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Cyber-shills and the problem with authenticity

  • AuthorKate Knibbs
  • Published Monday, June 10th, 2013
  • Comments0

We are a culture hooked on the idea of authenticity. This is nothing new, but the Internet has altered the way we measure and define authenticity. But an obsession with equating crowd approval with dependability impacts the way we choose where to shop, what brands to favor, and any host of other consumer decisions.

This reliance on the opinions of digital others, of avatars we’ve never met, puts us in a fragile position. Since a basic Google search will reveal mistakes and misrepresentations, we assume that people are being honest because they can so easily be found out. If you say you did something or went somewhere, your credentials are often double-checked on the Internet. So in that way your physical self requires backup verification from the Internet. Yet the Internet allows for massive amounts of manipulation. When people primarily interact through digital avatars, it allows the kind of identity jujitsu shown on MTV’s “Catfish,” which examines what happens when people to pretend to be something that they aren’t online.

Baz Lurhmann’s “The Great Gatsby” film adaptation arrived in theaters this spring, and Lurhmann’s version is set in a Day-Glo approximation of Fitzgerald’s 1920s. But transpose Gatsby’s setting to today, and he wouldn’t make his fortune schlepping bootlegged alcohol from drugstore counters. Now, Gatsby might be a malevolent hacker, a denizen of the dark side of the Internet, siphoning money from dubious schemes that include cyber-shilling operations. Gatsby mutated his personality and backstory with the tools at his disposal – imagine what he would have done with the Internet.

When Fitzgerald wrote “a new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about,” he could’ve been talking about the shady climate of cyber-shilling businesses. Where recommendations and affirmative content drift into existence after the poor ghosts of Late Capitalism churn whatever they’re being paid to say onto websites.

And what is cyber-shilling? It’s the act of endorsing a product for money, regardless of quality. It’s the digital snake oil business. And it’s booming.

We look online to validate our choices now, seeking comfort in the wisdom of crowdsurfed opinion. But businesses are taking advantage of the obsession with following the wisdom of the crowd and creating their own false crowds to follow. And with the rise of review-centric consumer sites and social media, businesses now have a robust array of platforms onto which they can disseminate endorsements they paid for without making it obvious that the positive reviews are planted.

Cyber-shills: the new century’s snake oil peddlers

Sifting through dung to find well-researched, authentic information is often difficult for consumers. Online shoppers often confront how difficult it is to verify honest reviews and endorsements. Even expertly written testimonials cloaked in thorough facades of legitimacy can be empty shills, typed from the dank rooms of cash-strapped freelancers. These false endorsements are very different than obvious spam, which is still a problem that websites must endure – the type of spam that promises thousands of dollars a day working from home, that type of thing – because deceptive shills expertly simulate authenticity and confound consumers.

Buying reviews is big business, since people want to check out products that others have already given a stamp of approval. And if you can’t get that stamp organically, it’s smart business to put it on there yourself. Bing Lui, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois-Chicago, told the New York Times that many five-star reviews are created, and he estimated that one-third of consumer reviews you see online are fraudulent.

The Guardian investigated the scourge of fake reviews and uncovered “almost an industrial scale” to the shilling business. Websites like provide a marketplace where organizations that want fake reviews written pick from eager bidders. The Guardian spoke to a prolific shill from Bangladesh who says he gets approached by numerous western companies, and has so much work he subcontracts it out to other workers in Bangladesh and India.

The proliferation of paid endorsements tarnishes crowd review sites like Yelp and diminishes potential for trustworthy consumer advice online, even from individuals whose connections to the products they endorse are not immediately apparent.

False endorsements extend far beyond a few written reviews – some companies apply a sort of “scorched earth” campaign to boost their digital profile. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara looked at the practice of “crowd-turfing,” a portmanteau between crowd-sourcing and astro-turfing that describes how some companies employ shills to blanket certain corners of the Internet with positive content about their products. The researchers examined how fake endorsements occurred on the popular Chinese social network Sina Weibo, which most closely resembles Twitter in setup. There are three main ways to spam Weibo: sending users instant messages, sending a tweet-style status update, or posting to a message forum. And while sending an instant message seems more blatantly spammy than anything else, the other two types of behavior can be passed off as genuine enthusiasm for a product.

What the researchers found underscores how rampant and insidious this shilling behavior is online – and many companies with shills on U.S. sites employ an international workforce comprised of low-paid workers.

Cyber-shills have infiltrated many different platforms for consumer-based reviews, including social media. The practice is prevalent on Twitter, and even Twitter users without particularly robust follower counts can sign up to promote products they’ve never used for a price. Celebrity endorsements wield even higher profits for the famous, and though tweets trumping the benefits of certain products may seem more meretricious than truly valuable, organizations keep springing up to provide connections between willing shills and businesses with products that need at least a veneer of crowd support.

Stopping Cyber Shills

Cyber-shilling is an unsavory practice, but it’s not a huge ethical departure for advertising and marketing culture. It’s an extension of the desire to jump on the zeitgeist and sugarcoat attempts to imbue products with an aura of grassroots support – and when that support isn’t present, it’s invented.

The FTC is taking note of how easy it is to plant endorsements, and have updated their guidelines to prevent this type of behavior. The updated guidelines stress the importance of disclosure and include a section focusing on paid celebrity endorsements on social media like Twitter. But these guidelines are not always followed, particularly by celebrities paid to promote products.

A group of researchers at Cornell published a study that rooted out what they call “opinion spam” – another term for fictitious reviews planted to boost digital standing. They developed a classifier to detect deceptive opinion spam that was 90 percent accurate, according to their work. The average consumer is unlikely to take the time to apply their findings – which outed many reviews on popular sites like TripAdvisor as the work of shills – the fact that people are developing ways to detect the problem means websites like TripAdvisor may have the tools they need to substantially reduce the problem.

Preying on people who hold the naive idea that social media connotes authenticity is certainly not an honest practice, but other practices are equally worthy of scrutiny. After all, U.S. courts will prosecute you for paying for fake reviews, and sites like Yelp and Amazon penalize users they suspect of hiring or being shills. Yelp even publicly “named and shamed” certain businesses soliciting false positive reviews.

However, despite efforts to curb the practice, it’s not going anywhere. One glance at popular services marketplace Fiverr illustrates how open people are about their desire to shill. “I will create a video testimony positively reviewing your business, website, or product for $5” reads one ad currently gracing the website’s front page – from one of the website’s top sellers. And her comment list reveals over 600 pleased clients.

What does the next generation of cyber-shills look like?  

The most problematic element of cyber-shilling is how effectively shills disguise themselves as “real” opinions. The individuals who solicit fake reviewing gigs on sites like Fiverr are especially valuable because they take pains to make their shilling look authentic – they appear far more trustworthy than spambots, and have real photos and the ability to elaborate on products in an authentic-sounding way.

However, less thoroughly deceptive forms of shilling can also blur the lines between content and advertisements online in a way that harms consumers and netizens.

For instance, although many people understand how targeted ads work, it’s not fair to assume that everyone who uses sites like Facebook understand that the ads they’re seeing aren’t random. The banner ads on Facebook are targeted, but there’s no blatant notice that that is the case. Obviously, the potential deception that an ad just randomly appeared is less egregious than the lie of a review that appears genuine but is actually a shill, but the practice of targeting ads still reeks of manipulation.

Another common online marketing tool online that’s not quite as sneaky as straight-up shilling but often blurs the line between appropriate advertising and unscrupulous tactic is the advertorial. Many advertisers pay for sponsored content on websites, which is fine – as long as an article is clearly marked as affiliated with a company, there’s no reason why that company can’t pay to put up a content-based advertisement. But some advertorials are disguised too well under the veneer of an editorial. And with recent updates to Facebook that make visual content more prominent, advertisements are becoming a more organic-looking element to the website, which makes it harder to tell if what you’re looking at is a picture from a friend or from an organization you follow, or if it is a targeted ad.

While individuals can profit from work as shills for businesses and organizations, people can also employ devious tactics to build their personal brands. While most people do not have the resources or inclination to pay others to write about them positively online, there’s a cottage industry of service cropping up to amplify perceived social influence. These services offer opportunities to purchase more Twitter followers and Instagram followers – an example of how individuals also attempt to circumvent organic loyalty-building to quickly establish a positive online reputation. Sometimes people use services that bulk up their followers with bots, but other sites have a cadre of people who are willing to follow you for a price. Either way, it’s a problematic method of obtaining heightened Twitter legitimacy because it erodes the value of having many Twitter followers in the first place – if you can simply buy them, then they’re not valuable for social capital.

The original form of cyber-shilling – writing fake reviews – is just the beginning when it comes to unscrupulous marketing behavior online. While the scourge of fake ads continues to be a problem, the rise of social media as a forum for paid endorsements and the concurrent growth of social media as a platform for integrated ad content also threaten to undermine the aura of authenticity we ascribe these mediums. This type of behavior is not likely to go away anytime soon unless major changes are made to existing laws or people become much less gullible.

Kate Knibbs is a writer and technology news analyst from the southwest side of Chicago. Reach her at, or check out her Twitter at @kateknibbs.

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