Yet sometimes paranoia turns up in the oddest of places, like the comments sections of blog posts. As Media Matters for America reports, based on NPR media reporter David Folkenflik’s new book Murdoch’s World, Fox News’s PR agents fanned out to create dummy accounts in order to rebut critical material in the comments sections of blog posts regarding Fox News. Folkenflik, via Media Matters:
On the blogs, the fight was particularly fierce. Fox PR staffers were expected to counter not just negative and even neutral blog postings but the anti-Fox comments beneath them. One former staffer recalled using twenty different aliases to post pro-Fox rants. Another had one hundred. Several employees had to acquire a cell phone thumb drive to provide a wireless broadband connection that could not be traced back to a Fox News or News Corp account. Another used an AOL dial-up connection, even in the age of widespread broadband access, on the rationale it would be harder to pinpoint its origins. Old laptops were distributed for these cyber operations. Even blogs with minor followings were reviewed to ensure no claim went unchecked. [Murdoch’s World, pg. 67]
Now that’s organized paranoia.
Not to mention idiocy. Think about the cost-benefit calculus here. Comments sections on blog posts relating to Fox News are commonly very busy places, where the ideologically pugnacious go to vent, and then vent some more. Also to beat up on other people. Of all places on earth, comments sections are perhaps the least amenable to PR work, given how full they are of people who are already convinced they’re right. So: What Fox News ever hoped to gain from doing combat in the comments is hard to ascertain, or to imagine. The Erik Wemple Blog has requested comment from Fox News on that very matter.
Now consider the risks involved with this comment-bombing initiative. Those risks include the possibility that the plan would be exposed by four departed employees and an enterprising author. The result would cast Fox’s PR shop in a bad light, revealing that they were creating fake accounts to advance the Fox News image. Another result would be more negative blog posts about Fox News, and thus more work for Fox News’s blog vigilantes, though it’s unclear whether the mid-’00s blog-monitoring activities continue to this day.
Perhaps the lesson to draw from all of this is that Fox News’s PR shop should start responding to more media inquiries, like those from the Erik Wemple Blog. For months and months and months, our questions routinely fetch no reply whatsoever. We always attributed this apparent policy to the material critical of Fox often published in this space. Now we know better: Those PR people have been too busy influencing comments.