Suppose I told you I had information that one of the largest technology companies in the world had willfully misled the public through an extensive and deceptive stealth campaign about itself and one of its rivals.
A huge scandal, right? Outrage everywhere! Rebellion against the offending brand! A mass burning of that company’s smartphones in the public square after sundown!
Actually, not so much. I do, in fact, have such information about what sounds like a messy scandal. But it’s not through any long-term investigation: I actually read about in a short, matter-of-fact news report. This report has been met, so far as I can tell, with a global shrug.
Yes, word came today that Samsung has been fined by Taiwan’s Fair Trade Commission for orchestrating a bogus online campaign to boost its own products — and denigrate those of rival HTC. This is the culmination of an inquiry that started back in April, looking into allegations that the electronics giant had “ hired students to write online articles attacking HTC and recommending Samsung cellphones.”
The punishment? A $340,000 fine. Given that Samsung’s reported profits for the third quarter of 2013 were around $9.4 billion, on revenue of nearly $54 billion, that’s not exactly an existential threat. It’s as inconsequential as a lone 1-star review amongst a sea of raves.
Surely, though, in the era of Web-enabled accountability, it’s not just about the money. Hiring people to pose as citizens slagging a competitor is patently egregious. Above and beyond any theory of false advertising, it pollutes and degrades public discourse in general, and makes the online world worse for everyone. This is behavior that makes 19th century snake oil salesmen seem like harmless amateurs. That a massive multinational brand would stoop to organizing a fake troll squad against its rivals ought to be shocking.
Evidently, it’s not. And that’s probably why this sort of thing happens — and in all likelihood, will continue happening. Indeed, the slap on Samsung’s wrist arrives in tandem with reports that a rash of enthusiastic BlackBerry reviews are also fake.
The response to this news has been a big “Whatever.” Even the (one paragraph) item that brought it to my attention focused largely on the idea that HTC has enough problems on its own, so it’s “odd” that Samsung would bother to organize an “online troll ring” to attack a weaker rival.
Okay, but isn’t there something there that’s a little bit beyond “odd”? Isn’t there in fact something jaw-dropping about a celebrated multinational signing off on such a brazenly dishonest scheme?
Perhaps the answer is simply: Not really. After all, this is hardly the first instance of fake negative reviews, and fake reviews in general, joining the grand conversation that the Web makes possible. Enlisting an army of bots to do your online review bidding seems to have become the Way of the Web: Forget it, Jake, it’s YelpTown.
For big companies like Samsung, then there seems to be no effective penalty for this noxious behavior. Even if they get caught (and ponder for a moment who doesn’t get caught), the cost is a rounding-error fine, plus a day or two of mildly negative publicity that outrages almost no one and changes no one’s mind about the company’s products in general. By the time the phony reviews are discovered, they have already done their good or harm — likely thanks to a longer shelf life than routine reports of negligible fines, perfunctory apologies and dubious promises to do better in the future.
The risk/reward assessment for launching a disinformation campaign, then, is depressingly obviously: Just do it.