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Internet Astroturfer Fined $300,000 245

Posted by Soulskill
from the bet-amazon's-traffic-spikes-today dept.
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced yesterday that Lifestyle Lift, a cosmetic surgery company who posted fake reviews of their services on various websites, will have to pay $300,000 to the state of New York. Cuomo's office says this is the first US case to specifically target astroturfing on the internet. "Internal emails discovered by Attorney General Cuomo's investigation show that Lifestyle Lift employees were given specific instructions to engage in this illegal activity. One e-mail to employees said: 'Friday is going to be a slow day — I need you to devote the day to doing more postings on the web as a satisfied client.' Another internal email directed a Lifestyle Lift employee to 'Put your wig and skirt on and tell them about the great experience you had.' In addition to posting on various Internet message board services, Lifestyle Lift also registered and created stand-alone Web sites, such as MyFaceliftStory.com, designed to appear as if they were created by independent and satisfied customers of Lifestyle Lift. The sites offered positive narratives about the Lifestyle Lift experience. Some of these sites purported to offer forums for users to add their own comments about Lifestyle Lift. In reality, however, Lifestyle Lift either provided all the 'user comments' themselves, or closely monitored and edited third-party comments to skew the discussion in favor of Lifestyle Lift."
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Internet Astroturfer Fined $300,000

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  • by bossanovalithium (1396323) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:28AM (#28703303)
    We all know this shit goes on, all the time, but to email about it? they deserve more than 300k fine.. Will it stop this from happening? I doubt it.
  • by morgan_greywolf (835522) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:33AM (#28703369) Homepage Journal

    What I really want to know is this: does this "anti-astroturfing" law apply to "Team Windows"? If so, watch out Softies, Cuomo's got your number....

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:33AM (#28703373)

    That's a small price to pay.. not even close to the cost of a decent condo. Cost of doing business, as they say...

  • So? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cdrudge (68377) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:34AM (#28703387) Homepage

    Marketing department tells lies about their product. News at 11.

  • Microsoft shills (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jkxx (739331) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:43AM (#28703483) Homepage Journal
    Now hopefully someone will look into the MS shills frequenting this and other technology sites.
  • Re:So? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by glop (181086) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:46AM (#28703509)

    Did you read the summary?
    They lied and got fined.
    That sounds like news to me.
    I had always known that people were planting fake reviews on forums and thought the only defense be cautious. So hearing that this is actually illegal is big news in my opinion.

  • Re:So? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:46AM (#28703515)

    Marketing department tells lies about their product. News at 11.

    Indeed. I think that prosecuting this company for astro-turfing is pointless and inconsistent. As long as we have such a laissez-faire attitude towards all the lies and misdirection that marketing people have been doing for decades now, going after a handful of astro-turfers does nothing but give people a false-sense of trust in what they read on the net. Never mind the free speech implications that come into play when defining exactly where the line is between valid promotion and astro-turfing. (does giving away a free "review" produce with a promise of future "review" products qualify as illegal, what if the promise is never spelled out? what if its not a give-away, just an open-ended loan, or what if it is 1 year loan and it just so happens that the next review product shows up in exactly one year too?)

  • Re:So? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by timeOday (582209) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:46AM (#28703517)
    Your recap leaves out the news and then claims it is not news. The news is not that they lied, but that they were caught and prosecuted. Good.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:49AM (#28703537)

    yes, because only microsoft would stoop to using shills on a tech website.......

  • In other words... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Idaho (12907) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:50AM (#28703547)

    As a company, you should be absolutely fine, unless you are so incredibly stupid as to put instructions like these down in writing, and making them so explicit that they cannot be read or weaseled out of in any conceivable way.

  • by MobyDisk (75490) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @11:02AM (#28703649) Homepage

    The problem is not the fine. The problem is that the individuals who did this can hide under the corporation and not be held responsible. Why is it that if I did this on my own, I would personally be liable, but if I did so working for a corporation, the corporation is liable? Can I just do anything I want, so long as I have a shell corporation with a boss who tells me to do it?

    If we held individuals responsible, then individuals would stand-up to the corporations and say no. But so long as they can clear their conscience by blaming their boss, and on up the chain, these things will happen. Oh, and punishing the CEOs doesn't fix it either, unless the CEO was really involved. Everybody seems to want to go to the person at the top. I want to beat the person at the bottom who actually did it.

  • by clam666 (1178429) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @11:03AM (#28703659)

    The overall problem is that the message still hasn't gotten out to people.

    Stop believing everything you read on the internet; most of what you read is, at best, an opinion. The rest of it is entertainment and outright lies.

    If you're watching a third rate cable channel a 3 a.m. and you see a "news style" interview with a doctor about a growing medical problem that can be solved with a supplement called "pomegranacai" extract or by using a "XTremeGazelle Exercycle" with testominials from other doctors in white coats and satisfied customers who lost 50 lbs, it is completely fake.

    If you know that, why would you believe anything on the internet with testimonials, blogs, google ad links, myspace links and the like? Are you the first person who's never been flooded with SPAM?

  • by trogdor8667 (817114) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @11:05AM (#28703687) Homepage

    According to TFA...

    Lifestyle Lift is like a franchise. They have offices in a bunch of places, including 21 in New York, and they also advertised specifically in New York, hence harm was done in the state of New York. I'd think that the Michigan AG could now also perform the same type of fine, and probably other states that the company has offices in too.

  • Re:legal (Score:3, Insightful)

    by copponex (13876) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @11:16AM (#28703795) Homepage

    A market without transparency is not a market. Consumers need accurate information to make informed decisions. The goal of major corporations is to deceive people as much as is legally possible for the greatest short-term profit possible. If the company in question gained more profit than they had to pay with fines, it's a win-win for them.

    So, in a healthy market, astroturfing is illegal. I doubt this will effect any company behavior, since the fine was so low. They will just come up with some legal loophole like hiring contractors to conduct interviews with clients and put those up on the web. In a truly healthy market, any flagrant violations of the law by the CEO or a significant portion of the organization would result in the revoking of their corporate charter and the seizure and auction of all company property.

  • by kevinNCSU (1531307) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @11:17AM (#28703809)

    If we held individuals responsible, then individuals would stand-up to the corporations and say no. But so long as they can clear their conscience by blaming their boss, and on up the chain, these things will happen.

    If you work at such a morally righteous company then good for you. However, many corporations would have a field day with the ability to ask employees to do illicit activities without any threat of it falling back on the company itself. If you "stood up" to the company as you suggest you'd likely find negative consequences to your employment/advancement.

    The individuals stood little to nothing to gain. It's the corporate entity that is involved in the illegal actions. Could you make a dummy corporation with a boss and do the same thing to "protect" yourself? Sure thing, but the $300,000 fine is going to come to your boss and dummy corporation (ie: you) so what would be the point?

    I think it's also important to make the distinction that their violating laws pertaining to the legal operation a corporation and therefore the corporation is fined. Had they been told to go murder someone, then clearly the individuals would be held responsible as well, not just the corporate entity.

  • Re:So? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by plague3106 (71849) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @11:33AM (#28703953)

    No, there's a pretty clear difference between astro-turfing and normal marketing. In normal marketing you know the message is coming from the company, and thus can easily take said message with a grain of salt. In astro-turfing, its made to sound like someone living down the street actually tried the product and liked it. So the assumption there is that the person making the statement isn't biased because they are on the companies payroll.

  • Re:legal (Score:4, Insightful)

    by plague3106 (71849) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @11:35AM (#28703977)

    The difference is that you KNOW YOU'RE WATCHING AN AD, paid for by the company. There are also usually disclaimers on the ad, if you look saying "actor portryal, actors potraying real customers, real customers compensated, real customer not compensated."

  • Re:legal (Score:4, Insightful)

    by TheRealMindChild (743925) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @11:37AM (#28703991) Homepage Journal
    No, they aren't real and a majority of the public wouldn't mistake it for real either. Aside from that, things like "Male Enhancement" are ambiguous products with ambiguous claims. About the only thing solid you can pull away from the advertisement is "These characters claim to have a better sexual experience", but what does that mean? A better orgasm? What does THAT even mean? How do you even measure it? Even if the product did nothing on the physiological level, a placebo effect can certainly cause results on the psychological level.
  • by plague3106 (71849) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @11:38AM (#28704009)

    The problem is that you assume anyone here that actually LIKES MS' product (like me) is automatically a shill. I'm not a shill, I'm a person that was exteremly disapointed when I jumped to Linux, and thus jumped back. My Linux experience actually turned around my opinion of MS software. It was very much a case of "the grass is greener on the other side," only to find that not only wasn't it any more green, there were quite a few brown patches.

  • by cdrguru (88047) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @11:44AM (#28704097) Homepage

    You have an odd opinion of labor laws. Maybe if everyone worked for a union it might somehow be a contract violation to fire anyone. However, if an employee is told to do something, legal or illegal, and they don't do it they can be fired for insubordination. Or for no reason at all, because there are no laws preventing people from being fired.

    In Europe there are plenty of laws preventing people from being fired, for any reason at all. If you decide to employ someone you take on the responsibility for their future employment potentially forever. And paying into the state for them as well. It is practically impossible to fire someone after they have been working for six months in most places. The result of this is very high unemployment - no company can afford to hire someone without knowing in advance they can afford the position for the long term.

    Contrast this with the US, where I can hire a sales person and if there is a downturn I can fire them anytime I want. There are no regulations, no laws preventing this. The result is more people get hired. Period. Would it be nice if everyone was assured by the government that they couldn't be fired? Maybe. But the result would be a lot fewer people getting hired. And that isn't good for anyone.

  • by furby076 (1461805) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @11:45AM (#28704107) Homepage
    Haven't companies learned by now that if you are going to instruct your people to do shady/illegal stuff that you should NOT put it in a memo. Just go by word of mouth "hey bob, make some fake posts"....dumb asses

    BTW I find politicians a bit hypocritical. In politics the tech writers will write a nice constituant letter about their politician. They will then give it to a loyal constituant and ask them to sign it. So the constituant never wrote the words, never had the experience, but because they like the politician they will put their name to it...and this makes it 100% perfectly legal. So the next time you see grandma who says her politician is the second coming of christ just realize the words/experience may have come from some paid writer and grandma just signed her name to it.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @11:56AM (#28704229)

    This is called marketing, or rather guerrilla marketing and there's nothing wrong with it. If they're service is false (i.e. doesn't actually work or is fraudulent) then I guess it would be false advertising.
    But doing this sort of marketing isn't really illegal now is it?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @12:02PM (#28704311)

    McDonalds sells hamburgers. Not the greatest hamburgers, but they are very convenient. People who have no real choice often end up at McDonalds. Although there is nothing really wrong with McDonalds, there isn't a whole lot right about it either. You might try Burger King and discover that you like McDonald's better. That much I can believe, but most people who want a better choice than McDonalds will go to a real restaurant.

    So I can understand why you might legitimately dislike Linux. But most of the people who jump ship from MS in search of a better experience end up with Apple. A few of them might even go back to MS, but I have yet to see that happen in real life.

    You may be a genuine McDonalds fan. There really ARE some people who have acquired a test for their food, even though the majority view it as a last resort. But in the computer industry, a lot of people get paid to express an opinion. Brand loyalty is a commodity to be bought and sold. So the pro-MS comments get a fair amount of skepticism, as would a glowing review of McDonald's cuisine.

  • by MarkvW (1037596) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @12:04PM (#28704329)

    Wow! You really miss the point. The lesson from Nixon is that the cover-up is what kills you.

  • by Hyppy (74366) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @12:19PM (#28704495)
    The botched cover-up kills you. Do it right, and nobody will know.
  • "The overall problem is that the message still hasn't gotten out to people."

    A more immediate problem is that this story on Slashdot is likely to bring Lifestyle Lift [lifestylelift.com] more customers. Look at the before and after photos.

    "If you know that, why would you believe anything on the internet with testimonials, blogs, Google ad links, Myspace links and the like?"

    In the particular case of Lifestyle Lift, it is difficult to detect what is actually happening. Are the before and after photos completely dishonest? I don't know.

    Infomercials often take advantage of the weaknesses of people and there is an intense search for methods of intensifying the attack on those weaknesses.
  • by Hyppy (74366) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @12:28PM (#28704609)
    I'd rather have Microsoft shills than the horde of Cowards. Team Microsoft usually at least contributes something to the discussion, even if it's misinformed at times, as opposed to AC wharrgarbl.
  • by Abreu (173023) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @01:46PM (#28705771)

    Wake me up when SCO gets fined $300,000

  • by Super_Z (756391) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @02:51PM (#28706581)

    Whether people are astroturfing or simply have a bias or positive opinion is of course extremely hard to tell. What is striking is the sheer amount of people that has a positive bias towards Microsoft that has entered this forum these last years.

    What is even more striking is the dearth of people extolling products competing with Microsoft.

    Given the amount of "I use Linux, but Bing is really good" posts - where are the Yahoo fanboys posting their views? Likewise - where are the happy Flex/Flash users when lots of posts thinks Silverlight rocks? Where are the Java people when tons of posts extols .Net?. Where the Lotus Notes people when tons of people extols Exchange? The PS3 seems to be a noncontender when Xbox 360 is discussed.

    Why are the posts pointing out competitors products either drowning or non-existant? There are no raving hordes of Apple fanboys around here. There sure seems to be loads of the Microsoft kind.

    Heck - the grandparent has as of writing recieved 3 trolls and one flamebait. I'm sure this post will be treated likewise.

  • by drsmithy (35869) <{drsmithy} {at} {gmail.com}> on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @04:47PM (#28708079)

    There are several accounts here on Slashdot, though, that not only vehemently defend Microsoft, but use Microsoft marketing clueless drivel to do so.

    And probably an order of magnitude more accounts do exactly the same thing about Linux and/or OSS (although by OSS they typically mean the GPL). Guess they must be astroturfing, huh ?

    Not to mention all the "Apple or die" zealots.

    Saying that Windows is better because adopting Linux on your server is more costly due to retraining costs is sure to get you labeled as an "astroturfer."

    Thus proving my point.

    The idea that anyone is astroturfing Slashdot is, in itself, both dumb and paranoid in equal amounts. Do you seriously think anyone with both decision-making power and a lack of technical knowledge a) actually reads Slashdot in the first place and b) is going to make up their mind based on a posting here (or even a thousand of them) ?

  • by Sj0 (472011) on Thursday July 16, 2009 @08:06AM (#28714899) Journal

    There's a distinct difference between a zealot and an astroturfer -- Most important among them is that one of them believes what they're saying, and the other is just pretending to believe what they're saying.

    It's the fundamental difference in whether the conversation is honest or not that poisons internet discourse. Companies are shooting themselves in the foot by associating positive opinions of their product with dishonest under-the-radar paid advertisements.

  • by Sj0 (472011) on Monday July 20, 2009 @09:45AM (#28755553) Journal

    I don't think you know what authenticity is. It's not a fact, and it has little to do with the actual motivations of the speaker. Authenticity is the feeling from the listener that the speaker is being genuine, that the message is genuine.

    Some of the most authentic-feeling brands in existence are totally fake: The Daily Show regularly blasts the news-entertainment media for inauthenticity(In fact, they got the show Crossfire taken off the air), despite being a fake news show themselves -- their authenticity comes from admitting they're inauthentic, another part of the news-entertainment media. Haagen-Dasz sounds vaguely scandinavian, but nobody realises that the brand is made up of a couple fake words, and the company actually started in the Bronx, New York.

    For a very long time, crappy internet reviews or statements on forums were extremely authentic -- they may be stupid, they may be wrong, but you knew it was a regular person saying it. If someone made a recommendation, you knew it was a regular person making it. If someone had an opinion, you knew it was a regular person who had it.

    Today, marketing companies are poisoning that authenticity by paying for fake websites, fake posts, and fake reviews. Suddenly, that shout-out in a forum post isn't necessarily genuine. Suddenly, that passionate Republican or Democrat isn't necessarily a real party supporter. Suddenly, that person sticking up for the nuclear power plant or knocking the Prius and talking up his Ford Focus isn't necessarily a real person expressing real opinions, but a mere actor in a cynical and inauthentic theatre.

Once it hits the fan, the only rational choice is to sweep it up, package it, and sell it as fertilizer.