Risk of Fakery

Online reputation management and the risk of fakery

The issue of fake online content recently gained prominence in the business pages following an investigation by The Independent and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The investigation uncovered the widespread manipulation of Wikipedia entries by the UK Public Relations firm Bell Pottinger in order to improve their client’s reputations. The most notable changes by Bell Pottinger include the removal of a reference concerning the university drug conviction of a client and the editing of material relating to the arrest of man accused of commercial bribery. Undercover reporters posing as representatives of the Uzbekistan Government were told by Bell Pottinger that they could provide a service ‘sorting’ negative coverage and criticism on Wikipedia. The exposure quickly led to the widespread criticism of Bell Pottinger’s tactics by rival PR companies, however it’s also cast a stronger spotlight on the tactics of businesses – large and small alike- who seek to improve their online reputations.

You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. – Abraham Lincoln

There is actually now a term for this type of manipulation – ‘sock-puppetry’. The term was first coined in the 1990s to describe the behaviour of people who use false identities while pretending to be another person with the purpose of deception. As the power and influence of the internet has grown, businesses and organisations have become more concerned about the need to create a positive reputation online. Unfortunately some organisations have sought to post fake comments and misleading reviews on social media to improve their reputations. The last decade has been littered with examples of politicians, business figures and organisations being exposed for sock-puppetry. One of the most infamous examples in recent years surrounded the case of Historian Orlando Figes who penned a series of damaging reviews of his professional rivals on Amazon.com.

The sheer level of online fakery is hard to quantify, but there’s no doubt that it’s a very significant and growing problem. One of the overall consequences of businesses creating fake of sock-puppet reviews is the damage to the overall trust we have on online communities such as TripAdvisor and online encyclopaedias including Wikipedia. Unsurprisingly the leading online publishers and review sites are starting to take the issue of fake online reviews and sentiment very seriously. Earlier this year, the world’s largest online travel community TripAdvisor, announced new measures to track false reviews created by owners of hotels and restaurants and to warn users that they suspect the certain reviews may be fake.  

I believe there a more than a few misconceptions about how to create an effective PR presence online. A lot of people still assume the internet to be a wild west and that anything goes online. However, it’s actually illegal to create deliberately false information online.

The second misconception surrounds the widespread assumption that all online reviews are anonymous. Again, not true. Online publishers including TripAdvisor and Wikipedia have access to IP tracking software and teams that allow them to identify if there are multiple reviews coming from the one physical computer address. Indeed, IP tracking software was probably used by Wikipedia to discover that Bell Pottinger were posting numerous reviews on the site and from the one IP address which was registered to the company’s actual physical address. And in the case of University historian Orlando Figes, he made the discovery of his identity that bit easier by using the online identity ‘Orlando-Birbeck’!

However, I believe that there is also a fundamental misconception about how to create influence online. Gaining influence and being persuasive online isn’t that dissimilar from the tactics you might employ to improve your standing with journalists. If a business continually approached journalists with lies and falsehoods it’s not long before they would be exposed and lose credibility.

Seeking to manipulate reputations on social media also ignores the nature of the medium. If you are a London PR firm representing arms manufacturers and despotic African regimes and try to present them online as paragons of virtue, then the social communities will be quick to counter your claims with the truth (or their version of it). It’s a similar situation for some small businesses owners who believe they can game the system by posting false 5* online reviews. Fake online reviews penned by businesses on TripAdvisor or Google are often exposed and ridiculed by actual customers who have had a negative experience. As Abraham Lincoln said  “you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”.


Paul McGarrity is Director of Octave Online Communications, an internet marketing consultancy helping businesses benefit from online marketing strategy and campaigns. 

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