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Crackdown on Fake Blogs, Astroturf

Frank Ahrens

In the world of p.r. and marketing, "astroturfing" is not a new term. It is the practice of creating a fake grassroots movement, or buzz. Companies will hire "influencers" in specific demographics to spread the word about a product or service, hoping to give it some street cred among consumers that are specifically resistant to traditional advertising.

In the Internet age, companies hire people to either write blogs that are favorable to their products or comment favorably on blogs such as this one. Some folks are hip to it. On several of the entries here on Post I.T., commenters have accused others of being plants from companies, posing as real consumers touting products. The Zune vs. iPod postings were rife with such accusations.

Well, Europe has had enough of the astroturfers.

As part of an overhaul of its consumer laws, the European Union will make it a crime to falsely represent oneself as a consumer on blogs or other online forums, come the beginning of next year, reports the Times of London.

This is good news for Europe, if the law can be enforced without violating online privacy. Now, if only it would catch on here.

For every Microsoft that gets caught trying to fiddle with its Wikipedia entry, probably dozens or hundreds of companies get away with posing as real consumers in blogs. When readers come to blogs such as this looking for real consumer experiences with a product or service, they should not have to parse the language of the comments to try and figure out if that's a real 17-year-old with an mp3 device or some 43-year-old guy hired by the mp3 maker trying to sound like a teenager.

By Frank Ahrens  |  February 12, 2007; 10:54 AM ET  | Category:  Frank Ahrens
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Wow, that sounds like an enforcement nightmare but I'm all for people being found and outed when they misrepresent themselves (and thus hopefully forever tarnish their net rep.) Still, have to wonder how hard the penalties can be. And how many degrees of separation must there be between the poster and the company?

Honesty dictates people should say who they are, but the libertarian in me worries about another odd law governing the webs written by folks who think the internet is a series of tubes.

Posted by: rpppolyp | February 12, 2007 12:31 PM

One way the individual consumer can approach this situation is to avoid buying garbage they don't really want or need in the first place. Instead, the consumer can leave her/his money in the bank to accrue interest.

Then s/he won't even be exposed to the fake blog entries, because s/he won't have an appetite for the dumb products being sold.

Posted by: money saver | February 12, 2007 2:34 PM

It shouldn't be necessary to look at private info at all to whittle away at least some of the fake blogs.

Use word-count and statistics on the posts themselves.

Just like some monetary fraud can be detected because the distributions of fake numbers tend to be different from the distributions of genuine numbers, the distributions of words on fake blogs should be a read flag.

This is a great "freakonomics" type economics project.

How about an economics/English department collaboration?

Posted by: statistics fan | February 12, 2007 3:27 PM

a "crackdown" might not be as effective as a public information campaign.

you cannot wipe out this kind of thing because it will just be an arms race. and the libertarian at the top of today's posts is quite right, too.

it would be more interesting to have astroturfing stats made publically available.

Posted by: hyssop | February 12, 2007 3:47 PM

So what it to prevent someone from one country creating a false BLOG on the internet of another country. (Remember, this is the World Wide Web). If the European Union is going to make it a crime to create a BLOG on their countries' internets that would violate a law that they have set up againt false representation. How could they they charge or prosecute someone from another country?

Posted by: Bob S. | February 15, 2007 2:13 PM

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