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?


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?

How a Tweet Haunted Ketchum

August 11, 2009

When we talk about online public relations, social media has emerged as a key component.  Social media are the messages created and published by constituents.  Other terms for social media include consumer generated media and user generated media.  Online line it is easy for people to create messages and share them with others.  Important social media sites include blogs, social networking such as Facebook, and micro-blogging such as Twitter.  Organizations, both corporate and non-profit, have made a big push into the social media as a way to engage constituents.  CEOs and employees are blogging and tweeting.  One problem is that as people get comfortable with social media, the line between work and personal life becomes blurred.  Personal elements in social media posts can be viewed revealing and a way to connect with constituents.  By mixing in personal comments with business, it helps to create authenticity or a genuine feel to the messages.  Said another way, it does not seem like messages were created just to support the organization’s objectives.

There is a downside to comfort and injecting personal comments, people can become too informal and careless in both message creation and content.  Of course a vice president at a major public relations firm would know the dangers on inappropriate messages.  So why did  VP James Andrews from Ketchum tweet in Jan. 2009: “ True confession but I’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say “I would die if I had to live here! 2:58 PM Jan 14th http://blogs.zdnet.com/collaboration/?p=189. “http://blogs.zdnet.com/collaboration/?p=189

So Andrews is not a fan of Memphis.  If you check Twitter people have negative comments about many cities.  The problem is that Andrews was going to Memphis to meet with major client FedEx.  Twitters are public postings that can be shared a go far beyond the initial list of people who follow you on Twitter.  Ideally your clients follow you on Twitter so Andrews should have thought they would see the message.  FedEx employees did see the message and were not happy.   They sent it to executives at FedEx and Ketchum (http://www.blackweb20.com/2009/01/15/when-keeping-it-real-goes-wrong/).  The incident became fodder for public relations bloggers taking Mr. Andrews to task.  The comments to such blogs just piled on with more criticisms. See the long response from FedEx at the end of this case.

An off-handed tweet became a point of contention and embarrassment for Ketchum.  A client is unhappy and constituents may question how clever the organization is with social media.  But it is an honest mistake that can occur when people are too comfortable blurring business and personal in their social media.  Public relations is strategic and that extends to all uses of social media.  Yes we want authenticity in messages but the personal interjections into social media must not harm the organization—some topics and thoughts should not be in a social media message that has a business element to it.  Consider that many people have multiple social media accounts, one for business and one for personal.  As blogger Oliver Marks at zdnet observed:

“For me the FedEx Memphis fiasco (no one comes out of this looking good) is a great example of the enterprise collaboration culture clash between the analog generation (cc’d dressing down email thread) and the digital one (airport bar style Twitter banter). The irony of James Andrews unintentionally demoing the power of digital media prior to his more formal presentation is great.”


The embarrassment trigger a chain of events that was followed closely in social media.  Nothing draws attention in the social media like a misuse of the social media.  Here is the chronology of events:

Andrews then apologized:

As many of you know there has been a lot of online chatter around a recent situation that has unfortunately spiraled. As an active practitioner in the space, I felt the need to both address the situation and offer my perspective on the practice of social media.  Two days ago I made a comment on Twitter that was the emotional response to a run in I had with an intolerant individual. The Tweet was aimed at the offense not the city of Memphis. Everyone knows that at 140 characters Twitter does not allow for context and therefore my comments were misunderstood. If I offended the residents of Memphis, TN I’m sorry. That was not my intention. I understand that people have tremendous pride in their hometown.

Ketchum then apologized:

Ketchum also called the incident a ‘lapse in judgment,’ in a statement. ‘We’ve apologized to our client… We greatly value this long standing client relationship. It is our privilege to work with them,’ the Ketchum statement read.

In later Twitter postings, the ‘keyinfluencer’ said he was ‘Having a great day with my new friends at #Fedex’ and apologized.

And Fedex said it was letting the whole thing go:

FedEx spokesman Jess Bunn said, ‘This is an unfortunate situation and demonstrates very poor judgment by Mr. Andrews. The reaction by our employees proves once again that FedEx takes great pride in our hometown of Memphis.’

‘This lapse in judgment also demonstrates the need to apply fundamental communications principles in the evolving social networking environment: Think before you speak; be careful of you what you say and how you say it. Mr. Andrews made a mistake, and he has apologized. We are moving on.’ “ 


It is amazing that one tweet can create so much of a controversy. 




FedEx Response:

Mr. Andrews,

If I interpret your post correctly, these are your comments about Memphis a few hours after arriving in the global headquarters city of one of your key and lucrative clients, and the home of arguably one of the most important entrepreneurs in the history of business, FedEx founder Fred Smith.


Many of my peers and I feel this is inappropriate. We do not know the total millions of dollars FedEx Corporation pays Ketchum annually for the valuable and important work your company does for us around the globe. We are confident however, it is enough to expect a greater level of respect and awareness from someone in your position as a vice president at a major global player in your industry. A hazard of social networking is people will read what you write.

Not knowing exactly what prompted your comments, I will admit the area around our airport is a bit of an eyesore, not without crime, prostitution, commercial decay, and a few potholes. But there is a major political, community, religious, and business effort underway, that includes FedEx, to transform that area. We’re hopeful that over time, our city will have a better “face” to present to visitors.

James, everyone participating in today’s event, including those in the auditorium with you this morning, just received their first paycheck of 2009 containing a 5% pay cut… which we wholeheartedly support because it continued the tradition established by Mr. Smith of doing whatever it takes to protect jobs.

Considering that we just entered the second year of a U.S. recession, and we are experiencing significant business loss due to the global economic downturn, many of my peers and I question the expense of paying Ketchum to produce the video open for today’s event; work that could have been achieved by internal, award-winning professionals with decades of experience in television production.

Additionally Mr. Andrews, with all due respect, to continue the context of your post; true confession: many of my peers and I don’t see much relevance between your presentation this morning and the work we do in Employee Communications.



Questions to Consider

  1.  What are some ways that social media can help an organization and constituents connect with one another (Chapter 7)?
  2. What does it mean to say all communication with constituents should be strategic (Chapter 4)?
  3. This incident seemed minor on the surface.  What made it such a threat to Ketchum’s reputation (Chapter 9)?
  4. It is a stretch to call this incident a crisis but apologies were issued.  How would you rate the effectiveness of the apology and what is the rationale behind your evaluation (Chapter 12)?
  5. What does this incident reveal about the power of the social media and its affect on the web of constituent relationships?
  6. What guidelines might an organization create for social media use to help prevent such lapses in the future?   How might such guidelines be viewed as a form of risk communication (Chapter 11)?

Paying for Tweets, Ethics, and PR

July 23, 2009

IZEA (http://izea.com/) is a social marketing firm whose activities include “sponsored conversations.”  Research indicates that sponsored conversations does produce positive results.  You can learn more about sponsored conversations at http://izea.com/social-media-marketing/sponsored-conversations/. At heart, a sponsored conversation is paying a blogger to write about an organization, product, or service.  IZEA plans to broaden their approach by including people who Twitter, a small step from blogs to micro-blogsJ.   Here is section from a online story about it:

“Orlando Sentinel) An Orlando company’s plans could change the face of Twitter. Later this month, a marketing firm called IZEA will launch “Sponsored Tweets,” a network connecting advertisers with Twitter users who want to get paid to post, or “tweet.” Already, Internet reports of the plan are generating heat from critics, who contend it will taint Twitter by encouraging users to make money off their followers. And the launch comes just as the Federal Trade Commission is looking to crack down on bloggers who give a positive review to a product or service without disclosing that the company is paying them to do so, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

Ted Murphy, CEO of IZEA, says sponsored tweeting is already happening. “If you look at the amount of self-promotion, company promotion and advertising promotion that is going on Twitter, it’s ridiculous,” Murphy said. “The only thing that we are trying to do is make it more … measurable for the advertisers, and enforce disclosure in a uniform manner,” he adds, reports Sentinel writer Etan Horowitz.

Here’s how “Sponsored Tweets” will work: After a Twitter user signs up, he or she will be matched with advertisers that want to pay for tweets. Users with large followings, which likely will include celebrities, would be paid more than people with a smaller audience. Anyone who sends out sponsored tweets will be required to disclose which tweets they’re being paid for.

Even with disclosure, Sean Corcoran, an analyst with Forrester Research, said he would urge companies to stay away from Sponsored Tweets. He notes there isn’t yet agreement on the best ways for companies to pay for blog posts, a practice largely pioneered by IZEA.

“Marketers should tread lightly with sponsored conversations in general, and if they are going to do them, I’m advising people to figure it out on blogs first before they jump to Twitter,” said Corcoran, whose firm counsels other companies on how to use social media.

Plus, with Twitter messages being limited to 140 characters, including disclosure is difficult, he said, and new users may not understand it. A better option is for companies to use Twitter to promote their brand and interact with consumers, Corcoran said.” http://bulldogreporter.com/ME2/Audiences/dirmod.asp?sid=2436B6EB9392483ABB0A373E8B823A24&nm=&type=Publishing&mod=Publications%3A%3AArticle&mid=8F3A7027421841978F18BE895F87F791&AudID=213D92F8BE0D4A1BB62EB3DF18FCCC68&tier=4&id=E0EBD76DF26A4C649715AC1E9F1569B6

The issue of paying online message creators is not new.  The launch of Vista involved giving influential bloggers free Acer laptops worth over $1,000.  Many did not disclose the perk in their comments.  It also relates to VNRs being used without attribution on local television stations.  The pivotal aspect in these scenarios is knowing the true source of the message so that the source’s biases can be considered when evaluating the information.  The issue is about to spread to Twitter in a structured way.

Questions to Condsider:

1. Should any organization pay for blogs or tweets?

2. Is there any real difference between paying for blog entries and paying for Tweets?

3. If bloggers and tweeters are “citizen journalists,” shouldn’t they have similar codes of ethics when comes to being paid for content?

4. What are some potential abuses of and ethical issues for paying for blogs and Tweets?

5. Who will have responsibility for disclosing a conversation is “sponsored?”

6. Should companies like IZEA publicly post their paid bloggers and Tweeters?

7. Should posts for “sponsored conversations” carry an identifying mark such as a logo to warn readers?

8. How might “sponsored conversations” be used to promote frontgroups?

9. How can transparency help in this debate?

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