Sunday, October 13, 2013
Whose post is this anyway?
I'm not a fan of anonymous website postings, though it's a topic I've written about before. Recently, the issue of anonymous postings hit the news again, this time following action taken in late September by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
Under a sting labeled "Operation Clean Turf," the Office of the Attorney General caught 19 companies soliciting fake reviews on websites, a practice known as "astroturfing." The OAG also noted that many sites post regular solicitations offering to pay people to write such fake reviews.
The companies were fined $350,000 for what amounted to false advertising and engaging in illegal and deceptive business practices.
In a press release, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said: "This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution." He also put businesses on alert that astroturfing was the "21st century's version of false advertising, and prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it."
The Office of the Attorney General did the right thing by trying to put a stop to companies that deliberately try to mislead customers with fake reviews.
It's one thing if a website is set up for whistleblowers to help shine a light on wrongdoing, allowing them anonymity to shield them from retribution. It's quite another when posters use the cloak of anonymity to trash a person or business simply for sport.
In his book, Integrity (Basic Books, 1996), Stephen Carter writes about the three steps that are needed to act with integrity. The first is discerning the issue. The second is to act on what you discern. And the third is to state openly what you have done and why you have done it.
If you have something to write, then have the conviction to own your passions.
A former student recently published a book review that deemed one of the books reviewed to be less than stellar. Within a day, more than 200 anonymous posters took him to task with an assortment of names and attacks. The anonymous posters may have been right to challenge the review. The difference? He put his name on the review. Their bashing of everything from his character to his marriage remained anonymous. No integrity there.
What about positive anonymous posts? The same holds true. If posters want to praise, let them do so with their name attached.
It turns out that it's just as simple to show a lack of integrity by making positive posts as it does anonymous negative ones. In fact, such anonymous positive posts can result in legal action.
Though Schneiderman's actions target businesses who post fraudulently, that still leaves thousands of anonymous posters out there who post on their own. It's impossible for readers of these posts to know if the poster has some sort of stake in what he is writing for or against. The right thing here would be for readers to take anonymous posts with a grain of salt, for websites to reconsider their practice of allowing anonymous comments and reviews and for anyone who posts to have the integrity to attach their name to their words.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.