My policy with comments to the blog is to leave them unmoderated. So anyone can post any comment any time without getting prior approval from me. My feeling is that people have a right to express their opinion. So even though there seem to be some people who scan the web to find anything even remotely related to their pet topic and then post very long screeds about their pet theory that has only marginal relevance to my post, I have let those comments stand, not wanting to be in the position of censor.
But one problem with such an open-door policy is that it allows for spam comments to fill up the comments section. One of the curses of the internet is the amount of spam that goes around. Every day my mailbox contains a large amount of it that I have to delete but with the blog has come a new form of spam, in the form of comments that are generated by so-called spambots, automated devices that crawl around the web being a nuisance. The purposes of these are to either advertise a product (often sex-related) or to post hyperlinks that will boost the search engine ranking of a particular site.
Most of these comments are obviously spam, some consisting of random phrases or gibberish or even the alphabets of other languages, others fulsomely praising my entries with repetitive phrases, such as “Cool site”, “I love this site!”, “This site is cool/crazy”, “I just discovered this terrific site and will bookmark it”, “Nice design”, and “I’m happy. Very good site.”
Some reassure me that things are going well for them, saying things like “I’m fine” while others try to keep me up with popular trends by saying “Punk not dead.”
Since the point of the blog is to generate meaningful conversation, I have to take steps to prevent the comments section from being filled with spam and discouraging genuine posts. The server that hosts my blog has some features built in that detects and prevents spambots from posting most of their comments. But some still sneak through and I have to go through all the comments a couple of times every day to eliminate those. If a comment looks robotic and has no relevance to the post, I delete it. I also use the opportunity to rescue and publish some genuine comments that the filter has wrongly eliminated
But spambots are getting cleverer. Sometimes I find comments that seem as though they are written by a real human because they are sort of relevant to the post, but yet seem vaguely familiar or slightly off. On closer investigation, I find that it is because the spambot has taken part of the text of a genuine comment by a real user, or even my own words in the post, and inserted them as its own comment, in order to get past the filter. I delete those comments too.
More recently, though I have encountered an even more difficult situation. This is where there is a brief comment that seems to be written by a genuine person, but which seems to be advertising a product. The comment feature has a space where people can insert their url and I have no problem with genuine commenters using that to link to their own website, even if that website is a commercial one.
But what is happening is that companies are apparently paying real people to visit blogs that have vaguely relevant posts and post comments that are mainly meant as advertisements. One of my posts has been especially hit by this phenomenon, generating 35 comments, most of which appeared to me to be of doubtful origin. Take a look.
This is apparently part of a trend called viral marketing where companies are using real people to create fake grass roots buzz about something, because it turns out that studies suggest that people trust word of mouth information, even from people they don’t know, more than they do official sources and vastly more so than commercial advertising. So you may find ‘friendly’ people you meet in a bar or a coffee shop (they are called ‘leaners’ in the trade) talking about how great some product is, and you do not realize that they have been paid to go around doing this.
Andy Sernowitz, author of Word of Mouth Marketing, talks to On the Media host Bob Garfield about how this phenomenon is now being used on the internet.
ANDY SERNOVITZ: There’s two big ways that people try to sneak past you: either they lie about who they are, so you think you’re reading an honest comment on a blog and it’s actually a marketer in disguise with 20 different logins, or they’re paying other people to recommend something on their blogs or email or Facebook and not telling you that those people have been paid.
You usually see it most from either sort of low-end, sleazy, like, health remedies and get-rich-quick schemes and that end, or you see it from entertainment companies, from folks who are out there to hype a song or a movie.
BOB GARFIELD: Some of this is called pay-per-post, right – bloggers getting X number of cents for every time they post a favorable appraisal of a new song or something?
ANDY SERNOVITZ: Yeah, you see a couple of big operations. One company’s actually called PayPerPost, and it pays you to write blog posts about stuff. There’s a new one called Magpie that pays you to send stuff out over your Twitter account under your name.
And where it gets more interesting is the way things get repeated in social media. And this is what concerns me more, is that a company might pay through this pay-per-post service to get 200 people to blog something about them. And it says this was a paid placement in the blog post, so technically that’s okay. They did say it was paid for.
But then those blog posts get repeated on their Facebook page and then on Twitter, and then someone else copies it, and suddenly 10 times more posts have the exact same paid review. Well, we’ve lost the disclosure that made it honest. I mean, really, the big idea here is this word “disclosure.” And what it says is, it’s okay to pay for coverage. That’s called advertising. But you have to say, and now a word from our sponsors.
So what should I do when I suspect that a comment is being posted by a real person but for commercial reasons rather than for having a genuine conversation with other readers or with me? Should I delete them or give them the benefit of the doubt?
I am leaning towards this policy: If I suspect that a comment is either spam or being posted purely for the sake of advertising something, I will delete it unless the comment contains some redeeming features, such as advancing the discussion or providing relevant information.
What do you think?
POST SCRIPT: Corruption in medicine
The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine is published by Elsevier, an outfit that publishes many leading journals. It is sent to many doctors. But the magazine The Scientist just revealed that this “journal” is not a real, peer-reviewed journal publishing original articles. Instead it is funded purely by the drug company Merck and contains reprinted or summarized articles favorable to Merck products.
George Jelinek, an Australian physician and long-time member of the World Association of Medical Editors, reviewed four issues of the journal that were published from 2003-2004. An “average reader” (presumably a doctor) could easily mistake the publication for a “genuine” peer reviewed medical journal, he said in his testimony. “Only close inspection of the journals, along with knowledge of medical journals and publishing conventions, enabled me to determine that the Journal was not, in fact, a peer reviewed medical journal, but instead a marketing publication for MSD[A].”
He also stated that four of the 21 articles featured in the first issue he reviewed referred to Fosamax. In the second issue, nine of the 29 articles related to Vioxx, and another 12 to Fosamax. All of these articles presented positive conclusions regarding the MSDA drugs. “I can understand why a pharmaceutical company would collect a number of research papers with results favourable to their products and make these available to doctors,” Jelinek said at the trial. “This is straightforward marketing.”
If there is one area of science where fraud and corruption will threaten to discredit the whole enterprise, it is medicine, because of the money and influence of the drug industry.