Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Recent astroturfing scandal implicates tech industry giants

Mr. T in DC/Flickr

BlackBerry Limited has seemingly joined the long list of businesses caught red-handed in the act of distributing fake reviews of its own products, if last week’s launch of the BlackBerry Messenger app on the Google Play store was any indication. The ailing tech company, once an industry giant, seemed to finally be on the upswing with the release of the BBM app on multiple platforms, especially after some disappointing sales on its last few phone models. As the app skyrocketed through millions of downloads in the first day, thousands upon thousands of reviews were published on Google Play containing nearly identical or exact same text: “Thank you so much blackberry team. I was waiting this app. It’s really great, user friendly and smooth.” Though the story is still developing and BlackBerry denies any involvement in the supposed scam, the end result is clear: their reputation has taken an unaffordable nosedive and they join the black list of name brands that have been tied to the recent phenomenon known as “astroturfing.”

BlackBerry’s own situation, ruinous though it may be for the floundering company, is far from the worst or most blatant exhibition of astroturfing, which, in the tech world, can best be described as the practice of either soliciting a third party to post misleadingly positive commentary about one’s own products to forums or the websites of digital distributors such as Apple and Google, or to bash and criticize a competitor’s product using the same methods across the same mediums. One of the most frequently insinuated is tech juggernaut Samsung, which has thus far successfully dodged flak in the United States surrounding alleged astroturfing against its largest rival, Apple. Just last week, however, Samsung’s Taiwanese branch accepted a $340,000 fine after getting caught paying individuals to bash HTC phones on a Taiwanese forum.

While Samsung is massive enough to take a hit of that magnitude on the chin without even flinching, companies like BlackBerry need every bit of notoriety it can get, and getting caught astroturfing doesn’t help. Not only does it erode consumer confidence in the product or company, it undermines the validity of any real, positive criticism, and in certain cases such as Samsung’s defamation of HTC, astroturfing casts the competitor as the victim, producing a contrasting effect adverse to the original goal of making a competitor look bad. Plus, as in the case of the copy-pasted BBM app reviews, which have spawned a number of derivations to quite a humorous extent, it just looks plain silly.

Internet shenanigans aside, the corrupting tendrils of astroturfing stretch far beyond household names like BlackBerry and Samsung, and blur the lines between harmless goofy salesmanship and genuine preconceived deceit. Just last month, the consumer review site Yelp was the target of an extensive sting by the New York Attorney General’s office, appropriately titled “Operation Clean Turf,” which resulted in 19 businesses specializing in “reputation management” paying over $350,000 in fines and penalties. The businesses in question had been found to have used “advanced IP spoofing techniques to hide their identities,” and posted numerous fake reviews extolling the values and wonders of prospective clients, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. This practice, evident by the perpetrator’s care in masking their IP addresses, is flagrantly illegal in both the text and spirit of consumer protection laws and is almost unilaterally despised by both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and entities like Apple and Yelp.

As is the case with BlackBerry, the Yelp scandal has resulted in nothing but humiliation for everyone involved. The names of the 19 perpetrators appear on the Attorney General’s official website, a digital scarlet letter earmarking the embarrassment of having to pay for good PR. The BBM allegations have only confirmed BlackBerry’s irrelevance in a society of iPhones and Androids and add yet another nail to the small, sad coffin of the once illustrious company. Meanwhile, the Attorney General’s report cites that “by 2014, between 10 percent and 15 percent of social media reviews will be fake.” Despite its overwhelmingly negative consequences, astroturfing is being used with even more frequency as time goes on. If business owners and corporations don’t make an effort to clean up their act and advertise more truthfully and equitably, soon it won’t be a question of which side of the grass is greener, but which side isn’t fake.

Johnny McCabe is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].

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    Frank O'KellyOct 29, 2013 at 10:21 am

    You state in an insufferably smug manner that Blackberry has ” caught red-handed in the act of distributing fake reviews of its own products,” Could you please supply proof of this slander