Artful Disguises  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   October/November 2006

Artful Disguises   

Sultans of spin masquerade as amateurs on citizen media Web sites.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


If you're unnerved by the amount of inane video and commentary people post on the Web, consider that some of that digital detritus has been carefully crafted by advertisers and spinmasters, for whom amateurism is an art.

In my last column I urged news organizations to make better use of citizen-generated content on media sharing sites such as YouTube.com. Around the same time, a story in the Wall Street Journal pointed out that not all of that stuff is as homegrown as it pretends to be.

In May, a two-minute movie called "Al Gore's Penguin Army" was submitted to YouTube by a user with the amateur-sounding handle "toutsmith," whose MySpace profile identified him as a 29-year-old male from Beverly Hills. Mocking Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," the spoof garnered nearly 60,000 views by August. On August 3, the Wall Street Journal connected toutsmith with a computer registered to DCI Group, a Republican public relations firm whose clients include Exxon. Exxon has denied any association with the clip; DCI has refused to discuss it.

Two weeks after the story was published, the clip had been viewed nearly 418,000 times with 2,100 combative comments posted by viewers on both sides of the global warming debate. Many on Gore's side cited the Wall Street Journal exposé and slammed the film as "pathetic," "boring" and "amateurish." The video's sponsors probably weren't aiming for pathetic and boring — but the campy, amateur-looking editing job was no mistake.

While most of the video, images and ideas on shared content sites and personal blogs are raw and genuine, fakers and posers were bound to show up eventually. For young consumers and the special interests trying to reach them, the social Web is the happening place to be.

In early August, Foster's beer announced it would devote 100 percent of its American ad budget to the Internet, including a campaign of homemade-looking ads on Heavy.com, a video site targeted at young men, and other Web sites. Currently there are several Foster's ads on YouTube.com. Some obviously were pirated from TV, some are clearly the work of happy customers — but none appear to be produced by Foster's. Then again, how would we know? (YouTube is a treasure trove of pirated and spoofed ads — apparently advertisers don't mind being ripped off as much as Hollywood does.)

Beer ads are for fun, and it's hard to be ethically outraged about people having a laugh with a product. Corporate infiltration of citizen media took a darker turn last March, when the New York Times reported that a PR firm hired by Wal-Mart was plying bloggers with "exclusive" news tips about the company and recommending talking points for their posts. Pro-Wal-Mart language provided by an employee of the PR firm showed up in blog posts almost verbatim, without attribution to the company. The PR staffer had warned the bloggers to "resist the urge" to copy his text word for word to avoid attracting negative attention.

Even political campaigns are embracing social networking and media sharing sites — and sometimes finding themselves on the wrong end of the camera. Candidates across the country have started their own YouTube groups, and several have dispatched camera-wielding campaign workers to follow opponents and instantly upload gaffes to the Web. Candidates such as Ned Lamont, a Democrat running for a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut, have created their own YouTube groups filled with campaign ads, positive news coverage and campaign video. In an August story by the Associated Press, a political consultant likened YouTube clips to "video press releases" that have a greater chance of getting into news coverage than traditional campaign materials.

Getting into the news is, of course, the Holy Grail for all of these groups. Now that mass media are watching the grassroots Web, advertisers and special interests see a real chance to break out of restricted ad space and into news coverage, simply by igniting a viral sensation online. That's fair game, as long as the messengers identify themselves.

The creepy thing about the Gore spoof and Wal-Mart's PR campaign is that the messages appeared to have come from individual citizens. Imagine other situations in which these tactics might be used. People submitted numerous clips to YouTube during this summer's Israel-Hezbollah conflict; they send video from Iraq all the time. Sooner or later, some news organization is likely to republish fraudulent video on a serious subject without verifying its origin.

That doesn't mean journalists should shy away from citizen media sites, or that they're encouraging the hucksters by covering what goes on there. To the contrary, news organizations need to be alert to the activities of commercial and political interests in the citizen media sphere. Through their reporting, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times made a lot of citizens and journalists a little wiser about who's sitting at the table.

Professional journalists should continue to graze the grassroots Web for content and story ideas — but also be aware that sometimes the real story is the agenda behind the content. Think of it as another beat to cover, and watch out for penguins in disguise.

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