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Common sense dictates that you have to read opinions on social networking sites with a critical eye and more than a bit of skepticism. However, this week a we got a rare look beneath the skirt at how social networking sites are used to manipulate opinions by high priced marketing firms.
Rumors circulated the Internet over the past few days that an unknown principal had hired Burson-Marsteller, a top public-relations firm, to plant opinions and blog articles online attacking Google’s respect of privacy. USAToday learned of the story and disclosed the campaign in an article which speculated as to the identity of the unknown principal.
The plan seems to have unravelled when a blogger approached by Burson rejected their offer and instead disclosed the e-mails describing the plot. In a May 3 e-mail to Christopher Soghoian, a blogger and former FTC researcher, Burson’s John Mercurio offered to ghost write a blog story attacking Google’s data collection policies for Soghoian. Mercurio would then help Soghoian get it published as an op-ed piece inThe Washington Post, Politico, The Hill, Roll Call and The Huffington Post.
Today the principal behind Burson’s campaign was revealed by Dan Lyons of The Daily Beast. It was none other than Facebook. According to the Lyons article a Facebook spokeman confronted with evidence confirmed that Facebook had hired Burson-Marsteller and defended the manipulation of the social blogging for two reasons:
First, because [Facebook] believes Google is doing some things in social networking that raise privacy concerns; second, and perhaps more important, because Facebook resents Google’s attempts to use Facebook data in its own social-networking service.
At least some of the driving passion behind Facebook’s secret campaign seems to be a new Google service which pulls personal information from Facebook and other sources to create circles of friends which can be accessed through one’s gmail account. The May 3 e-mail describes this new service as follows:
Unfortunately the ink was barely dry on the settlement before Google rolled out its latest tool designed to scrape private data and build deeply personal dossiers on millions of users – in a direct and flagrant violation of its agreement with the FTC.
Interestingly, this news breaks at a time that the blogs and news sources are filled with stories about Facebook’s large number of members who are unsupervised minors.
So what is the reader to make of this? How many other articles on blogs and on-line news sites are manipulated by marketing firms. How can you trust any content when the social networking sites themselves are trying to manipulate news. Only one thing is certain — question what you read, read both sides and double check all sources.