Fake Twitter Accounts and Tweets: New Astroturfing and Ethical Assault

November 7, 2010

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?


Gap listens to Customers and Dumps New Logo: Fear Facebook?

November 7, 2010

On Wednesday Oct. 8, 2010, the Gap unveiled its new logo.  Most people, even customers, had no idea of the change.  However, some serious customers/fans decided they did not like the new logo and told the Gap so.  Social media was the channel and negative Tweets appeared about the logo and people posted to the Gap Facebook about their displeasure with the change.  As one post read, “Dear Gap, I have but one query: Did you actually PAY someone to come up with this?”  Other though the design was boring and awkward.  In truth it was not that different from the old one with the addition of a bluish square above the “p” and the move to the Helvetica font.  Check your Word program if you are not sure what Helvetica is.  It was just a different style of the word “Gap.”  You can see the new, now old logo at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/10/08/BU2C1FPR7H.DTL&type=business

The first reaction by Gap was to thank it customer/fans for their feedback but ultimately defended the new design.  CEO Marka Hansen defended the change in an op-ed for The Huffington Post, but her defense reads like a marketing stump speech: uninspired. “We chose this design as it’s more contemporary and current. It honors our heritage through the blue box while still taking it forward.”  http://www.csmonitor.com/Business/new-economy/2010/1008/Gap-logo-changes-renaissance-or-mistake

The responses to that justification on Facebook triggered more posts about the logo.  While some people liked the new logo, most did not.  Some customers were upset that they changed the iconic logo at all.  Many people do not like change and might have reacted negatively to anything Gap did to change the logo.  Hearing the negative comments, Gap stated:  “We know this logo created a lot of buzz and we’re thrilled to see passionate debates unfolding! So much so we’re asking you to share your designs. We love our version, but we’d like to … see other ideas.”   One commentator noted:  “For Gap, the test case could be a social-media bonanza. The company did save a huge chunk of cash by not investing in new signs, tags, business cards and billboards with a logo nobody loves.”  http://voices.washingtonpost.com/blog-post/2010/10/gap_logo_gets_internet_hazed_a.html

So Gap is asking customer/fans to submit designs—crowdsourcing.  Time will tell if a new logo emerges and how Gap customer/fans will react to it.  Of course the “new” logo is still around.  Gap may not be able to recall all of its planned holiday advertising featuring the “new” logo.  Originally it was to remain on the web site but if you visit http://www.gap.com/ you see the old logo.  The “new” logo is no more.

So now the debate begins.  Was Gap engaged and properly responding to the outrage it customer/fans expressed in the social media?  Was Gap overreacting to minority view of zealots who were too tied to the old logo?  That is a matter of opinion.  Another question is how must did it cost the Gap to create the logo and how much money will they lose by removing the logo?  Remember they need to now replace the design anywhere they have used it.  That is easy in the digital world but there is advertising to consider and any print materials that used the “new” logo can no longer be used.  The decision was not cheap.

Questions to Consider

1.  What is the rational for Gap absorbing the costs and making the changes necessary to remove the “new” logo?

2.  What is the rational for Gap to have stayed with the “new” logo?

3.  If you were advising management, what choice would you have recommended and why?

4.  Is it a good or bad thing that customer/fans can use social media to force corporations to make changes to actions they do not like?  Justify you answer drawing from PR theory and practices.

5.  Why do you think customer/fans did not respond well to the initial defense of the “new” logo?

6.  What does this case tell managers about the need to pre-test messages? 

7.  What are the dangers and benefits of allowing corporate strategy to be a result of stakeholder demands?

8.  How does the case illustrate the potential value of social media to formative research?

Should Tweets be for Hire?

August 12, 2009

One observation that is very clear about public relations these days is the need to be versed in online public relations, especially the various social media. One unique aspect of the social media is that the user creates and controls the content. Everyone can become a public communicator online with the social as the preferred delivery system. (Sometimes online communicators are called “citizen journalists” but that term suggests some sense of training and code of conduct that does not exist). The term authenticity is used frequently. Authenticity is the idea of being genuine, the message comes from the person creating it and represents her or his views. Transparency is related to authenticity in that transparency makes it clear who the author of the message and, ideally, if she or he has a particular interest in the message content. For instance, someone blogs favorably about product or organization. Is it useful to know if that individual works for the organization or has some other interest such as owning stock? One complaint about public relations is that it corrupted the traditional news media by manipulating the content of news stories. People see news stories thinking they were created by the news media when, in reality, the stories were crafted by public relations people. Well media relations is predicated on the notion of creating or influencing news content. This is not a secret conspiracy, you can learn this is any textbook that covers media relations.

A variation of this complaint extends to the online environment. There is a fear that media relations practices will be re-created online and we have messages in the social media crafted by public relations people, not the individuals posting the message. Or at least the public relations people are influencing the content of the social media posts. Public relations people do pitch stories to bloggers and send them media releases just like they do to traditional journalists. At this point you are probably wondering where the case is. Company called uSocial.net is buying Twitter followers. A quick Twitter review. Twitter is a microblogging site where messages can be only 140 long. People who Twitter can follow others. As a follower, you sign up and are send tweets from those you are following. Size of followership does matter. More follower is equal to more influence for the Twitterer. So buying Twitter followers seems to violate the intent of Twitter where followers organically emerge from this electronic marketplace of ideas.

Here is how uSocial.net describes itself:

“uSocial.net is the world’s premier advertising service, offering some of the most unique and fresh approaches to getting you traffic, attention and new clients. Here at uSocial, we like to do things differently. We believe that to get really powerful results, you have to think outside the box. It was this thinking that led us to create the world’s most prominent and talked about social bookmarking front-page service which got us a feature in the LA Times. This thinking also led us to create the world’s first and so-far only true unlimited press release disribution service where you can send any number of press releases to promote your business to our list of over 560,000 media contacts. And finally, this thinking enabled us to produce the cheapest and most cost-effective social-bookmarking submission service where you can submit and unlimited amount of links to over 170 social sites instantly and without hassle.” http://usocial.net/about/

Thought not is the about us section, uSocial.net does boast about its ability to buy Twitter followers. The service was covered by the Bulldog Reporter (a popular PR newsletter) in its Daily Dog on August 11, 2009. http://bulldogreporter.com/ME2/Audiences/dirmod.asp?sid=2436B6EB9392483ABB0A373E8B823A24&nm=&type=Publishing&mod=Publications%3A%3AArticle&mid=8F3A7027421841978F18BE895F87F791&AudID=213D92F8BE0D4A1BB62EB3DF18FCCC68&tier=4&id=BF50DDF81D0746058F4CF4E3B44A1D71

Another news story reported: “On Twitter you can go from literally no followers to 1,000 followers in a week using sites like uSocial.net, but it will cost you $87. If you need more than that, the site lets you buy up 100,000 followers in a year for just under $3,500. On their website, uSocial.net says: ‘The more followers you have, the more money you will inevitably make marketing your products and services to them.’” http://www.ksl.com/index.php?nid=172&sid=7081655

uSocial.net luckily calls itself an advertising firm sparing public relations some of the flack generated by paying for Twitter followers. But their heavy use of publicity tactics makes them appear to be a public relations firm and has already brought public relations into the discussion of paying for Twitter followers. The continuing new applications of online communication keeps pushing the boundaries of ethics and proves the need to discuss the ethical implications of public communication actions.

Questions to Consider

1. What are the ethical issues for organization’s that buy Twitter followers?

2. What are the ethical issues for people who sell their Tweets (Chapter 3)?

3. What role can transparency and authenticity play in keeping social media communicators honest and ethical?

4. How might uSocial.net’s actions create problems for the reputation of public relations as a field (Chapter 2)?

5. How might buying Twitter followers help an organization?

6. How might bought Twitter followers differ from naturally occurring Twitter followers? What the implications of those difference for public relations?

7. What are the advantages and disadvantages of treating social media like the traditional news media (Chapters 6 & 7)?

8. Do you thing that “citizen journalist” is a good term for social media users? Why or why not?

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