If you’re unfamiliar with the term “astroturfing”, join the club. It’s hardly a household term, but it defines our trust in earned media; specifically reviews and testimonials in unseen yet powerful ways. Which is precisely why it’s regulated with heavy fine imposed by the FTC

[1], up to $16,000 a day.

Astroturfing, in broad strokes, is the use of any fake grassroots campaigns to influence public opinion. While the definition can technically include any fake grassroots campaign, it’s most commonly manifest in fake reviews and testimonials.

Gaming the trust implied by reviews carries a heavy price tag, not only because it can destroy a specific business or person, but because it can broadly destroy the trust the public has in legitimate reviews. And trustworthy reviews represent a tangible benefit to society – they significantly reduce the risk of uncertainty to a consumer, and thereby eliminate barriers to doing business. That means more revenue for the business with good reviews, and less revenue for the business with poor reviews [2].

But some companies continue to believe that they are the exception to the rule. In 2013, the Taiwanese version of the FTC fined Samsung $340,000 for writing fake negative reviews for HTC products, as well as $100,000 each for the two independent firms who took part in the scam against HTC [3].

In 2009, LifestyleLift was ordered to pay $300,000 for posting fake positive reviews of its practice. Then New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo stated  the “attempt to generate business by duping consumers was cynical, manipulative and illegal.” [4] Again in 2013, the NY Attorney General fined 19 companies more than $350,000 for fake reviews [5].

More recently, a tweet [6] from @simonpang depicts a woman sitting in front of a panel of iPads, allegedly downloading and rating apps repeatedly in an attempt to game Apple’s  ranking system. Apple is fighting back, because revelations like this leave independent game developers disenfranchised. Developer Walter Kamar was quoted in a recent NY Times blog article as saying:

“As an indie developer, this totally demoralizes my passion to continue making apps for this platform, knowing that at the end of the day, all that matters is $5,000 and a bunch of bots ” [7]

Even more recently, on March 20-something Jason “Jay” Page from the UK, who lives with his parents, faces a £100,000 fine over a defamatory review posted about Timothy Bussey, an attorney from Colorado [8]. Ouch.

The moral of the story: don’t game the system. You will get caught. And when you do, you will pay with more than your checkbook. Press like that is practically inescapable, and will taint legitimate reviews forever. And with the janitors at Brand.com apparently having disappeared [9], there will be no company to cash the check to try to clear your name.

If your business is doing a great job, deputize your customers (and patients) to tell their story to the world. Such businesses do not need to game the system. The system will work for them.

We’d like to hear from you. Have you ever had a competitor or a troll write fake negative reviews about you or your practice? Leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts.