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Martin Laplante

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Thu, 16 Jul 2009

$300K Fine for Astroturfing

Astroturfing. For the uninitiated, it is the practice of planting positive reviews about your product, service, or proposition, and pretending that they come spontaneously from grassroots or customers.

The US firm behind the plastic surgery company Lifestyle Lift has just been fined by the State of New York for having had its employees post false endorsements of its services on third-party web sites, of creating web sites for the purpose of posting endorsements, and of refuting bad reviews without identifying themselves as being on the company's payroll.

People who make an honest living that is dependent on good "buzz" are often tempted to create the buzz themselves; it's so easy to impersonate other people on the web, especially anonymous people. But even when it's not illegal (and I'm pleasantly surprised to find out that it is) surely people realize that it's wrong, don't they? Even 4,000 years ago the Code of Hammurabi had rules about spreading false rumours.

It seems to be illegal when something is being sold. Is it illegal when people are simply trying to manipulate public opinion? When a controversial political issue comes up, you often see what is clearly an organized attempt by proponents of one side or the other to flood the comments section of news media sites or the call-in shows. Is that illegal? I have seen highly-paid staff of cabinet ministers handing out crudely drawn signs to people bused in to a "spontaneous demonstation" and positioning them for the best angle in front of the cameras. Is that illegal? I have seen large numbers of people write letters to the editor supporting a rezoning application that can't possibly ignite the passions of anyone not having a financial interest in the project, with names that I don't recognize even though I typed up the attendance sheets at the public meetings. Is that illegal?

Wouldn't it be nice if you could believe what you saw on the internet? Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could see through those charades, making them so ineffective that they stop?

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