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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

October 26, 2013 07:01 AM ET

Computerworld - 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.



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