March 2006

Among the most discreditable of practices is "Astroturfing" - a process where a special interest group pays people to create a fake grass-roots movement for or against something. The good folks at Wal-Mart are currently trying to reinvent blogging, transforming it from a free method of information exchange into mere advertising.

What ever happened to honesty? Wasn't it the case, not very long ago, that most people were pretty honest? Of course the meaning of being honest has changed subtly in the past few decades, too, so it's pretty hard to tell. It used to be that if an ordinary person went into a store and was lied to (and found out about it), they'd avoid that store and tell all their friends to avoid that store. Honest people didn't tell lies and didn't put up with people who did. They certainly did not favor them with their custom.

You tell a friend these days that XYZ store lied to you and they're apt to say, "so what?" or "yeah, everybody does that" or "but they've got the lowest prices." People have gotten conditioned to being treated like criminals - being scanned at every exit and watched by a thousand cameras. If all the customers are crooks, why should you be surprised when all the store employees are dishonest, too?

The most recent example of systematic dishonesty I've come across is the brainchild of the people who do PR for Wal-Mart. They've discovered the Internet and they've figured out that many people go online and look up other people's opinions about products, stores, and social issues. Some of these opinions are available on consumer assistance sites, while most of the rest appear on an ever increasing landscape of blogs. Most blogs are web sites that contain the views of a particular person or group, together with public responses to those views. Some are very definitely directed toward something specific, while others pride themselves on ranging all over the cosmos. The PR folks at Wal-Mart are paying people, lots of people, to voice opinions on these blog sites - not their own opinions, naturally, but the corporate opinions of the Wal-Mart leadership.

Go out to any public blog and post something bad about Wal-Mart. True or not, in a few hours or days, you'll find that this opinion has been found and that many people, apparently, disagree. Some people might honestly disagree, but it is impossible to distinguish these actual people from the fakes from Wal-Mart. There is a term for this: astroturfing, which is defined as an attempt to make a fake grass-roots movement for or against something.

Paying people to pretend to support an idea or cause and to argue on its behalf is dishonest. Paying them to also keep the fact that they were paid advocates a secret is also dishonest and ought to be illegal.

Previous to this, there have been other PR shell games, where people were paid to engage other shoppers (or other PR shills) in apparently spontaneous and genuine conversations about products or politics in an effort to influence everyone who heard the conversation. This was proven to be an effective selling technique, when done properly, but it was expensive and tended to reach only very small groups. It was also dangerous for the PR folk, who were attacked by their intended victims whenever they were unmasked.

But through blogspace on the Internet, one clever liar can reach millions of potential shoppers. We've gotten so used to being lied to in advertising. Now companies like Wal-Mart are threatening to pollute a global resource that is of tremendous value to billions of people all over the earth and turn it into another liars carnival.

I don't shop at Wal-Mart for many reasons. This is just one more in a long line of dishonest, depraved, and indecent things Wal-Mart is doing in my world. I wouldn't go into a Wal-Mart for free beer. No honest person should confer their blessings on Wal-Mart's atrocious behavior by spending their money there.

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