If you wouldn’t do it offline – don’t do it online

by Peter Young on January 18, 2009 · 0 comments

It was alleged on Friday that Belkin, the developers of IT hardware were involved in a fake blog review scheme using Mechanical Turk -  a side business of Amazon. Mechanical Turk is a site where users can go and get paid to do things that computers can’t do in exchange for small contributions – generally a couple of pennies to a couple of pounds

Mechanical Turk Homepage

Mechanical Turk Homepage

According to the article, a number of requests were posted for people to post ‘positive reviews’ for Belkin products as follows

Arlen Parsa from ‘The Daily Background’ goes on to say

That’s a request from somebody named Mike Bayard to review a product and “give [it] a 100% rating (as high as possible).” It doesn’t matter if the reviewer doesn’t own the product or has never tried it– the requester has helpfully written, “Write as if you own the product and are using it.” It even goes a step further, asking the Mechanical Turk user to “Mark any other negative reviews as “not helpful” once you post yours.”

Users are paid 65 cents for every positive review they leave. There are dozens of these requests from this Mike Bayard guy on Mechanical Turk.

So who is Mike Bayard. Mike Bayard just happens to be a Business Development Representative from …. you guessed it… Belkin, and his activity appears not just to be limited to Mechanical Turk – other posts have been identified on both Buy.com and NewEgg.

Now this activity – known as ‘Astroturfing’ is not just unethical and against Amazons terms and conditions, if it were taking place over here (UK)  it would also be illegal. Astroturfing is a word in American English describing formal political, advertising, or public relations campaigns seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous “grassroots” behavior, ie fake grass = AstroTurf. It is not the first high profile example of Astroturfing, back in 2006 Wal-mart was found to have developed a couple of blogs which were later discovered to work undertaken by Edelman – their PR agency – however it is an activity that has become less common over the last couple of years.

To their credit, Belkin have been quick to respond. In correspondance printed over at CrunchGear, Mark Reynoso, President at Belkin announced he was unaware of the activity and that they would be taking action

Belkin has always held itself to the highest standards of corporate ethics and its employees to the highest standards of personal integrity. Similarly, we support our online user community in discussion and reviews of our products, whether the commentary is good or bad. So, it was with great surprise and dismay when we discovered that one of our employees may have posted a number of queries on the Amazon Mechanical Turk website inviting users to post positive reviews of Belkin products in exchange for payment.

Belkin does not participate in, nor does it endorse, unethical practices like this. We know that people look to online user reviews for unbiased opinions from fellow users and instances like this challenge the implicit trust that is placed in this interaction. We regard our responsibility to our user community as sacred, and we are extremely sorry that this happened.

We want to stress that this is an isolated incident and to re-instill trust with you, we have taken the following courses of action:

- We’ve acted swiftly to remove all associated postings from the Mechanical Turk system.

- We’re working closely with our online channel partners to ensure that any reviews that may have been placed due to these postings have been removed.

It’s also important to recognize that our retail partners had no knowledge of, or participation in, these postings.

Once again, we apologize for this occurrence, and we will work earnestly to regain the trust we have lost.

Sincerely,

Mark Reynoso

President, Belkin

This does highlight one important thing to any person or people representing commercial ventures online. Nearly everything you do online is accountable and nearly everything you do has a trail.

I guess the lessons here should be two fold

  1. Just because you can do it online, doesn’t mean you should
  2. If you wouldn’t do it offline, don’t do it online.

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