By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 7, 2006
Beware the Internet's meat puppets. And sock puppets. And trolls and shills and astroturfing and other forms of dubious online marketing.
The Internet's power for the straightforward marketing of a product, service or personality is evident. But the Internet increasingly is being used to market products in ways designed to be opaque. Some schemes can compromise computer users' security; they live in the Internet's gray areas where savvy marketers can easily hide their identity and seek out naive or reckless users who willingly give up their e-mail addresses and other identification.
One popular marketing ruse is the meat puppet: a fictional person that passes as an actual human being online.
In September, more than 300,000 users of Facebook -- the popular Internet social network for college students -- got meat-puppeted by Ruckus Network Inc.
Herndon-based Ruckus is a legal network for college students to download and share music and movies via a limited, peer-to-peer network. The fledgling service wanted to attract the attention of potential customers -- college-age students, 18 to 24 -- so it created a phony college student named "Brody Ruckus" and set up a Facebook profile page for him, joining the 10 million profiles of real people on the service.
Only Ruckus didn't tell anyone that Brody was fake.
Meat puppet Brody, his page said, was a student in Atlanta. He sought a threesome with his girlfriend "Holly" and another woman. If 100,000 Facebook members joined his page, his girlfriend would acquiesce to the group-sex experience, Brody wrote.
Brody's bold bid caused a mini morality stir in the Facebook world and prompted a flurry of articles and columns in college newspapers. More than 300,000 members signed up.
A few days after Brody's page went up, Facebook discovered he was a fake and pulled the page down for violating Facebook's terms of service.
But Ruckus Networks got access to the e-mail addresses of the 300,000 Facebook users, some of whom began getting unsolicited e-mails about Ruckus products. Ruckus, which is privately owned, is headed by Michael Bebel, the former president of Mashboxx LLC music service and former chief operating officer of the legal version of Napster.
Ruckus would not comment on the Facebook episode, but a source with direct knowledge of the incident said the Brody Ruckus character was dreamed up and launched on Facebook by a zealous young Ruckus employee, who still works at the company. The photo of the fake Brody Ruckus depicted a friend of the Ruckus employee.
The source, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of harming Ruckus's business interests, said the Ruckus e-mail solicitations did not come from the company and that Ruckus will not use the addresses to directly pitch products to Facebook users.
However, the source said, users did agree to join the Facebook group of "Brody Ruckus," so if Ruckus resurrects the character, users may expect e-mails from him.
Such a fine-line, and potentially confusing, differentiation illustrates the formidable and complex marketing forces arrayed against Internet users. Such ploys are nearly impossible for social networks to prevent. Facebook did not respond to several calls and e-mails seeking additional information about the incident.
"This is happening across industries when someone wants to get a buzz," said Richard W. Easley, professor of Internet marketing at Baylor University. "It's a strategy that a lot companies are using, but unfortunately, it's clearly deceptive."
Meat-puppeting and sock-puppeting are only the most recent, high-tech versions of disguising oneself to gin up some publicity -- a scam as ancient as the art of PR itself. When James Cagney was a struggling young actor, he wrote fan letters to his studio under different aliases, lauding the performance of the fabulous James Cagney. The first big Internet marketing campaign based on deception made the low-budget "Blair Witch Project" a hit in 1999.
Nowadays, interns at record labels sometimes act as Internet "shills, " spending hours in chat groups posing as fans trying to build buzz for their artists and posting things like: Have you heard the new Killers album? It's hot!
Each is an example of "astroturfing," or the attempt to create the appearance of a grass-roots buzz for a product or service. "Trolls" are users who enter online discussion forums solely to bash users or products.
When most people hear "sock puppet," they think "Lamb Chop," the stocking sidekick of the late ventriloquist Shari Lewis. For guerrilla Internet marketers, however, a sock puppet is a false online persona, a virtual sock meant to conceal one's identity. It usually takes the form of a second account set up by an existing user under another name.
Earlier this year, a Web site popped up called iDont.com that criticized owners of Apple Computer Co.'s popular iPod digital music players for being sheep and conformist drones. The site attempted to build up an anti-iPod groundswell. Digging through the Web site, users found that it was put up by SanDisk Corp. to promote its new digital music player, a rival to the iPod.
Recent Internet phenom "Lonleygirl15," a teenager who posted video diary clips on YouTube, turned out to be an actress hired by two Southern California filmmakers hoping to promote themselves.
The Internet has made it easier for businesses and organizations to create advocacy groups -- virtual fronts -- that are not immediately connectable to the originator. For example, the Center for Consumer Freedom -- a lobby funded by fast food and tobacco companies -- has several anti-activist Web sites, such as PetaKillsAnimals.com.
All may be fair in winning hearts and minds, but purposeful deception for the sake of monetary gain, or access to information, could raise legal concerns.
"It becomes an issue if consumers provided information they might not have otherwise provided if they knew it was not the site of a private person," said Heather A. Hippsley, a Federal Trade Commission lawyer. "There's potential problems in all of that if you're getting people to participate in a potential commercial enterprise through deceit."