Manufacturing e-credibility: online 'crowds' inflated by marketers

The New York Times recently reported on the fascinating career of Todd Rutherford, an enterprising fellow who made serious money selling phony online reviews of books. For a fee, Rutherford would write glowing reviews to order, and post them on consumer-driven review forums. Websites like allow ordinary readers to post amateur reviews of books they have purchased, compiling point scores into an ???average customer review.??? Rutherford???s flood of reviews-for-hire greatly increased the average ratings for authors who employed his services, as well as making the books seem far more widely read.

This business model was so successful that Rutherford employed assistants to work on commission churning out reviews. They admitted that they rarely read more than a few pages of the works they ???reviewed??????just enough to make the fake reviews sound plausible. A thin veneer of integrity was created by telling the assistants that they didn???t have to create raves for books they really didn???t like??? provided they were willing to walk away from their commissions, of course. Unsurprisingly, this was a rare turn of events.

Things were going so well that Rutherford had plans to expand into fake reviews for other products beyond books???a potentially immense market, since most retail sales sites allow customers to post amateur reviews for just about anything. Studies have suggested that nearly a third of the consumer reviews posted on the Internet are fakes. Usually they???re sock-puppet marketing efforts like the service Rutherford sold, but sometimes they???re false bad reviews, pounded out by people who have an axe to grind with the target of their drubbing, or just want to make some mischief. Ironically, the Rutherford operation was undone by an honest bad review from a disgruntled customer.

Defining Astroturfing

This process of creating false feedback, to artificially enhance or degrade the image of a product or individual, is generally known as ???Astroturfing.??? Rutherford had a very interesting observation about the product sold by his Astroturf farm: he said the purpose of customer reviews, in the minds of consumers, was no longer to rationally evaluate the product in question, but to ???vouch for its credibility, the way doctors put their diplomas on examination room walls.???

The Internet makes manufacturing credibility very easy. There aren???t really any barriers to entry, the cost of doing business is low, instant results are virtually guaranteed and while the Astroturf farmers may experience fleeting ethical qualms, it???s very difficult to treat their activities as a ???crime.??? How could a website like possibly police its reviews to weed out phony posts? Even if the manpower for the task existed, how could they tell an honestly positive review from a manufactured one?

Astroturfing has political, as well as economic, ramifications. Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod is widely acknowledged as an early master of the form, recruiting volunteers to flood editorial pages with carefully prepared talking points. As a result, nearly identical ???letters to the editor??? from ???concerned citizens??? appeared simultaneously in dozens of newspapers and websites. This mutated into the darker art of concern trolling, in which a Democrat operative would pose as a ???concerned lifelong Republican??? who pushed talking points critical of Republican candidates???i.e. ???I???m a lifelong Republican who reveres Ronald Reagan, but I just can???t bring myself to vote for that extremist John McCain.??? The technique can be used by Republicans looking to destroy Democrat credibility, too. That???s the point???it???s an easy game that anyone can play.

Obama???s fake followers

In August 2012, USA Today discovered that fully 70 percent of President Obama???s purported 18.8 million Twitter followers were fakes, created to boost his apparent popularity with social media users. He???s far from the only celebrity to employ this technique. There???s actually a Web-based Fake Follower Check tool, created by a British social media company called StatusPeople, which can detect phony Twitter followers based on certain telltale characteristics. It was able to determine that 70 percent of Lady Gaga???s 29 million followers are fake, too. For the record, the Obama campaign denies buying bulk orders of fake Twitter followers, as does Mitt Romney???s campaign.

Internet polls are widely, and correctly, derided as useless because they???re so easily gamed. Elementary feedback metrics, like Twitter followers or Facebook friends, are not difficult to artificially adjust. Automated programs can swiftly generate illusory online crowds. Just about every major politically active organization or corporation, across the political spectrum, has been accused of creating imaginary ???grassroots??? puppet organizations to support its cause. There???s even a proper name for the tools used for a single operative to maintain dozens, or hundreds, of fake identities to manufacture credibility: ???persona management software.??? The U.S. government has allegedly expressed interest in developing powerful versions of such software for use by government agents.

As with most other aspects of Internet commerce and communication, Astroturfing isn???t an entirely new idea. Every old-time con man understood the importance of having a ringer in the crowd. Some of the people who wrote bogus reviews for Todd Rutherford???s operation saw themselves as marketing consultants, doing the same thing reputable publishers do when they cover the back of a novel with blurbs from established authors.

Phony movie reviews from dubious sources were a staple of lousy video tapes and DVDs on rental shelves. Now the ???cover??? of those bad movies extends into infinite virtual space, and the absurdly enthusiastic reviewers can pose as average people. The slightest presumption of honesty can be ruthlessly exploited on the Internet.