Fake Twitter Accounts and Tweets: New Astroturfing and Ethical Assault

Ethics is a serious concern for any public communicator, that includes public relations.  One problem with social media has been its loose ethics and ease of manipulation.  Consider how “citizen journalists” (a terrible phrase) print whatever they want in blogs and micro-blogs because they have no real ethical code or training in the responsibilities of being a public communicator.  Add to this the view that almost anything goes on the Internet, the last space for truly free behavior and we have a deadly combination for ethics.  Would the average person think it was okay to create a fake journalist and publish articles under his or her name?  We are hoping the answer is “No!”  The same cannot be said for the Internet.

Fake Twitter accounts are as easy to create as a real one.  It is hard to verify the biographical information on the sire and few people ever check that information.  A few clicks and fake Twitter persona is born.  Some fake accounts are for fun and people make humorous posts.  The point is entertainment, not deception.  The problem is when the information in the fake tweets are used to deceive people.  Two recent examples can illustrate the problem.

Political communication and public relations have a concept known as astroturfing.  Astroturfing is when fake public concern is generated.  It appears as though citizens are outraged but it is really the work of front groups or public relations people.  The idea is the outrage is used to support policy options (issues management) or to build support for a politician (political application).  Researchers at Indiana University created the Truthyproject (http://truthy.indiana.edu/).  The idea was to expose astroturfing in Twitter.  Here is how they describe themselves:

“Truthy is a research project that helps you understand how memes spread online. With our images and statistics, you can help identify misuse of Twitter. Our first application was the study of astroturf campaigns in elections. Now we’re extending our focus to the diffusion of all types of information in social media.”

Their research uses network analysis to find suspicious memes and reveal the astroturfing.  One sign is a few accounts generating a lot of messages including retweets of one another.  Here is a specific case:

“Menczer says the research group uncovered a number of accounts sending out duplicate messages and also retweeting messages from the same few accounts in a closely connected network. For instance, two since-closed accounts, called @PeaceKaren_25 and @HopeMarie_25, sent out 20,000 similar tweets, most of them linking to, or promoting, the House minority leader John Boehner’s website, gopleader.gov.”  http://www.technologyreview.com/computing/26666/?p1=A3&a=f

In another case, a staff member of a Canadian politician created a fake twitter account.  The original intent was to use the account to help get an incriminating audio tape about the politician.  Once that was accomplished, the account continued.  The Tweets claimed to support the opponent but were designed to support the other candidate.  One Tweet read:  “I can see Ford’s appeal. I don’t agree with him on everything, but the man speaks the truth. George needs to improve on that.” http://socialmediatoday.com/davefleet/227540/unethical-social-media-its-worst-rob-ford-s-fake-twitter-account

If you want to see more about the story and the Tweets visit http://torontoist.com/2010/10/rob_fords_team_created_a_fake_twitter_account_and_this_is_it.php.  This second example is political communication.  However, the concern over Twitter being used for astroturfing has applications to public relations so we must think about the ethical concerns over this practice.  In these cases, public relations can think and learn from the mistakes of those outside of public relations.

Question to Consider

1.  Why is it unethical to use any fake Twitter account in public relations?

2.  What makes the use of fake Twitter accounts a type of astroturfing and front group?

3.  If you were to create some basic ethical guidelines for using Twitter accounts in public relations, what would they be?

4.  Why do you think people see different rules applied to social media verses traditional media?

5.  On a related note, what are the ethical implications for paying someone to Tweet in support of an organization? 

6.  How do citizen journalists differ from real journalists?

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