The Internet shills: Automotive News confirms GM’s war on words, visits its command center

The war room - Picture courtesy autonews.com

A month after the Daily Kanban broke the story about GM operatives who were systematically, albeit a bit clumsily, subverting the comment section of a large U.S. car blog, GM decided to get, if not in front of the story, then at least behind it. GM gave David Barkholz of Automotive News access to its “social media command center,”  from where GM runs its war on words.

According to the report, the 18 members of GM’s social SWAT team not only passively monitor “Facebook, Twitter and 90 auto-enthusiast sites.” They also are “trained to engage with people online when appropriate.” The story makes the team look like soldiers of the Salvation Army who reach out to on-line commenters  to “find them parts, hook them up with dealerships or defuse their anger by showing them that someone at GM hears their complaints.”

Even holy wars have their share of atrocities, and of course, the AN story won’t mention comments made from GM computers, while AN wasn’t watching. Comments such as “you can easily recognize the latest Ford’s from the smoke and flames pouring out from under the hood,” or “BMW uses slave labor and burns gays at the stake.” Also unmentioned remain on-line posts made from GM machines while Kirk Kerkorian owned 9.8 percent of GM, posts such as “Kirkorian is a dick,” or “Kirk is an idiot.” The darker chapter of that story already has been told by the Daily Kanban. 

Nonetheless, the Automotive News story confirms our previous laborious research.

“A lot of effort is expended defusing problems or misinformation,” says the story, confirming that GM has, for many years, proactively intervened in on-line discussions.

After a source with inside knowledge of the GM PR machine had told the Daily Kanban that the work is  “done by a small team that is working right at RenCen,”  the AN story confirms that “the group was moved from Saginaw, Mich., to GM’s Detroit headquarters last year so the customer service group could be integrated more closely with social media marketing and communications.”

After we counted more than 3,000 comments left since 2009 from GM-owned IP addresses in the commenting system of Thetruthaboutcars.com, the AN article reveals that there is much, much more, and that “18 employees answer questions online or otherwise post 200 to 300 times a day. That’s about 5,000 to 7,000 a month, seven days a week.”

According to TTAC’s records, to which I had access while working there, a small number of comments posted from GM computers disclosed that their author worked for GM. The much larger number of comments were posted surreptitiously.  As documented by former TTAC moderator Jeff Puthuff, GM commenters even removed the “of GM” which Puthuff had appended to their screen names. GM’s internal regulations require such disclosure.

GM is so convinced that on-line opinions about General Motors and its cars are in need of major surgery that “this year it mandated that its 4,300 dealerships use one of three reputation-management vendors to help them solicit reviews and monitor posts or risk a portion of their factory incentive money,” Automotive News says.

The reputation management industry itself has a very bad reputation. Most of the output of that industry is massive search engine optimized spam, geared at pushing negative comments from the first pages of Google searches.  Just a few weeks ago, car site Edmunds.com reached a settlement with Humankind Design Ltd., a reputation management company 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.”

In a loose series, the Daily Kanban will be looking into how reputation is being managed and mismanaged, how shady operators not only fool the public, but scam companies, while blogs and search engine operators look the other way.