Linkbait-Gate: Examining the Fallout

Linkbait-Gate: Examining the Fallout

After last Friday’s post discussing the issue of fabricated linkbait, I thought I had said everything I needed to on the topic. No one was more surprised than me to see the debate rage on and on over the last seven days, with a number of arguments put forward on both sides.

It quickly became apparent that for many, the problem wasn’t merely the fabrication of news for linkbait, but the large number of SEM professionals that applauded the development.

Throughout all the blog posts and forums and Twitter chats, a few questions or statements have come back again and again, creating new questions and new areas of debate. Therefore, I thought it necessary to explore some of this fallout to try to answer the question of whether hoaxing is a valuable online marketing technique or a worrying nail in the coffin of online credibility.

1. We’re marketers. We lie for a living. What is different about fabricating link-bait?

Marketing is often about presenting something in a better light than it would naturally appear. Emphasising strengths while downplaying weaknesses can be seen by some as misrepresentative, but marketing can never change or create the facts. This is why there are very clear truth in advertising laws under the Federal Trade Commission Act (in the US) and similar laws in other territories.

Ribena last year suffered a large fine and the ignominy of apologising to customers for misleading behaviour after it was exposed that their advertising message was a lie. The blackcurrants in Ribena do NOT contain four times the vitamin c of oranges. The public backlash was swift and Ribena is still struggling to repair its shattered reputation.

There is another point to consider here as well. Marketing is processed by consumers very differently to other mediums. We understand that marketing has an agenda and we allow that to inform our perceptions of the validity of the opinions made. We know facts cannot be fabricated, but subjective opinions can be influenced by the commercial concerns behind them. Most consumers of marketing understand this and engage their critical faculties accordingly.

The laws also cover marketing that masquerades as news. Both in the UK and Australia (and I assume the US) it is a legal requirement – not a guideline or an ethical suggestion – to have a prominent disclaimer on any marketing piece that mimics news. That is why, when flicking through a newspaper, you may come across a page formatted and laid out similar to the news stories, but with the clear legend “Advert” or similar across the top.

News is covered under far stricter guidelines of fact and bias to protect the reader from deliberate obfuscation. When we read a piece created to mimic a journalistic style, our critical faculties take into account a different set of criteria than if we were reading satire or marketing and are less likely to question the validity of the words.

2. Everybody else does it, including politicians, so why can’t we?

One of the most commonly made arguments of the last week, but also one of the weakest. It also indicates an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s own actions, a common theme this week.

When I was growing up, if I ever tried to excuse my actions by pointing at my friends, my mother used to say to me “If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you follow?”

But let’s look at who these political liars and hoaxers are and what the true outcome is.

Politicians lie. Well, maybe they do. But when we find out they lied, does it go so well for them? Bush’s lie about WMD (before you debate whether it was or not, just take it as an academic example) helped him get a huge amount of support at first. Yet opinion turned against him very strongly indeed when the perception of the lie became commonplace. Bush has endured record low approval figures in the last two years and most attribute this to the public belief that he lied about the reasons for going into Iraq. Similarly, Tony Blair’s credibility was shot and his government found itself struggling under negative press for their ‘massaged’ documents for the war in Iraq.

Nixon, Clinton, Howard (for those of you in Australia) have had to weather incredible negative press because of their exposed lies and not all of them survived. Even those that do face it out are worse off for the lie. It almost always leaves a dent in opinion polls and makes their job of governing that much harder from that point on.

Do you really want to risk the reputation of your website or your client’s in this way?

3. It was the responsibility of the news services to fact check. This was about exposing how silly the media is.

Yes, there is no denying that the news services didn’t do themselves a favour here.

But does that absolve the original writer of responsibility? If I know you won’t check my background when I enter into a financial relationship with you, does the responsibility lie solely with you when I rip you off?

The argument that this reveals the stupidity of the media only works if you expose the fraud to the audience. This has not happened and shows no sign of happening. The media may have cottoned on to the con but they aren’t exactly publicly shamed by the silence on the part of the hoaxer.

4. Hoaxes are great for publicity and have great value. Look at Orson Welles and The War of the Worlds.

Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio dramatisation of The War of the Worlds has been mentioned a few times in the last few days as one of the most famous hoaxes of all. Michael Gray uses the Welles’ play on his blog to illustrate how effective and valuable hoaxes can be.

Orson Welles never planned the dramatisation as a hoax. He never intended for the audience to believe the radio broadcast was real and was horrified when he heard of the mass hysteria it caused. Welles used the news announcer format purely as a dramatic device for only the first half of the play, before switching to a traditional dramatic style that clearly revealed the fictional origins. Sadly, many listeners had already fled their homes by this point and were unaware how the play resolved.

People armed themselves. Farm silos and water towers were shot at. Panic was widespread. Are these things to be considered valuable or lamentable?

The backlash to the play was massive and overwhelmingly negative. CBS forever changed its dramatic guidelines to prevent such a thing reoccurring. Welles narrowly avoided punishment but was still censured for his involvement.

If this is to be held up as an example of how “hoax news stories have value”, then it quite clearly indicates the opposite.

5. It was satire. Is satire to be penalised? Why is The Onion or Jon Stewart okay but this is wrong?

Jon Stewart, Colbert, The Onion, Private Eye, etc are all established satirical magazines or websites. If someone submits a piece from The Onion to Digg, it is placed under ‘Comedy’. If someone even mentions these names, most observers are familiar enough to understand their satirical content without any further explanation.

After all, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart isn’t broadcast on CNN but The Comedy Channel.

The line is not blurred between satire and news. We cannot submit a piece to Digg as news and then claim we only intended it as satire. Satire apes fact but with a fictional spin. To be able to do this, it has to clue the audience in. Satire that doesn’t identify itself as such risks the joke being lost. It is the preservation of this line that gives satire a unique position within the law, allowed as a defence in cases of libel or slander. Remove that line and the defence is lost.

6. Are Google going to complain about every April Fool joke now?

This last one is a product of Matt Cutts’ short comment yesterday on Sphinn.

My quick take is that Google’s webmaster guidelines allow for cases such as this:
“Google may respond negatively to other misleading practices not listed here (e.g. tricking users by registering misspellings of well-known websites). It’s not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn’t included on this page, Google approves of it.”
There’s not much more deceptive or misleading than a fake story without any disclosure that the story is hoax.

Since Matt’s comment, paranoid posts have flown up accusing Google of attempting to be the moral police and predicting penalties, algorithm updates and the sky falling in.

I’ve written previously about the hysteria some SEO professionals have towards the big “G” and this latest development only reinforces my observations then.

Google was never going to endorse fabricated content, especially when it was designed to produce a vast number of links and therefore game their algorithm. But it is a huge leap to assume Google will instigate Matt’s opinion as policy and enforce a value judgment on every piece of content on the web.

Even though Matt demonstrates how fabricated content breaches the Google webmaster guidelines, he doesn’t say anything about how search engines could enforce it in this case.

But Google would not go after April Fools jokes and the like even if they did decide to take action. April Fools jokes involve two steps. First, the deception. Second, the reveal. April Fools jokes are examples of hoaxes where the whole point is in revealing the deception to the gullible. An April Fool joke that can be mistaken for real news on April 2 is not an April Fool joke.

7. The internet is full of fake information.

True. It is. But is that desirable?

In all the arguments and debates flying around, to me this is the one that matters. Sure, the stable door is flapping on its hinges and the horse is way out of sight, but does that mean we give up and let the internet become a muddy pond of rumour, inaccuracy and myth?

Call me holier than thou if you must. Call me an over-reacting busy body who wants everyone to “think of the children!” But online information integrity will eventually become an issue that requires a response.

Wikipedia is now considered to be an inaccurate joke by many because of the sheer amount of fabricated information people are willing to put online. What was intended to be a definitive resource of information is now forever tainted with a scepticism that will probably never diminish.

Do we want our online news to become similarly tainted?

I know not everyone thinks the same way about this to me, but I view all information as a legacy. I care about that line between fact and fiction. I want to know that when I tell my daughter a fact, it isn’t going to turn out to be an urban legend the next day.

Decades from now, the internet will undoubtedly be the primary information source for most of our civilization. More than books, newspapers, television and radio, the internet is becoming the portal for millions of people to access information on which they base decisions and learn about the world.

If we don’t put a line in the sand and try to protect the sanctity of information as much as possible, we are passing on a legacy of disinformation and rumour.

You may think small fabricated stories are trivial and I’m over reacting to the effect they have. But trends start somewhere. If this is acceptable, then more will occur. If we endorse one minor transgression, other less minor ones will follow, especially if marketers decide it is an effective tool.

The words “end”, “wedge” and “thin” are racing towards each other at alarming speed as more and more online competitors endorse the tactic or high-five Lyndon.

Just as everyone took to bigger cars and fought for their right to do whatever they want with the environment throughout the previous centuries, eventually global warming set in and became a provable phenomenon. Online, global warming will be that tipping point where the internet stops being a reliable source of information and begins to lose its effectiveness under the weight of misinformation and manipulation. Fabricated content is the SUV gas guzzler attacking the online ozone layer.

The internet is truly of and for the people. As such we are the caretakers of the online information. I believe that comes with a level of responsibility.


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