The Social Media Debate: Fake My Ride

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Has social media helped put the public back into public relations? Have two way conversations and content sharing replaced one-way publicity driven communications and media manipulation?

Content sharing, Facebook comments and Twitter conversations can be seen as the very incarnation of Grunig’s idea of symmetry in PR.

On the other hand, organisations and governments are not always interested in starting a debate with their audiences and sometimes even manipulate the content, the conversations and the free flow of information online.

In this brief reflection on the topic, I will share my thoughts on the problem of faking comments or numbers on social media. Click here for my take on Wikipedia editing and conflict of interest.

I was reminded of the practice of posting fake comments on social media by my Chinese classmates during a debate in contemporary PR theory and issues. They spoke about the many examples of government or corporate employees and state media allegedly faking comments or followers numbers on Weibo. Their goal? To support the party line or generate publicity.

It resonated painfully with my own experience of reading inflammatory comments under articles in Bulgaria’s leading news sites (such as vesti.bg and dnevnik.bg), which are so mindbogglingly outrageous, they can only be written by chronic maniacs or paid provocateurs.

In the western world, there have been recent revelations about fake reviews of products and services by The Guardian and NY Times. Even more frighteningly, it would appear that as much as 70% of President Obama’s own Twitter followers are comprised of fake accounts. In fact, the fake Twitter followers phenomenon has become a business in its own right.

So what does that mean for PR professionals? I would argue that, theoretically speaking, this is simply a case of supporting organisational goals, which is in turn, the main function of communication. After all, who do you think gave the idea to Sina to fake their Weibo fans numbers, or to Mitt Romney to boost his Twitter followers in the midst of an election campaign? Much like the story of the altered BP Wikipedia page, PR practitioners were merely doing their job.

Is it ethical? Of course not. Should it be done? Not a smart idea.

However, for the sake of the argument, it must be said that these cases only reinforce the notion of media manipulation and dysfunctional, asymmetric communication practice. While the bright side of social media has provided us with unseen levels of genuine publicity, the press will jump at any chance to expose the maliciousness of PR as long as it exists.

And something tells me it will always do.

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