Published September 25, 2012
Vengeful restaurateurs, employees impersonating disinterested fans of their bosses, family and friends posting favorable "reviews," CEOs who use interns to write their personal "blogs,"online entrepreneurs who threaten unhappy customers, celebs paid to push products on Twitter. It's getting so that you can't trust anyone online.
Not that you ever could.
Anonymity has always been a hallmark of online communications, starting with the first pre-Web bulletin board services where you could engage in endless arguments -- who was the greatest Star Trek captain? -- with all the vitriol one could muster without fear that anyone would ever find out you were a closet Trekkie. What's different now is that there is a social networking pretense that people are sharing their true, sincere thoughts and personal lives online.
Twitter, for example, has become an endless stream of marketing posts, ads, and fake celebrity sharing. Most are tweets about upcoming movies, TV specials, concerts, et al, under the guise of sharing backstage thoughts or behind-the-scenes pictures on Instagram. Of course, many are also "managed" accounts written by a gaggle of publicists and public relations professionals.
One PR source regaled me with an account of a 3-hour meeting her firm had just to create a single 140-character Tweet for a client. Is this what people mean when they say social networking is hurting productivity?
While this may just seem like a harmless continuation of the days of teen gossip rags and J.J. Hunsecker when no one expected veracity, such online masquerades can have serious consequences.
Reviews by "customers" can often send business owners into apoplectic fits on sites like Yelp, but one restaurant owner took her displeasure too far. In Ottawa, Canada, restaurateur Marisol Simoes was convicted this month of criminal libel for harassing a customer who posted two negative reviews of Simoes' Mambo Nuevo Latino eatery. Simoes created a fake dating profile of the customer online with plenty of racy attributes and even sent spoofed e-mails to the woman's employers saying she was a "tiger in the bedroom" and interested in group sex.
All of this was over some diced olives (the customer asked them to hold the olives).
In a similar case in New York City, Vitaly Borker, the owner of glasses site DecorMyEyes.com using the name Tony Russo made rape and death threats to customers who complained about his business online. Borker initially saw some of the complaints as a bonus because the links raised his business' ranking in Google search results. The more negative reviews, the more hits he got. But he's not laughing now: Borker was sentenced earlier this month to four years in prison and has to cough up roughly $100,000 in restitution and fines. (Incidentally, Google says it has since re-worked its search algorithm to prevent negative posts from improving a site's ranking.)
Online impersonation and intimidation has become so rampant that even those working for local politicos are doing it. Just this week, an employee of New York's state assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was outed by the New York Post for defending his boss under a pseudonym. Bill Eggler, 48, called himself Sophia Walker online and posted comments defending the speaker's handling of a sexual harassment scandal. Eggler has since lost his Internet privileges at work.
Psychologists routinely note how people feel freer online to make threats, lie, and impersonate others when they would never condone the same behavior face-to-face. Unfortunately, it's led to a new level of cynicism expressed to me recently by a teenager: "Yeah, I saw reviews of it on Yelp, but you can't go by that."
Ultimately, of course people can be traced on the Web through IP addresses and court orders. But who is going to spend the time and energy to track down every Amazon user review?
All each of us can do is be ourselves online -- just don't expect that anyone else is.