As the PR industry rushes headlong into the digital age, one of the issues we need to address is that of authenticity. This issue permeates on a number of different levels. It’s not only about ‘voice’ and the language used in our communications, but also about the subversive elements that exist online.
In the digital world, people are rarely known by their true names, but by user names and avatars. This inability to ‘recognise’ people immediately compromises our ability to identify agendas. Suddenly, we are forced to accept all comment at face value, when in actual fact there may be motivators that are completely hidden from us.
The term that is often broadly applied to the practice of false representation in the online world is ‘astro-turfing’. This rather odd term was originally applied to the formation of a fake grass-roots level lobbying groups. Fake / grass – astro-turf. Get it? Strictly speaking, the current use of the term in an online context is incorrect since in the vast majority of cases, there is no fake ‘grass roots’ group, simply an individual with an opaque agenda.
As the online environment continues to evolve and we see the emergence of influential platforms and outlets such as blogs and forums, the distinction between authentic and in-authentic will become harder to distinguish. Put simply, astro-turfing will become more common.
The popular travel website Trip Advisor is currently being investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK after complaints indicated fake hotel reviews had reached ‘epidemic’ levels. This includes hotel owners posting fake positive reviews, in addition to competitors posing as dissatisfied guests.
Another industry sector that thrives on online reviews and peer recommendations is computer gaming. In Australia recently an employee of ASUS is alleged to have engaged in some underhanded online mud slinging with competitor, GIGABYTE. Full marks to Atomic MPC journalist David Hollingworth for smelling a rat and penning this piece. Certainly an embarrassing ‘gotcha’ moment for ASUS and the employee concerned.
The challenge for the PR industry is how to deal with this issue, on a number of different fronts. For example, if your brand were unfairly targeted by faceless online elements as per the GIGABYTE example above, what would you do? What about if you were ASUS? Would you close ranks and refuse to comment as they have done in this instance, or take a different approach?
Clearly, the issue of online identity is one that will surely merit closer industry scrutiny in the future. Have you had problems with in-authentic online representations? And if so, how did you deal with it? I encourage you to continue the conversation below.