they expect those emails to be read.

How do one way mass mailing lists continue to be viable under the five-cent scheme?

It wouldn't be too difficult to fix the scheme - maybe allow users to waive charges on the email that they get if they don't mind the email.

There are problems far more severe than that:

  • Who is to do the regulation? This is the Internet, not the State of California...
  • Who gets the money? The user, or the guy who owns the backbone?
I know this comes under the realm of social problem - technical solution, but the only thing that could possibly work would be Internet-level scalable SPAM filters.

Easier said than done, I know...

With profound apologies to whomsoever this sig originally belonged.
[ Parent ]

Micropayments and Emails (none / 0) (#83)
by jck2000 on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 10:15:57 PM EST

If there was a workable online micropayment protocol (for instance, where 10 cents in value could be sent for less than 1 cent in cost), there would be many more important uses for it than regulating email (for instance, pay-per-page websites), but here is my 2 cents anyway: an email server could be set up to reject or not store or, an email client could be set up not to download, messages that were not accompanied by a micropayment attachment. Needless to say, this could irritate one's correspondents. Of course, as things stand now, I imagine one could, with a little scripting, only download messages from known persons or with known subjects. Even better, one could automatically respond to unknown persons by asking them to resend their message with a specific subject (for instance "the subject should contain the name of the current month"), so as to distinguish unknown real persons (who have a decent chance of being legitimate correspondents) from spambots.

[ Parent ]
Inherently wrong (4.00 / 1) (#68)
by bodrius on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 03:37:07 PM EST

Simply put, although there is nothing wrong with using email for VERY targeted marketing, like you suggest, if it is done in a non-intrusive way... there IS something inherently wrong with bombarding someone's email account as if it were Berlin in WWII, and then selling that email to everyone else so they could do the same, with no targeting whatsoever.

There is something wrong with sending me (as an example) SPAM about (just a few) mortages, breast enhancement implants/products, "America is Strong" patriotic trinkets, and body-building... particularly since I am not in the market for a house, happen to be male, a foreigner, and the last time I worked out was when I almost failed PE in high school.

It's a waste of resources for both sides, particularly the consumer's, and it's inherently stupid because if I ever enter the market I would actively avoid companies that annoy me.

The problem is that stupid use of email marketing has destroyed any possibility for its proper use. It would be a good idea if marketers used it properly.

I would not be upset, for example, at the use you suggest if it were sporadical and matched my interest.

But my SPAM reflex is already too developed. I delete my SPAM indiscriminately, sometimes including that which I did sign up and would normally be interested in (like Amazon's recommendations), because I will not waste my time looking through all that garbage for what I want. It's not my job, it's theirs, and they screwed up.

Targeted marketing TO newsgroups is even worse, as it has killed more than a few.
Freedom is the freedom to say 2+2=4, everything else follows...
[ Parent ]

You ought to go to a reputable company (4.66 / 6) (#42)
by Herring on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 11:09:36 AM EST

Here at Ad Up we can provide for all of your Internet Marketing needs. Our rates are highly competetive so why not contact us now.

Say lol what again motherfucker, say lol what again, I dare you, no I double dare you
Taking a leaf out of their book? (4.00 / 1) (#49)
by haflinger on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 12:37:45 PM EST

Ah well. At least you admit to being an employee. :)

Did people from the future send George Carlin back in time to save rusty and K5? - leviramsey
[ Parent ]
Not really (4.33 / 3) (#62)
by Herring on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 02:07:48 PM EST

They're just the first likely looking bunch which popped out of a Google search. I have never heard of the company before.

Say lol what again motherfucker, say lol what again, I dare you, no I double dare you
[ Parent ]
Still deserves a response (4.50 / 8) (#43)
by xrayspx on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 11:14:18 AM EST

I don't see this story getting posted as it sits, but it's still a valid question.

What they're describing is Astroturfing . Trying to generate the appearance of "grass roots" support for a product or service.

It's in the same league as cross-linking all their customers web-sites to raise their search engine results, or spamming 10 million hapless victims with your Important Message.

It's the kind of thing that should rightly leave a bad taste in your mouth.

"I see one maggot, it all gets thrown away" -- My Wife
This is deplorable... (4.33 / 3) (#52)
by Artifice on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 12:48:41 PM EST

I think such subversive marketing tactics are absolutely reprehensible. I miss the good old days of the Internet, when it was largely commercial-free, and we all had 1200-baud modems and low-resolution monitors.

If you feel the same way, check out this complete line of I ♥ LO RES products, celebrating the golden age of computing and video gaming! Shirts, mugs, and mousepads available now!!!

Oh, yeah, and keep fighting the Man! ;)

OK, just kidding. Sort of. Hopefully SOMEONE on K5 has a sense of humor...

How are your shares of Worldcom doing? Find out with the Enron Memorial Real-Time Stock Monitor!
This isn't going away soon (5.00 / 6) (#58)
by wrinkledshirt on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 01:25:48 PM EST

ZMag's got an article talking about your second point. It's really scary. Get a good enough writer who can fake word-of-mouth advocacy and there's no end to the manipulations you can get away with.

Wow (3.00 / 2) (#78)
by broken77 on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 06:38:33 PM EST

Great article. Another thing that I find really disturbing is that this group of scientists and researchers were so easily swayed and manipulated as to create a petition against the research! It seems nobody is immune from thought manipulation. Now that's frightening.

I'm starting to doubt all this happy propaganda about Islam being a religion of peace. Heck, it's just as bad as Christianity. -- Dphitz
[ Parent ]

Icky! (none / 0) (#105)
by patina on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 02:27:41 PM EST

There should be a lesson in there for kipple's boss.  Monsanto had a rotten public image and apparently turned to astroturfing out of desperation, but now they're more loathesome than ever.  If your company's reputation and trademark have any value, do not go down this road.  The last thing you want to see is news stories with your company's name next to that scum.  

[ Parent ]
On their technology (2.66 / 3) (#59)
by Maclir on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 01:26:01 PM EST

Many have already spoken on the ethics (or lack of) involved in this company. I want to touch on their proposed technology.

IIS???? They must think you are stupid to suggest that you don't keep abreast of technological issues. Last September the Gartner Group recommended that a Microsoft web solution (IIS and all the associated stuff) is inadvisable for any commercial operation, because of the major security holes in their solution.

My suggestion - read this article, discuss it with your boss, then go back to the company proposing the solution and say, "well, if you can do it using Apache and other secure, reliable products, we may be interested."

Apache and IIS are like peas in a pod (1.00 / 6) (#64)
by cb on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 02:51:35 PM EST

They're both inherently insecure since they were created with insecure languages. The only difference is that Apache is very humble, ancient technology. It's basically useless for a modern-day web server. /P

[ Parent ]

I use newsgroups for troubleshooting... (5.00 / 2) (#66)
by MickLinux on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 03:00:27 PM EST

... so I know immediately whether the advice is good or bad.  If the advice means that I buy a product, I ask the salespeople whether it will help my specific situation before I buy.  Then, if it doesn't, I return the product.

I would not use information from random sources to make my final determination about whether to buy a product.  That determination comes from such things as known company history, my product requirements, and such.

Then, when possible, I buy things used.

So there are a lot of factors.  But I think that blindly trusting a newsgroup is foolish.  After all, who really thinks that HGH will really help them turn 32, 31, then 30 years old?

Oh, yeah... if I've been spammed on a product, I tend to avoid it.  I personally think that you'd do much better to hire this company to spam people with your competitors' advertisements.

I make a call to grace, for the alternative is more broken than you can imagine.

cost and benefits (none / 0) (#101)
by StraGatto on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 02:34:28 AM EST

I agree that it is not so difficult to identify and to disregard this kind of fake advertising. It is more difficult for the companies to understand that it can be annoying, inefficient, and not worth the price they pay for it in terms of money (even if it was few cents) and in terms of loss of image.

[ Parent ]
Another point (4.50 / 8) (#69)
by Gord ca on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 03:42:03 PM EST

You seem to think that not dealing with an unethical company is justifiable only on ethical terms. Think about this: The company has demonstrated that it has no problems with doing immoral, quasi-legal acts that it can get away with. Isn't there an increased possibility that it will do such things to you?

If I'm attacking your idea, it's probably because I like it
exactly... (3.00 / 1) (#71)
by kipple on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 03:57:49 PM EST

...that is another point I could have mentioned. And it is one of the main reasons why I cannot say their name publicly, nor have any detail about my company made public at this point.

..scary, isnt' it?
--- There are two kind of sysadmins: Paranoids and Losers (adapted from D. Bach)
[ Parent ]

Reputation systems (4.33 / 6) (#70)
by bodrius on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 03:51:22 PM EST

There is one defense that I think is adequate for this: reputation systems.

If someone is faking grass-roots advocacy in a community, they can either be incoherent, with many non-active user profiles with obvious bias, or credible, with very well developed alter egos.

The first group never gets a "good reputation" in a community.

The second will only get a "good reputation" to the level at which other people are satisfied with their recommendations. If they recommend products strictly on company line, their reputation will tend to reflect the overall quality of that company's products as perceived by other people, and would typically be "bad" to "average".

I only follow a recommendation for a product in a system that has reputation tracking, and only when it is backed by other recommendations, and the average reputation is pretty good.

I use other forums (like newsgroups) to get an idea of potential problems and troubleshooting before I buy, but not to get an idea of quality because most posts are done in a whim (either the buyer is troubleshooting and angry, or he/she just got the product and is like a child in Christmas' Eve).

I also tend to ignore recommendations that do not mention any negatives about the product. Not because I suspect foulplay, but because it gives me the impression the reviewer got caught in the hype and didn't really review the product. No product is perfect.

Ideally, if a product is so good that it matches their paid "grass-rooters" hype, it would make no difference. If it's not, the "grass-rooters"'s bias would be obvious, even if their reputations are good. They may not be identified as "paid trolls" but they will be identified as bad reviewers.

The question, of course, it's whether the system is easily beaten by dumping so many "grass-rooters" with well-developed personas and reputations in the communities that they represent a relative majority that can sustain their reputations by mutual support. I don't think that would be cost-effective.
Freedom is the freedom to say 2+2=4, everything else follows...

What about local services? (none / 0) (#107)
by zvpunry on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 07:23:28 AM EST

In a recent diary entry, I considered the likelihood that Local2Me, a new geographically-linked mailing list type service that is confusing as hell even to me, was populated with astroturfers.

The problem in that kind of situation is we're talking about seeking recommendations for local services, within a forum that is geographically isolated to the point that you may never see replies to a thread whose original post you did see (or even posted).

It seems an ideal playground for astroturfers.

But when you're seeking a good recommendation of a dentist, or chiropractor, or surgeon, or something more non-committal, there really isn't any non-local counterpart. Even a normal mailing list / web board like craigslist.org will be susceptible.

And that may be where the market for these "services" really is.

[ Parent ]

"Fake user posts"? (3.75 / 4) (#73)
by tpsl2 on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 04:02:02 PM EST


Leave or fight (3.33 / 3) (#74)
by duncan bayne on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 04:31:59 PM EST

What do you think? What would you do if you were in me?

I'd rather not be in you at all, thanks :-)

Seriously, leave. If you can't leave for financial reasons (or you actually like all the other aspects of your job), simply point your manager at this story, and ask him what he feels will happen should this type of thing leak to the public.

"The fake persuaders" (5.00 / 3) (#76)
by Alfie on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 06:28:19 PM EST

From an article entitled The fake persuaders:

An article on [The Bivings Group] website, entitled Viral Marketing: How to Infect the World, warns that "there are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organisation is directly involved... it simply is not an intelligent PR move. In cases such as this, it is important to first 'listen' to what is being said online... Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party... Perhaps the greatest advantage of viral marketing is that your message is placed into a context where it is more likely to be considered seriously."

The article goes on to explain how two researchers from Berkeley were undermined by false postings to a popular biotechnology list.

Do the ethical thing (4.00 / 3) (#77)
by rknop on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 06:32:33 PM EST

As long as you have a choice in the matter, try to avoid doing any business with the company, even though they may have an attractive proposal. If you've got ethcial problems with their methods, then stick to your guns and refuse to support that company.

I realize that the world doesn't work this way, but I still like the idealistic concept that companies who do things people don't like will eventually suffer for their mistakes. But it will only happen if people respond when they see the company doing something they don't like. In this case, it would be your refusing to support a spammer and an astroturfer even though they can do something else for you that you like.


this is called "astro turf" (4.50 / 2) (#80)
by gps on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 07:24:55 PM EST

These fake grass roots marketing campaigns have been going on for ages.  yes, they're horrible.  no, they're no worse than many other current forms of advertising (its similar to product placement).

The problem is that people are too stupid and trusting when they read arbitrary information from somewhere.  find a cure for that not involving extermination and you're on to something.

Expect astro turf campaigns to get more sophisticated, including responsive threads, etc. in the future.  [the more difficult it is to pick out worthless comments the more likely it is to work]

Think of reading a newsgroup or forum the same as reading a zdnet publication.  Someone paid 75% of the participants to have a certain view.  objectivity is impossible.

So... (4.00 / 3) (#81)
by spacejack on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 07:44:35 PM EST

Your concsience is bothered by dealing with a company that provides spamming services? Or using Microsoft products? What would you do if you found out you were contributing to something like this?

This saddens me greatly (3.66 / 3) (#82)
by Bob Abooey on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 09:18:00 PM EST

The Internet was invented by the US Department of Defense in order to facilitate and enhance the abilities of major Universities to share research data, a splendid and noble cause, no doubt. When I take a step back and look at how the technology has matured and then morphed into such a powerful force of evil it almost takes my breath away. Surely we must be able to tap into some greater force of all that is good and pure in the world and take up arms to make a stand.

If we as a race cannot have a certain level of trust that people are honest and forthright then I ask you what do we have? A band of rouge outlaws who are able to hide behind this maze of routers and silicon chips to wreak havoc and plant their seeds of treachery? Land sakes I should hope we have evolved beyond the spirit of the wild west in the 1800's. Are we so driven by our base desires of greed and ego and sloth that we are willing to sacrifice our sense of fairplay and justice? If so then where can we go and who can we believe?

My advise for you is to run away, run away from these people before they suck you into their wicked web of deceit and trickery. Nothing good can come from them.

You can't trample infidels when you're a tortoise. I mean, all you could do is give them a meaningful look. - Terry Prat

Not my thing... (none / 0) (#84)
by sbash on Tue Jul 23, 2002 at 10:28:56 PM EST

I would look at it this way, sure, sales would undoubtably increase, but what would the employees think of the company they work for if the comany is going to pay people, who have not used the product, to say good things about it. It is blatently dishonest. I wouldn't do it with my company. But hey, if you are just in it for the cash, what does ethics matter?

"Eating curry with the boys? You must be British or boring" - Stinky Bottoms
Merchants of Cool (4.00 / 1) (#85)
by lucidvein on Wed Jul 24, 2002 at 12:27:27 AM EST

PBS did a special along these lines called the Merchants of Cool. They showed how marketing types are using every angle possible to convert people over to their product.

From the transcript.

DR: Many companies don't trust themselves to do this kind of research, so they hire experts who can find these cool kids and speak their language.

DDG, Teen Market Researcher: We look for kids who are ahead of the pack because they're going to influence what all the other kids do. We look for the 20 percent, the trendsetters, that are going to influence the other 80 percent.

What I believe advertisers and marketers don't fully realize is they can't sell something to a person who doesn't want it. They can prod and push and coerce the person into accepting that they want something. That something may be close to what is being sold. But the more hype involved in pushing the product, the less satisfying it will be to the purchaser.

We now have several decades of culture built around this vacant consumerism and it has hardly been questioned. What we are doing with our society by allowing ourselves and our children to be psychologically categorized and manipulated is dangerous and unhealthy. The problem is that I find very few people who are concerned or even aware of depths of which we have all been sold out.

Listen up! Mother Culture is talking to you...

I disagree (5.00 / 1) (#91)
by ethereal on Wed Jul 24, 2002 at 12:19:48 PM EST

You say that "they can't sell something to a person who doesn't want it.", but in fact the foundation of modern advertising is the task of creating that desire for something that a person probably doesn't need. This has been going on for decades, and advertisers and marketers completely understand how this works.

I agree with you that it's dangerous; I just don't think that it would be such a problem if it didn't work like you say it doesn't work.


Stand up for your right to not believe: Americans United for Separation of Church and State
[ Parent ]

AstroTurfing on IMDB and Amazon (none / 0) (#86)
by tandoor on Wed Jul 24, 2002 at 02:54:18 AM EST

Here is a mainstream article from Hollywood Reporter from last year on Astroturfing

A choice quote: "User reviews posted to sites such as Amazon.com and IMDB are frequently dismissed as the work of shills, damaging the credibility of often legitimate fan commentary."

My short carreer as a sock-puppeter (3.00 / 1) (#92)
by johnny on Wed Jul 24, 2002 at 01:02:19 PM EST

When I started to promote my book in October 1999, I used to go to various discussion groups and post comments about my book. And I asked friends to do same. And I also found people on the net who looked like they might be interested in my kind of book and then I would send them a note. Each note was personalized; for instance if I found somebody with an interesting website about their nanomolecular research I would write to introduce myself. I didn't think it was too sleazy to tell people about my website where you can read 1/3 of my book for free.

But very quickly I began to feel sleazy about the sock-puppeting on discussion boards, and stopped doing it. In sending notes to random people I often got a favorable reception. More often I got ignored. But on three occasions (of about 300) the recipient complained to my ISP. So I stopped doing that.

When somebody tells me that the liked my book, I ask them to write a review on Amazon. I have 38 reviews, most of them very favorable, and none of them written by me. One was written by a neice, one by a college roomate, and a few by friends. But everybody who wrote a review read the book before reviewing it, and not all of them were glowing 5-stars either. Most of the reviews were done by people I've never met.

I originally came to K5 on one of my websurfing expeditions looking for a discussion forum to exploit. But this community does not led itself to that kind of stuff, and besides I liked it here, so I stayed. Obviously I hope you will all someday succomb to my insidious marketing and buy my books, but I'm here to be a member of K5, not to win you over.

I wish I could think of a non-sleazy, non-spammy way to get the word out. I considered cross-linking my site to others like it, and joining webrings and so forth. It might help but I think it's tacky. The best that I can come up with is asking people to tell their friends.

yr frn,
Get your free download of prizewinning novels Acts of the Apostles and Cheap Complex Devices.

Buy a K5 ad for it :-) [n/t] (none / 0) (#97)
by dark on Wed Jul 24, 2002 at 08:43:54 PM EST

[ Parent ]
have done; will do again (none / 0) (#98)
by johnny on Wed Jul 24, 2002 at 09:05:00 PM EST

as soon as my credit card recedes from limit. Actually K5 hab been berry good to me. (OK Old People in the Audience, who can explain that allusion? Big hint: SNL)

yr frn,
Get your free download of prizewinning novels Acts of the Apostles and Cheap Complex Devices.
[ Parent ]
There's a mitigating factor in your case, though (none / 0) (#108)
by the original jht on Mon Jul 29, 2002 at 10:18:00 AM EST

I bought a copy (from Amazon), and it was a great read!

I remember back a couple of years ago, when I'd see you at Boston-area events with a table full of books (the first time I recall was at the Geek Pride festival), and I noticed a couple of postings back then, but here's the difference between what you did for a marketing technique and the practice of astroturfing:

You're really the author of Acts, and you were promoting it typically through postings in forums you thought were appropriate given the subject matter.  You also sent individualized e-mail.  Astroturfers operate through proxies, and spam (IMHO) is not individually targeted.  If you know, through my postings, that I'm interested in X, and I eventually get an e-mail directly from you promoting your book about X, the worst is that I'll ignore it.  It won't really piss me off.

Same with your postings.  If, OTOH, you were paying me to shill your book in my slashdot postings, though, that would be sleazy.  If you're participating in the discussion ourself, though - and you promote your book while you're there, that's fine by me.

I'll point out, though, that I really did enjoy the book, and heartly recommend it to anyone looking for a good thriller.  And John didn't pay me to say that!

In fact, now that I'm thinking of it, I'll link it the next time I update my site.

- -Josh Turiel
"Someday we'll all look back at this and laugh..."

[ Parent ]

Why thanks, and (none / 0) (#111)
by johnny on Tue Aug 06, 2002 at 10:06:10 PM EST

I appreciate your sympathetic response. Now that my second book is out (Cheap Complex Devices, see wetmachine.com) I'm tempted to do the same thing all over again. But it was a lot of work and it was so very discouraging to get "Fuck YOU, you foul SPAMMER" mail in return.

But since you've already said you bought the book from Amazon, and liked it, might I entreat you to post a short Amazonian review?

Thanks again for your kind words.

yr frn,
Get your free download of prizewinning novels Acts of the Apostles and Cheap Complex Devices.
[ Parent ]

targeted attempted-non-spam (none / 0) (#110)
by rf on Fri Aug 02, 2002 at 02:02:30 PM EST

>I used to go to various discussion groups and post comments about my book.

I completely understand the desire for this, but steer clear. The problem is not wanting to spam but still wanting to get your message across which can be a difficult thing to do if the thing your trying to sell hasn't got a forum like k5 associated to it to advertise upon. Luckily I have never tried to sell anything and therefore never had the problem.

I sometimes wonder whether having a site full of text adverts, nothing but, and trying to let users pick the type of adverts they would want to see. There would be strict rules. on the other hand, it'd be a load of shite wouldn't it?

[ Parent ]
Hey, It works... (5.00 / 2) (#93)
by tjw on Wed Jul 24, 2002 at 01:03:47 PM EST

for this guy

The UK Guardian had a feature on this a while ago (none / 0) (#94)
by limbic on Wed Jul 24, 2002 at 01:42:07 PM EST

The Fake Persuaders - Corporations are inventing people to rubbish their opponents on the internet.

See also Usenet discussion in uk.politics.misc which is worth a look too.

Adequacy.org - Microsoft owned and operated ? (none / 0) (#95)
by Phillip Asheo on Wed Jul 24, 2002 at 03:56:57 PM EST

I have a sneaking feeling that there may be a certain pro-Microsoft bias over at adequacy. I mean, they have this dumb cartoon "Linux Zealot" and they are always banging on about how great XP is.

Could a discussion site be created purely to counter the pro-open source spin of sites like Kuro5hin and slashdot ? Stranger things have happened.

I think the whole 'controversy' thing is a smokescreen to hide the subtle pro-Microsoft brainwashing that is going on over there!!

"Never say what you can grunt. Never grunt what you can wink. Never wink what you can nod, never nod what you can shrug, and don't shrug when it ain't necessary"
-Earl Long

If it were me... (4.25 / 4) (#96)
by skim123 on Wed Jul 24, 2002 at 08:21:56 PM EST

First, let me state that I am writing this on kuro5hin because I would like to know what other reasonable human being think about such a situation, and what would they do if they were in me

Maybe this is "getting to you" too much because you are thirsty. Why not sit back, take a deep breath, and enjoy an ice-cold Coca-Cola. Coke is my favorite soda on the market, way better than that Pepsi shit, and their new Vanilla Coke... it's amazing, you've got to try it!

Money is in some respects like fire; it is a very excellent servant but a terrible master.
PT Barnum

You've got the wrong ethical focus (none / 0) (#99)
by pdrap on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 12:58:03 AM EST

  1. You're the employee, not the owner.
  2. The owner makes the decisions for the company. If he says that you do this thing, then you do it or quit.
  3. You do have the obligation to tell him that it's a bad idea, in as strong of terms as you feel necessary.
  4. But at the end of the day, your duty is to the person you work for. It would be unethical to disregard what he wants unless you are no longer his employee.

employees are not owned (none / 0) (#104)
by kubalaa on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 11:07:14 AM EST

No employment contract reads "the employment will do whatever the employer tells her/him, or else". The employee should simply say, "I won't do [this  unethical thing]", and explain why. Then the employer can choose to fire the employee, or not.

If you have ethical problems even doing any work for said company, then of course you should quit, but that's up to you.

[ Parent ]

blair witch (none / 0) (#100)
by auraslip on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 02:30:15 AM EST

Remeber the buzz around Blair witch?
Remeber how it sucked?
I wonder how that came about.....
Ethical promotion is possible (none / 0) (#103)
by selkirk on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 10:08:04 AM EST

It sounds like these marketers are a little shady, but you CAN use e-mail and discussion groups to promote your product, service, or company in an ethical way.

My rules of Ethics for board promotion

1. Contribute to the board/community with no thought of commercial gain.

2. Always indentify yourself and your relationship to the company, product, or service.

3. Never promote your product on your first post. (wait a few posts before even adding it to your signature.)

4. Never start a topic solely for the purpose of promoting your product.

5. Make sure your product is appropriate for the board.

6. Don't run down your competitors. be fair.

7. Promote only when the appropriate opportunity is raised by other people.

8. Have something to offer along side your promotion efforts. (help, advise, etc.)

9. Conform to the rules and spirit of the board you are posting to.

10. There is probably more, but I am in a hurry right now.

I do web development and sometimes help my clients with promotion and search engine placement, but do very little promotion for my own services and web site. ( Procata Web Development )

I am in the process of setting up software for one of my clients to do e-mail promotion. We have had extensive discussions about how to do this ethically. I'd like to say more about that, but I have to return a stump grinder to Home Depot right about now.

right on! (none / 0) (#113)
by han on Wed Aug 07, 2002 at 08:30:55 AM EST

You have the right idea, but if someone needs to have the rules explained point by point, they are already a lost case. I would boil the rules down to one: Participate on the forum as a person, not as an advertiser. Anything else will only annoy your potential customers.

On the moderated Usenet group comp.compilers, there's a certain individual who plugs his product in response to all queries where the product could at all be applicable, and that's all he ever seems to post. The guy's very civil about it, following all of the rules in your post except 1, but it certainly gets annoying when you know the general content of the post by the time you see the name of the poster.

[ Parent ]

The ethical issue (none / 0) (#106)
by chaddy politics on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 08:44:06 PM EST

I am glad to hear that there are individuals in this world that try and adhere to ethical issues. If i was u, i would expose this company to the most powerful organisation on the planet. Yes, you have guessed it, the media! They have the power to submit this story all over the globe and the companies that have sent good money to such an organisation may go under investigation. Look at the Enrol scandal!

brief observation (5.00 / 1) (#112)
by aliz on Wed Aug 07, 2002 at 07:26:26 AM EST

I think you're right, and if I was you I'd certainly follow my ethic principles and remain myself as much as I can in order not to be influenced by these market rules. Anyway, the main purpose of my comment was originally to tell you how much I love you. I love you :)

Aguilera/ Blair Witch Pr. started like this (2.00 / 1) (#114)
by anmo on Wed Aug 07, 2002 at 03:51:39 PM EST

I think it's in the public domain that a few months before Christina Aguilera hit the top 10 her marketers scoured irc channels and newsgropu and posted messages about how good she was to generate buzz. Also remember the Blair witch projects' web site was created about a year in advance of the movies' release.

Doing it will harm your company (none / 0) (#115)
by Don Alfredo on Sun Aug 11, 2002 at 10:16:49 PM EST

By hiring those spammers you will harm your company in the long run. Nike / Adidas sales went down when the world came to know that their products are made in sweatshops /child labor areas.... The way I use forums and mailing lists is the following : i NEVER use an e-mail address which i actually READ ; it will be a one-time only to create an account, this way i'm never bothered with spam, and never "give-away" my employer's name nor my private e-mail address... Not that these must be kept secret , but i might write something that doesn't reflect my employers opinion or might be harmfull to my employer or any of my employers partners. Even if i have another opinion than my employer, my opinion will never harm him... If i want to give that information i will do so by other means. advertisements through unsollicated mail ,or by obvious posts are not being taken serious by people who know what they are looking for. BTW : big companies DON'T rely on that kind of advertising - if their products are mentionned in someones posts it will that persons fair opinion on that product (be it well-funded or not) By saying piss-off to those guys you and your employer will help keeping this world a clean one...

A few reasons to stay away (far away) (4.00 / 1) (#116)
by pyro9 on Sat Aug 24, 2002 at 06:28:46 PM EST

From the standpoint of ethics, they will do this sort of thing as long as they stay in business. That is directly related to how many people hire them. On that grounds, tell them NO, and tell them exactly why you can't use any of their services.

Pure business reasons: If they are found out and connected back to your company, even if you only allowed them to use more ethical advertising in your campaign, the backlash could be a nightmare. Any good and genuine word of mouth you have will become suspect. Some will boycott you believing your ethics to be as bad as the marketing company's.

There is truth to the saying "He who lies down with dogs gets up with fleas".

The future isn't what it used to be
fake user "posts" on public forums and newsgroups | 116 comments (71 topical, 45 editorial, 0 hidden)
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