One smart firm could be the key to curbing astroturfing

Last year, I attended a Magazine Publishers of America workshop where I spoke, on an informal panel, about how PRWeek was adopting to the new media. By proxy, I found myself explaining my generation, generally, to a group of older editors.

Last year, I attended a Magazine Publishers of America workshop where I spoke, on an informal panel, about how PRWeek was adopting to the new media. By proxy, I found myself explaining my generation, generally, to a group of older editors.

Sorry, but I have no "they don't get" rants to report. Everyone was inquisitive and understood the rapidly changing business of media.

The main sticking point, it seemed, was our - the generation that grew up with the World Wide Web - dependency on the untamed Internet for certified information. I argued that, given our institutionalized knowledge of charlatans lurking online, we were always wise enough to seek multiple opinions, whereas the older generation might be content with the one recommendation of their trusted magazine. They trust an entity. We trust THE entity.

But their skepticism about our skepticism brings up a good point. The Internet fails to be an amazing tool if it is smudged by trust problems. That is, I assume, the rationale behind the UK's recent decision to prosecute hotel and restaurant owners, as well as authors, who pimp their organizations or books behind fake or anonymous screen names.

According to The Times (of London), guilty parties will be accused of "falsely representing oneself as a consumer."

My esteemed fellow columnist Dan Gillmor, while an adamant critic of astroturfing, has written about his leeriness of inviting the government to regulate or prosecute astroturfing on the Internet. It is indeed a slippery slope better left avoided to the community. For instance, business owners are themselves consumers; surely, they should have rights to praise or gripe about services like the rest of the huddled masses.

I am advocating a sizable decrease to astroturfing without government intervention. How can this impossible task be done? Thanks to the enterprising lead of Team Slipstream, the answer is found in competitive cycling. Members of Slipstream have decided that the team will get tested for performance-enhancing drugs 50 times per year, above and beyond the meager requirements of fellow racers. As a result, Team Slipstream enjoys an instant competitive advantage in fandom: Who doesn't want to root for the team that can't stand to be implicated by innuendo?

Companies should sign up on every online entity that will have them (Wikipedia, we've learned, will likely not) and proudly display their usernames on a special page on their own Web sites. They should infuse any board or blog post with an obscenely large logo, with explanation of exactly who they are, their business function, and any necessary disclosures. Only the most mendacious of companies with such a glaring presence online would have a surreptitious one behind the scenes. But maybe I just trust the Internet too much.

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