Thought it was just Whole Foods CEO John Mackey who made inappropriate message board posts about his organization? Turns out you don’t have to be promoting your company’s stock to cause problems.
Holden Karnofsky, a founder of charity-rating site GiveWell.org, posted a question on MetaFilter and then answered it himself from another account. He’s left similar comments on other sites, again not identifying himself as part of the organization he’s promoting. And now he’s been demoted from executive director to program officer. The organization can recover; in time so can he (he’s 26).
Why do people astroturf? Well, because it’s easy. You don’t have to spend the time to make a real contribution, and people won’t know straight off that you’re biased. Why avoid astroturfing? Because it’s slimy, it’s often pointless, and it tends to backfire.
Slimy: Lying about who you are so you’ll become more successful? Not a good route to being/appearing trustworthy. Oh, and in the case of a public company where you have inside information, it could be illegal.
Pointless: Most astroturfers have one-track minds; for instance, Mackey became known as a booster of Whole Foods, probably rather quickly. If you spend time in a community, they learn your point of view and will discount your next statement accordingly. If you’re new, they might notice that or the community itself might be set up to give you less visibility (i.e. Slashdot’s karma system). What does being pseudonymous gain you? If you use your real affiliation, you might be listened to more as a representative of your organization.
Backfiring: On the internet no one knows who you are – until someone goes looking. Karnofsky posted his question and his answer from the same IP address and other MetaFilter posters noticed. BusinessWeek, checking that the bloggers were real, found out that Walmart was paying for the Wal-Marting Across America blog. (That story got even worse when it came out that one blogger worked for the Washington Post and his freelancing violated their ethics guidelines.) Reporter or not, anyone can check up on you, and their comments may live in Google forever.
IDI has a history of rejecting astroturfing, and it’s smart to check what your potential bloggers think of these kinds of campaigns. Don’t be the organization blaming your public relations disaster on an intern, a junior employee, or a consultant. Engaging openly will get you farther in the end.