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Cybercrime Update: Astroturfing

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Astroturfing is an illegal false advertising cyber scam, utilised by companies, organisations, politicians and individuals to boost company reputation, search results and public opinion – through unauthentic and questionable means. This online campaigning consists of fake reviews on websites and forums such as Yelp or the Apple iTunes store, lobbyists running fake blogs on behalf of clients or employers and other falsified social media accounts ensuring the manipulation of Google search results.

Astroturfing Techniques

The objective of this scam is to generate a mass opinion in favour of whatever the individual or group is promoting, whether true or not. This is done by using multiple front groups, or even by individuals managing multiple blogs (known as “Sock Puppets”). Persona management software easily manages multiple accounts for those looking to create anonymous online personas; creating confusion between a genuine commentator on a blog or forum and a virtual robot.

The impression generated is generally a one-sided, bias opinion but as though they are serving public interest. Often these individuals spreading messages are really working for corporate or political sponsors and get paid per post that does not get taken down from a website or reported to a moderator.

Companies employing these tactics must act with caution and full disclosure – and should re-evaluate their digital communications strategy immediately.Individuals, especially in the area of marketing, must be cautious when engaging with online promotion and blogging; as there is a fine line between disclosing subtle material connections between reviewers or bloggers and marketers, such as free samples.

In the infamous Oracle v. Google case and “Google Shill List”, the parties were ordered to disclose bloggers and journalists they paid to influence coverage. In addition to federal watchdog and regulations, many organisations have policies about gifts, accommodations and disclosures.

(Un)Popular Opinions in the Media

As noted by The Guardian; The internet is a wonderful gift, but it’s also a bonanza for corporate lobbyists, viral marketers and government spin doctors, who can operate in cyberspace without regulation, accountability or fear of detection”. With false reviews, social media accounts, blogs and user-generated content congesting much of online activity, the New York Times has even addressed this issue as becoming increasinging difficult to to differentiate between “popular sentiment” and “manufactured public opinion.

Its not all corporations (WalMart), politicians, and media outlets (Fox News) engaging in this – but people in trusted positions such as lawyers and doctors.Though website moderators and the general public do what they can to review and report such phony activity, regulators and policy makers need to be more aggressive about astroturfing.

It takes away from the integrity of the internet as a means of communication and undermines the people’s ability to inform others of sub-standard products, inappropriate business practices and give a genuine impression of widespread support and opinion.

Legality? Universally Illegal

Astroturfing is illegal in the United States and the European Union when done to promote a brand or product. According to the Financial Time, this practice is “common place” in the United States; but was “revolutionary” in Europe; with the shocking reveal that the European Privacy Association (an anti-privacy “think-tank”) was in fact sponsored by technology companies with a vested interest in the matter.

This phenomenon is not limited to specific countries or jurisdictions; Mary K. Engle, director of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Advertising Practices, says though there’s no hard data on exactly how widespread the problem is, but estimates that 15 to 20% of online reviews are fake, whilst data mining expert Bing Liu (University of Illinois) estimates that one third of all consumer reviews on the internet are fake.

 Law Enforcement Standards.

In most countries federal watchdogs, regulators, competition and internet ethics standards  are in place to monitor, enforce regulations and remove illicit posts.

  • In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) can send cease and desist orders or  require a fine of $16,000 per day for those in violation of the “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”. These guides were  updated in 2009 to include and address social media and word of mouth marketing. Advertisers may be held liable by the FTC for ensuring that bloggers or endorsers comply with the guides, and any reviews by product endorsers with a material connection must be honest.
  • Until 2010, the FTC rarely enforced astroturfing “laws” and sanctions. Yet five years ago, the FTC settled a landmark complaint with Reverb Communications; a company using interns to post favorable product reviews in Apple’s iTunes Store for clients. In September 2013, New York Attorney General Eric T Schneidermann addressed astroturfing, stating; “As it is the 21st century’s version of false advertising and prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it”. In “Operation Clean Turf”, Schneidermann subsequently fined a total of 19 companies over $350,000 in an attempt to dissuade this practice. Settlements were brought under basic Empire State Fraud, deceptive practices and false advertising statutes. His objective was not only to achieve injunctive relief, but to make the illegality of this clear.
  • In the European Union, this act falls under the EU Directive on Unfair Commercial Practices. This Directive outlaws a number of activities regarding brands misrepresenting themselves online; including fake consumer reviews and astroturfing.
  • In the United Kingdom additional Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations exist, prohibiting “Falsely representing oneself as a consumer”, also has an Advertising Standards Authority to which the public can report this act.
  • Section 18 of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission references this practice, and they are also party to the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN) which attempt to regulate such illegal online activity.
  • The Canadian Competition Bureau and Better Business Bureau act as bodies to whom you can report such cyber scams and misrepresentation. The Canadian Competition Act prohibits “false or misleading representations”, under both civil and criminal claims. For such claims to succeed there does not have to be proof an actual person was deceived, ensuring a low level of culpability for people engaging in astroturfing.

How can WebPreserver help?

WebPreserver archiving, preserving and authenticating technology can assist Internet
Regulators, companies and legal professionals alike in efforts to monitor online activity
cyber crime, cyber scams and protect social media accounts from fraudsters.

For Legal Professionals….In instances of fraud, defamation or any form of litigation requiring content from social media and the internet, WebPreserver provides an essential tool for archiving and producing evidentiary standard content in courts. The simple and efficient one-click Snapshot feature, clean and clear interface and online sharing platform provide a reliable in-house data management program for litigation support and professionals, with the resources to share potential evidence with colleagues and clients. The added benefits of an e-signature, automated time-stamp and collection of Metadata ensures compliance with preservation of records standards and authentic social media and online content in litigation.

For Federal Agencies and Regulators… Federal watchdogs and Internet regulators have a duty to monitor, delete and sanction those infringing internet, advertising and competition laws and general standards of  internet ethics causing harm to the public or other bodies. WebPreserver can provide an essential tool of capturing illegal online content, authenticating, preserving and organising it in compliance with evidentiary requirements and ensuring the security of the internet from cybercriminals in instances where litigation ensues. WebPreserver provides a simple, secure, time and cost efficient resource for these bodies creating strong evidence from any form of content.

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