In my six month research into the undercover trolling brigade that used GM computers to leave thousands of comments on Thetruthaboutcars.com, the website both Ed Niedermeyer and I used to run, I talked to a few social media experts that worked for large corporations. Their reaction was universal: They were appalled by the amateurish approach. “But when you are bankrupt, you probably have to do DIY cheating,” quipped an industry executive who had survived carmageddon without government oversight. In a future article, we will cover how the pros cover their tracks. Today, we write why they usually don’t have to, because the risk of public pilloring is nearly nonexistent.
A few weeks ago, car site Edmunds.com reached a settlement with Humankind Design Ltd., which Edmunds accused of fraud and sundry other offenses. According to papers filed in a lawsuit in Texas, “defendants have registered more than 2,000 fraudulent accounts at Edmunds using fictitious names and have misused fraudulent accounts to submit fictitious reviews to Edmunds.” According to Automotive News, the accounts “had been registered solely to submit positive reviews for 25 dealerships.” Edmunds saw its “reputation as a provider of trustworthy information” in danger, and went to court. Finally, a website went public with a problem that existed for years. The case made headlines, because nobody had called-out the practice before.
When we asked other car sites to check their comments databases for the cuttings of GM astroturf, the answer was silence. When The Daily Caller’s Mickey Kaus asked on Twitter “Did they only do it at @TTAC?” nobody said either yes, or no. Not that it’s a tough research job to find out. In WordPress, the platform most sites use, you go to the comments listing in the Admin backend. You put “198.208.” in the search box, and you look at what you find. If you want to dig a little more, you run “198.208.159.“ and “198.208.251.“ from where most of GM’s comments at TTAC originated.
Instead of doing their journalistic duty, the blogs looked the other way in unison. The only site we found performing the search was Edmunds. They checked and found that “it doesn’t look like we have any of them.” Jalopnik did a long story on our story. They predictably homed-in on Jalopnik-worthy material, putting “vaginas” and “gays” right in the headline for all search engines to find, and did not miss one salacious detail to quote. What they failed to do was check their own comment listings. We don’t have access to Jalopnik’s databases, but a quick Google search shows that, just as a for instance, toplessFC3Sman, a prolific TTAC commenter with access to GM IPs, also was very active on Jalopnik. They probably have more, but they don’t want to talk about it. Even Thetruthaboutcars is acting as if nothing happened. If a hapless “buff book journo” rolls a provided car during a jaunt, TTAC will be on it, but since the story broke on Monday, TTAC wrote about California car dealers complaining about egregious Tesla ads, and the historical significance of aerobacks, but not a word about its prolific RenCen commentariat.
Instead, Ed Niedermeyer had to listen to off-site conversations, where we were accused of “ruining it for us all” by talking about a big taboo in the motor blogosphere. Let’s talk about it some more.
It is not in the interest of a site to police its comments more than absolutely necessary. Sure, they want to filter out the obvious spam, peddling fake Gucci bags from China, but only because they obviously look fake, bringing irritation to readers, and giving presumptive advertisers wrong ideas. What the average car site wants is clicks, in the increasingly elusive hope of translating those clicks into cash.
Comments are both free content and free traffic. Writing a comment produces a bunch of clicks. Once the comment is written, you come (click, click) back to check for answers. Comments trigger (click,click) other comments. A good flame war brings tons of clicks, and joy to the hearts of the website proprietors. Nobody wants to know where the clicks come from, as long as the clicks come. “I could care less if half of my comments come from a carmaker’s PR department,” the owner of a car site told me during my research. “If they want to pay me for their own clicks, why should I complain?”
Websites are even less vigilant now that they want to sell your conversations for money. “Sponsored conversations” are the new buzzword in the social media scene. Sponsored content, the writing of pimpatorials, is tired. The wired thing is to sell out the blog’s readers, and to draw them into conversations, for which you charge. Or rather, as the lingo of the Web 2.0 snake oil salesmen goes, you “leverage the trust and authority of your site’s thought leaders for better ROI.” Doing that, you simply betray the confidence of your readers. In the modern Three Car Monte game, the tricks are the same: The shills conspire with the dealer to cheat the mark, and that is you.
Why should you care? You read the blogs, because you want the opinions of real life people, not those of marketing machines. What you are given instead are marketing machines posing as real life people.
And this is one of the many reasons why the Daily Kanban does not have comments. I made my money the old fashioned way, doing honest to goodness ads for car companies. I don’t need the traffic to make $17.50 from Google Adwords … yet.