Reddit, a social networking news site where content is produced in the form of discussions, news articles, photos and videos, is one of the world’s largest websites. As of this writing it currently ranks 64 on Alexa. As such, Reddit is a great resource for keeping up to date with current events, promoting a brand, discussing politics or — in the case of Facebook — using multiple fake accounts to promote Facebook. This is known as “shilling” and was once thought to be a phenomenon solely in the minds of conspiracy theorists.
Recent Snowden leaks show that GCHQ, the NSA counterpart of the United Kingdom, was also “shilling” to disrupt public political discourse, although it has been known for much longer that corporations, under the guise of “reputation management,” utilize a similar service. As such, yet another conspiracy (one I was admittedly skeptical of) has turned out to be true.
Here are two screen shots from the clever Redditor who discovered the pro-Facebook manipulation:
Note the following:
- These are multiple accounts.
- They’ve used the exact same complex phrases, word for word, but organized differently.
This is likely indicative of an article spinning program. This is a common program used for Search Engine Optimization (incidentally, “reputation management” is a subset of SEO). In short, you plug in multiple words, phrases and sentences and it rewrites new sentences, phrases, and paragraphs for you. It is a bot, a computer program, but if done right it can seem natural.
What we have here is a Facebook shill — perhaps an employee or a third party contractor — using multiple accounts and an article spinner to promote Facebook. This is likely far more common than most people realize, but this is one case where the individual was caught red handed due to poor effort using the spinner. These tactics go beyond marketing. Not only do they violate the rules of Reddit, but they serve to manipulate discourse and sentiment in on-line communities. Where individuals are unable to see face to face, it is assumed that each account is a distinct individual. Yet, a major corporation is able to assume the identities of multiple individuals to promote its own brand.
On Reddit, this is compounded by the voting system. Every account is given one vote. And as many as five or ten votes are able to significantly sway the tide of a discussion. They can bury a new article or a comment so that it will never be seen by “downvoting” it, or they can quickly push an article or comment up for more views by “upvoting” it. Thus, a small determined group — a government, as per the Snowden leaks, or Facebook in this case — is able to create a false consensus and sway the tide of public sentiment.
You may be skeptical as to just how effective this manipulation is. Well, remember Solomon Asch? Asch was a psychologist in the 1950s who set up what are now classic experiments on conformity. He brought in an experimental participant into a room along with other participants.
Asch asked: “Which line is the longest?”
And as they went down the line, one by one, each participant said it was C. Now, you may have noticed that C is wrong. B is the longest line. The reason everyone said it was C is because all of of the participants were confederates in the experiment. This means they were working with Asch. There was only one actual experimental participant. And he did not know everyone else was in on the gag.
When it got to his turn, which line do you think that he said was the longest? C, of course. He conformed. The consensus of the group, without even putting direct pressure on him, was sufficient to cause his conformity. Despite his own eyes telling him that B was the longest line, simply because the entire group picked C the experimental participant picked C as well.
This experiment has been repeated countless times since the 1950s.
The power of group consensus is incredibly strong. And marketers know this. Thus, while it may seem strange that Facebook, a huge multi-national corporation, would send people to a website to manipulate public sentiment it is not beyond belief. This is just one part in the strategy of a multi million dollar business. And, without a doubt, it works.
That being said, you’re now at an advantage. Why? Because if you know about conformity, just as if you know about any cognitive biases, it serves as a form of psychological inoculation. You should be less susceptible to the influence of group conformity in the future.
Also, delete your Facebook.
Here is a link to the original thread. And, as a quick summary of the drama, the individual/individuals involved have now claimed that they were “just joking.”
So, you’ll have to make up your own mind. Facebook employees/shills, or not?