The fallout continues following yesterday’s exposure of lobbyists boasting about the ‘dark arts’ they employ on behalf of clients, including the manipulation of Google results for relevant search terms. One of the claims which seems to have fuelled much indignation from commentators is that the agency sets up networks of fake blogs to publish positive content about clients, in order to ensure that people searching for the client’s name on Google will be presented with mostly positive results.
This practice is often referred to as astroturfing (fake grassroots campaign, geddit?) and needs to be carried out on a vast scale and sustained over a long period of time to be at all successful. Because of this, it’s not an especially cost effective tactic for most businesses.
But efficacy aside, the main point I wanted to make is that astroturfing is flat out illegal in the EU and the US, if it’s done to promote a brand or product.* The EU Directive on Unfair Commercial Practices (2005) outlaws a number of activities around the idea of brands misrepresenting themselves online, which includes posting fake consumer reviews and astroturfing. A similar law exists in the US, and in a high profile 2009 case a plastic surgery firm was fined $300,000 for breaking it.
What’s surprised me is that for all the angry shouting about this issue over the past couple of days, few people seem to be aware that it is already illegal for brands to use these kinds of tactics. I imagine this is a result of the social media land-grab that’s taken place over recent years, which has seen a lot of PR professionals repositioning themselves as social media experts, perhaps without fully understanding the new digital landscape in which they must operate.
The bottom line is that if your business employs these tactics, then it is exposed to legal risk and you should re-evaluate your digital comms strategy immediately.
*Doing it for political purposes is a different game entirely, and one which I’m not qualified to comment on from a legal perspective, but it’s definitely deeply unethical whichever way you look at it.