Former TTAC moderator comes forward, says he witnessed on-line shilling by GM, other OEMs

Picture courtesy Tanzania Central Bank

Summer 2009 was a heady time for auto blogs and their readers. Michigan auto and parts companies were falling faster than their share prices. The termites of foreign and domestic competition, intransigent executive management, careless lending, and poor product ate away the foundations of General Motors, Chrysler, and, to a lesser-extent, Ford, until the debt crisis bubble pop brought these mighty corporations tumbling down.

Understandably, playing defense against their myriad opponents—former customers put off by shoddy quality, PR minions of crosstown- or cross-state rivals, bloggers who had a voice and found an audience for some hard truths, and lowly trolls who infect any story with a comments section with their barely-literate ramblings—beleaguered employees started fighting back in the comments sections of various auto blogs, including The Truth About Cars.

Around June 1, 2009, the day of the GM bankruptcy and when Robert Farago published “General Motors Death Watch 260: The End”, I, a moderator for TTAC.com, noticed a change in the tone of comments. Besides the usual, occasional heated exchanges between commenters, there were more angry, desperate, or sometimes-threatening comments directed at Mr. Farago and other editors and writers. Some of those comments came from new accounts that originated from Chrysler-, GM-, or Ford-assigned IP blocks.

Other commenters revealed themselves as auto company employees. The IP addresses from which these comments were made usually corroborated this. Contrary to Mr. Niedermeyer’s belief that it was employees who registered their accounts with screen names appended with “of Ford” or “of GM,” in fact it was I who appended “of GM” or “of Ford” or “of whatever” to screen names leaving comments from corresponding automaker IP blocks. I did this for a few reasons:

  1. for the convenience of forthright commenters like Christy Garwood—who made it clear and obvious that she was a GM employee and made no bones about it—so that she could leave a comment or a reply without having to identify herself each and every time;
  2. to verify and give context to comments for the benefit of the site’s readers (such as “jamie1”’s assertion that he was indeed Jay Ward of Ford Communications—or at least someone who worked for Ford—which, to a reader without the benefit of knowing the sender’s IP address, was questionable given the comment author’s penchant for making spelling and grammar errors); and
  3. to slyly inform anonymous scoundrels (those employees who left less-than-mature comments) that they were not truly anonymous.

This game was one of the short-lived, cat-and-mouse variety. Over time some commenters took umbrage at my modifications and altered their profiles so as to obscure their associations. After I left TTAC in late 2009, my low-tech version of Twitter’s verified accounts faded into the archives, and anonymous shills again had free reign.

 

Editor’s comment:

Jeff Puthuff administered TTAC’s comment section under the Farago regime. A rarity in this business, Jeff is a professional wordsmith. In real life, he is an editor of technical publications, and he possesses a rich background of computing arcana; he surely knows what an IP number is.

Together with Daniel “The Stern Style Guide” Stern, Jeff publishes The Truth About Grammar.  Its subtitle “fighting the war on error” says it all. Occasionally, Jeff sends me a short email, fixing mistakes in my English-as-a third-language (my first was Bavarian).

It wasn’t Ed Niedermeyer who erroneously believed that it was employees who registered their accounts with screen names appended with “of Ford” or “of GM,” it was I. Going through TTAC’s records while I still had access, I saw comments by  users such as “Bonneville200”, or “Captain Tungsten.” They were followed by a few comments by “Bonneville200 of GM”, or “Captain Tungsten of GM.” A few comments later, full disclosure evaporated, and it was back to the GM-less screen names.  

In good faith, I assumed that, in a short-lived bout of transparency, the under-cover users had marked their accounts as coming from GM. In good faith, I assumed this was in compliance with internal GM rules. I was mistaken. It was Jeff Puthuff who brought them in compliance, he told me on the phone a day ago. His help was unwelcome.  Adding GM “was futile,” Jeff wrote on Facebook, ” as those commenters often erased that tidbit from their profile names.”  They did so in violation of GM’s own rules.   The rules state, (here in their 2011 version): 

“Posting anonymously online should be avoided. You need to disclose that you work for or with GM whenever you participate in these discussions.”

Remarkably prescient, the rules also state:

“There are no secrets on the Internet. Information you may think you have protected as “private” on some social media sites may be accessed by others. Make sure you will have no regrets about what you said or did online if a reporter, a relative or your manager were to view it.”

These clear rules were violated in more than 3,000 comments left on Thetruthaboutcars without disclosing that their authors worked for GM.

Note to Jalopnik:  In Jalopnik’s mealy-mouthed story about the scandal, they write:  “Schmitt states that GM has an internal policy that those commenting online must identify themselves as GM employees.” It’s not Schmitt stating it, it’s GM’s own website.  Ed quoted the rules in his story, and he provided a link. Here is the link again.  If you can’t follow a simple PDF link, I suggest switching to another pastime, badminton perhaps.

I thank Jeff for coming forward with this information. I wish I would have talked to him earlier. In a long conversation, Jeff stated that he had tracked other automakers who also commented anonymously. Jeff touches on Ford in his story, and he mentioned in our conversation that he had monitored anonymous comments coming from Ford’s 19.x.x.x and 136.x.x.x netblocks. Regretfully, I no longer have access to TTAC’s database. TTAC does, other blogs can go through theirs.

The truly embarrassing part is that they don’t seem to want to check. They are missing a huge story. Amateurs.