The Fake Phenomenon: Fauxtography, Astroturfing, and Fake Reporting

The Fake Phenomenon
In this example, the guy lying in the rubble was seen walking around just minutes earlier…

Just today, I’ve seen three reports of staged scenarios disrupting the mainstream’s credibility…

First, the biggest story comes in the form of war time photography from the Middle East. Michelle Malkin alerts us to what she terms as “Fauxtography“, where photojournalists working for various news agencies produced reports riddled with discrepancies (i.e. engineered fakes). Among the newspapers with reporters playing foul: New York Times, US News, Time magazine as well as Reuters. Watch as Michelle deconstructs these photographs to show you how things aren’t what they seem. For more, she points to an ongoing list of fauxtographies.

Second, from the public relations industry comes a term new to me: Astroturfing. Apparently PR firm Pierce Mattie got in hot water for posing as customers of their clients’ products and leaving phony comments on several beauty blogs. Jackie Danicki (who runs a beauty blog called Jack & Hill) tracked the IP addresses to the firm and alerts other bloggers to block that address from adding comments. Steve Rubel notes that this marks a disturbing trend for the entire PR industry and urges the PR community to join in the anti-astrosurfing effort via TheNewPRWiki.

Lastly, Wired News had to remove three articles from its website after an internal investigation failed to confirm the authenticity of a source used in the stories. Freelance space reporter Philip Chien came under investigation after the agency discovered discrepancies in his report. They started by tracing the name and Hotmail account provided as a source to a Usenet posting praising Chien’s work. Wired News then discovered that the IP address of the poster, the hotmail account and Chien’s computer shared the same IP address. Chien later admitted he created the Ted Collins Hotmail account and used it in an attempt to mislead editors. Interestingly, he had worked for online, print and television news outlets, and recently authored a book on the Columbia space shuttle disaster.

All these stories were reported in the span of one day. As Michelle Malkin mentioned, perhaps this is a fitting tune to the state of credibility left in our world.

  • wandie

    Here’s more ‘fake’ for you Kevin,

    Check out ‘Give Israel Your United Support’ at http://giyus.org and what I felt was a rather good analysis of it’s effect at Plasticbag.org http://plasticbag.org/archives/2006/08/on_massively_multiplayer_propaganda.shtml

  • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin

    Wandie: Thanks but I don’t consider this fake… it looks more like pretty internet-savvy propaganda. Quite smart I must add, here’s what it’s about:

    The site is called Give Israel Your United Support and it works like this – individuals download a tool (the Megaphone Desktop Tool) which then alerts people to new articles and polls around the web that question Israel’s policies in the Middle East or ask for public opinion about them. The people concerned are then supposed to visit the site directly and respond to the poll or story or write an e-mail or whatever. The example shows a CNN poll asking about the Middle Eastern war, and how the desktop alert tool directs users to vote for Israel.

    Users have a choice to download the app, but if they were tricked into it, then that’s a different matter. Still this can be potentially powerful since it’s somewhat directing and concentrating public opinion towards a self-fulfilling agenda.

    Imagine if the same tactic were to be employed in the next Singapore elections. Pretty horrific even for me. :P

  • nuMetal

    Here’s Irony for you: Michelle has an “ad” by VOLPAC. aka republican yada on the left side og her blog (if you don’t see it, hit “Refresh” and scroll down quickly)….

    Point is… The GOP has the biggest Swayer working for them (i.e., FOX nuse).

    Good choice of ads Michelle!

  • nuMetal

    Oh, yes.. I forgot.. GOP’s really credible too.

  • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin

    nuMetal: More people are finding that Google ads (or most so-called relevance ads) are pretty bad in complimenting their blog’s content. In most instances, we’ve seen plenty of crazy content-commercial juxtaposes. That’s one reason why I don’t put up Google ads… I’m never sure what’s going to show up!

  • http://www.stevehultgren.com Steve Hultgren

    My response to the technology / food-industry / beauty / blog / expert was:

    Dear Beauty & Fashion Bloggers,

    Pierce Mattie PR has worked hard over the last five years to develop unique expertise in beauty, fashion and jewelry communications. We have long recognized the importance and potential of new media, and in 2002 we were one of the first PR firms in our media beat category to launch a blog and begin blogging. We have the highest respect for bloggers and their work, and we treat bloggers with the same attention and respect we have for editors from top print publications.

    Today, Jackie Danicki posted on her blog, Jack & Hill, a piece about Pierce Mattie PR “spamming” other blogs. Please be assured that it is not the policy of Pierce Mattie PR to “spam” blogs (or spam anyone else, for that matter). However, although we were taken aback by Jackie’s ill-informed post, we want to acknowledge some recent missteps on our part that may have led to a misunderstanding about the matter.

    A bit of history first. From 2002 to 2004, only two people at Pierce Mattie PR – Pierce and I – were permitted to post on the Pierce Mattie PR blog. By 2005, however, we took note of the increasing importance of blogging to the public relations industry and began encouraging all of our brand advocates to submit blog posts. This eventually turned into a requirement that each brand advocate submit at least one blog entry per week. The project has been unequivocally successful: brand advocates are pushed to think creatively and they take pride in their submissions, and our increased profile has been great for the firm and our clients. Although our firm’s policy requires blog entries to be approved before they are posted, we encourage our brand advocates to push the envelope with their posts and we give them a large degree of freedom and license.

    During a recent staff meeting at Pierce Mattie PR, we encouraged both our New York and Los Angeles staff to start reading other blogs and tracking them to see what topics and products were discussed. When we saw many of our clients’ competitors being talked about, we started a database of blogs so we could send press materials to them, hoping they would also write about our clients’ brands.

    With comment boards available on most blogs, we also encouraged our staff to interact with the bloggers and comment on their posts (a treat, and part of the beauty of the internet, since we publicists don’t get to comment on the stories in print media counterparts). Many publicists agreed or disagreed with bloggers (as the bloggers themselves had invited them to do), and would make comments about products they love, including those of our clients. As long as these comments were relevant to the original post or responsive to others’ comments, we did not consider this to be inappropriate.

    In retrospect, perhaps it was an error on management’s part that we asked that the publicists use anonymous screen names, rather than their own name, when posting comments on other blogs. We didn’t want to appear to be playing favorites or showing any impropriety when talking about products that we happen to love but aren’t from our clients. Pierce Mattie brand advocates are hugely enthusiastic about beauty and fashion, and often blog about brands that they love, even if they aren’t necessarily clients.

    We realize now that this anonymity may have given the impression that we were illicitly seeding our clients’ names on the internet through ghost writers. This was never our intention, and we apologize profusely if it appeared that way.

    We also have to acknowledge that a junior publicist recently made several similar, not-very-responsive comments on a few different blogs. While this is unfortunate, by no means does it demonstrate that Pierce Mattie PR has ever engaged in an orchestrated spamming campaign, and we are confident that the blogosphere, once it has considered the matter, will agree. We believe that Jackie’s accusations are not well founded, and we regret her attempts to damage our reputation. In the last couple of years we have occasionally struggled to help our clients understand that even the most reputable brand can fall victim to a rapid flow of misinformation. If nothing else, this incident demonstrates the continuing relevance of that lesson.

    Notwithstanding our dismay at how Jackie has dealt with this matter, we thought several statements in her recent e-mail regarding the issue were quite apt and illuminating. Jackie wrote:

    “I have been making my living by teaching companies – including PR agencies – how to blog for three years, now. … There is an etiquette to the blogosphere, and it is one that many companies do not bother to learn before they begin their ‘campaigns’ to win over bloggers.”

    It’s great that Jackie has been able to spend the past three years teaching companies how to blog, and her ability to make a career out of it shows that learning blog etiquette isn’t so easy. We’ve been blogging for four years, and even before this incident we knew better than to claim we knew all the rules. It’s not that we hadn’t “bothered to learn” the rules before starting a “campaign” – no, it’s because the rules are in a constant state of flux. For example, we have had clear policies about posting on our internal blog for several years, but before this incident we didn’t appreciate the importance of establishing explicit policies in respect of comments by our staff to other blogs. Of course, we have such policies now.

    In fact, we thought that one of the most fundamental rules of blog etiquette existed primarily because the other rules were so ambiguous. I’m referring to the general rule that bloggers should use their blogs to facilitate dialog, particularly about the blog medium itself. That is why we find it particularly disappointing that Jackie made her post and e-mailed countless bloggers before contacting us at Pierce Mattie PR to get the full story, and that she has closed comments to the post, leaving us unable to defend ourselves or explain the situation. We also understand that Jackie may have erased comments that others posted on her blog in response to her claims. We find this troubling – but as Jackie said in her e-mail: “[B]loggers are just people.” And people make mistakes.

    We look forward to working with all of you and know that our clients do also. As Julie Fredrickson of http://www.coutorture.net/ said, this is a new form of media and by working together we can only garner more respect for each other and help to iron out the kinks.

    Often PR firms host ‘round tables’ with new media beats to help govern how they would like to receive media trends and stories. I know Pierce, Michael and I are more than happy to host a round table at our office on 45th St. and have you all in so we can create some official guidelines.

  • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin

    Steve Hultgren works at Pierce Mattie PR. While this is considered spam, I’m not deleting his long corporate speel since it serves as a negative demonstration for engaging bloggers. This response has only reinforced the detrimental image they already have.