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Lie to Me: The Dirty Truth About Online Manipulation

The world around you is a lie.

Virtually every aspect of online presence can be manufactured and really, you’re none the wiser.

In this article I’d like to expose some of the online manipulation methods that are used, are taught, and I have used in order to manufacture a more successful looking online presence. It must be noted that if done correctly, good online manipulation is virtually untraceable, but if done poorly will damage your reputation faster than you could possibly imagine.

It must be stated that these manipulation methods for getting content ranked are nothing new. Media manipulation has existed in nearly all forms of media, so that they are applied to the internet should come as no surprise.

Publishers buying several copies of their own book to make a best seller’s list. Record companies using call centers to request specific songs on MTV. Movie producers staging boycotts to earn free press about a movie…

This is the type of stuff we’re talking about, and because nearly everything can be anonymous online, the internet is easier to manipulate.

This is going to be the first in a short series that exposes these online manipulation methods.

What I’ve done (and the mistakes I made.)

I’m not without blood on my hands.

In 2007, I created a music video for a musician, and that video found it’s way to the top of the charts on Myspace (people were still using it then).

As a result, the band outsold many national acts on midnight release at our local independent music chain.

The method for topping the charts was simple. A plugin called ReloadEvery for firefox would reload the page at set intervals of time. A “view” on Myspace at the time counted after 5 seconds of the video playing, so we set ReloadEvery on 60 or so tabs on three computers and let it run until the browser crashed.

Myspace’s chart rankings at the time were based only on view counts. With 720 views happening every minute that equals out to roughly 1.04 million views by the end of the day.

From the casual observer’s standpoint, you have no idea where those views are coming from, all you see is that it’s fast rising, which sparks your curiosity and gets you to click. That’s all I really need.

It’s important to note that discovering this method was by total accident on a sleepless night. What I noticed was that at 3am est – or midnight pacific – all of the view counts were reset to 0 on the charts. After refreshing the page, I would notice unnatural growth for such an odd hour. Seeing this movement on several videos is what tipped me off that there were automated means being used on nearly every video in the charts.

In other words, 3am was the gunshot fired to see who had more robots that could move their videos the fastest.

Where I failed…

Though the video maintained position in the charts and gathered some comments, it was a significantly disproportionate amount for the views that were happening on the video.

Where I went wrong was not also setting up fake accounts to comment on said video. As one guy (and no experience), the sheer volume necessary was simply too much to maintain.

The comments section of the national recording artists I was competing against however, were more fleshed out. Many of these I’m sure were authentic because the artist was already known, but digging deeper into the accounts of other commenters you would find several “private” and information sparse profiles.

Soulja Boy was among one of these artists at the time, and his campaign represented the other fatal flaw, I never leveraged the fake exposure to get real exposure.

The way this works is whoever is in charge of promotion takes those fake view counts (and comments) then sends them over to a relevant music blogger.

The blogger then turns around and shares the story with their audience. Whether they like it or not is irrelevant, because with such high view counts, clearly somebody likes it, and if they’re the first to “discover” a new artist, they get more online street cred.

After the song gets featured on one smaller blog, you send an email from another fake account to a slightly larger blog with some details on the musician who then shares with a larger audience.

Then you take that buzz that’s building, and start sending emails to late night talk shows(Like Conan or Jimmy Fallon), day time talk shows (Like Ellen), larger music networks (Like Fuse) and watch the coverage start to trickle it’s way down the smaller blogs all over again.

My second miscalculation…

If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with my show “Inside The Mind.”

A dirty truth about the show was that after noticing a dip from the first episode to the second, I decided to purchase some views for the second and third videos.

Nothing crazy, just a few thousand extra views to make things look like they were going well.

Now while this may offend you as someone who watched the show, let me share with you the most important observation from this…

When there were a larger amount of views, you were more likely to comment.

Maybe not you specifically, but statistically speaking on the videos that have reasonable 4 figure views there were high double digit interaction rates.

It all went haywire when someone on my team took it upon themselves to purchase views ranging around the 20-24k mark.

To be as truthful as possible, I was unaware that the views were purchased, but because I set the precedent, I have no choice but to take responsibility.

The truth is, when I was in control of the view buying, it encouraged natural feedback without making things look distorted or pushing me to leave comments from fake accounts (which I never want to do).

To re-iterate, when there were a reasonable amount of fake views there were more pieces of genuine feedback like comments and “likes”

When the fake views became unreasonable the feedback dropped off, likely due to cognitive dissonance.

I’m not sharing this with you because I’m proud of what happened, nor am I trying to condone my actions, but to let you know that these methods exist, and many popular blogs use similar tactics to get you to pay attention.

 Leveraging “Social Proof”

Ever notice how some of the “dud” posts on certain popular blogs always have the similar amount of social shares that happen?

Without naming names, I’ve noticed popular blogs have anywhere between 300-500 shares on posts that only gain around 10-15 comments… how does that happen?

Two ways actually…

The first isn’t quite so dirty because the blogger’s have no control over it. This is when their readers automate the blogger’s RSS feed to automatically update Twitter.

Services like Twitterfeed.com do this instantly or on a delayed release, but my personal favorite tool for this is SocialFlow which will only releases at the most optimal time (I talked about in Episode 21)

Like I said, this isn’t as dirty because the blogger has no control over it. What is dirty however is when a blogger pays someone to become part of their “distribution” network.

What’s even dirtier is when a popular blogger creates several twitter accounts, then uses a service like “tweetadder” follow a bunch of people in the same niche, then uses something like twitterfeed to automate all of those accounts updates.

If a person is running several profiles through a service like TweetDeck, they could also maintain the appearance of legitimacy by putting out real tweets and responding to real people, all the meanwhile funneling most traffic over to the main site.

Then let’s say that blogger has fake accounts to kick off the first couple of comments, and perhaps even those commenters get into a fight with each other…As soon as you jump in and comment, as soon as you click the share button yourself, you’ve validated the entire process.

The whole point is that these methods create the appearance of legitimacy in order to gain actual legitimacy.

Now, for the major question, does it really matter?

If you don’t know you’re being scammed – and you actually gain value from what you’re interacting with, does it make a difference?

I’d love to get your thoughts on this ;-)

Join The Conversation

  • Aug 24 Posted 4 years ago Karen Kaffenberger

    Great post, Tommy. Of course, online and media are not the only places where potential customers have been manipulated. Years ago when I worked at a hotel in a highly competitive area, the staff would park cars out front on slow days. Why? Because if people driving by saw an empty parking lot, they kept on driving. Put a few cars out front, and all of a sudden you had customers. Online manipulation reminds me of that. Put a few comments out there, and all of a sudden you get real commenters. 

    Although I've never done it, I do know a colleague in the financial industry who did something similar when he was starting up his website and Facebook page. He had a well established brick and mortar business, but had very little online presence. He bought 1,000 Facebook followers local to his area to kick start engagement. He told me it was very successful, and was able to garner over 1,000 real fans in no time. Once he obtained real followers, he got rid of the fake ones. 

    I think many people are impatient and don't want to wait, so they try to accelerate the process. I'm also curious; was your job on the line if you didn't produce a certain level of engagement within a certain amount of time, and if so, would it have been doable by more legitimate means?


  • tommyismyname's picture
    Aug 23 Posted 4 years ago tommyismyname

    There's no doubt about that Katia, but I think you're missing the point of the article. 

    It's not that ALL social proof is manipulated, it's that some is manipulated in order to be more attractive to real people. 

    For the record, I stopped with the number inflation because ultimately you either have to live with a bad secret, or greed can get out of control or someone else takes over and does it far worse. It's a monster that must be fed. 

    The "branding" occurs when real people see the fake people, and assume you're legit. 

    It happens when you're using "legit" tactics in tandom with the not legit tactics in order to break that treshhold.

    "make quality content" is not always enough, because "quality" is so subjective. These manipulation tactics  are to increase the validity of "quality" to a real person. 

    See what I mean? 

    The whole purpose for publishing this article is to show that these tactics still work, and that if you're going to open your wallet to people you have to question whether or not these tactics have been used on you. 

  • Aug 23 Posted 4 years ago kstaxman

    Well Tommy just let me know where the topic is being discussed and I would be happy to join in I'm always looking for a good discussion and I’m sure this topic stirs up any group that brings it up.

    And it’s sad that many miss that much of what you did was what you had to do. Not necessary right but necessary. Online today is a jungle and if you don't do something to stand out you'll never be noticed or discovered at all.

    Anyway I loved the article and the truthfulness which you shared with us just how you "stood out" from the crowd. Sadly when working online it takes doing some things that we aren't real fond of but just have to do or not succeed.

    Wonder how many saw that without some black hat work your music or videos would never have even made the chart because so many others were using the same tactics you adopted?

    And I wonder how many would do just the same things if they knew how to if it meant failure or success? 

    I've notices that what is judged as fare or honest is often anything that I wouldn't do and of course that changes as necessity dictates. If you could see behind the lines I'm sure that many who are your worst critics have done similar things. But you opened up and shared with us the dirty little secrets that are out there going on all the time.

    For that you are to be commended not as having done good but having come forward to share so we all may know how it really is behind the scenes online today.

    And your article wasn’t intended to be a discussion of right and wrong or good and bad but rather a disclosure of what it takes to make it on line in some areas today.

    For that reason my kudos are still there for both your article and your openness.

    So if you give me a quick link I'll be glad to join if the topic is still being discussed.



  • tommyismyname's picture
    Aug 21 Posted 4 years ago tommyismyname

    This has to be by far one of my favorite comments on this subject, and I wish you were in one of the other places this conversation is taking place online right now where the only thing that is being latched onto right now was how I used dishonest tactics... smh

  • Katia Bashutska's picture
    Aug 20 Posted 4 years ago Katia Bashutska

    It is unfortunate some dirty techniques are still being used and what's worse they still work! Not for long though and they won't give much in return anyway. The number 1 rule if you want to succeed in Internet Marketing is that you need to build your brand! If you open a number of tweeter and facebook and other social media accounts, how can you brand yourself? I am happy there are still some awesome internet marketing training systems that teach you to do it all with high integrity! They really work too:)

  • Aug 19 Posted 4 years ago barbfow50

    Can I join your triber tribe? barbfow50

  • Aug 19 Posted 4 years ago kstaxman

    As in all cases of scamming the system it comes down to the purpose and the amount of the scamming we can accept. Sadly the internet & to a lesser extent all media is controllable today and what can be done will be done.

    So as you noted in the music business for example if your not using some scamming methods you'll be drown out by those that do. It's not if you use it it's if you want to stand a chance of being "discovered" or "heard" over all the noise such activates create.

    We've all had that happen to us as we work and write a great blog post and talk about it and share it all over all our accounts only to see nothing happen, little or no views and few or no comments. All the while you see other sites make a post and it's viral in hours if not minutes. WHY... what "magic" do these bloggers and commenter’s have that you don't?

    The "dirty little secret" is just what you've had the guts and honest to talk about. They ALL have some kind of system or support group in place to rapidly create buzz and interest. The internet is about numbers, views, and comments. Get those and you grow and get attention. Don't have them and you'll stay lost forever unless you've got the luck of a lottery winner.

    So what’s a "decent", "honest" blogger, Twitter, FaceBook user to do??

    That's a question that each of us has to answer and that answer can range from the "nothing let nature take her course" to using everything you can find in the "full speed ahead take no prisoners" approach.

    Somewhere in the vast spectrum of action that we could take and what actions we do take each of us will find our comfort zone and somehow justify what we do and how we do it. That's just human nature when it comes to ethics. We find a way to "make right" what we do and how we do it. In this case it's usually the "everyone else is doing it so I've got to" excuse.

    Anyway like or not we are all are involved in the constant and never ending game playing that is life. It's nice to see someone admit that and show just how they've been both fair and unfair in how they’ve done that on line.

    Thanks for a wonderful read now pardon me I've got some posts to spread around, some comments to make, and a Triber group to get started buzzing about it. Even we who don't think of ourselves as manipulators’ have a few tricks up our sleeves.

    So have a great day filled with buzz, comments, and interesting dialog… if you get bored you can catch up with me on Twitter @kstaxman where I hang my hat most of the time and we can share thoughts on this and other things…


  • Aug 19 Posted 4 years ago barbfow50

    I liked my own comment by mistake. Anyway, it does help to understand it. And I perosnally think that if we thought about the "Noble route" deeply, most of us would elect to take it. Sometimes, we just don't htink things through and go down a path we didn't expect. 


  • tommyismyname's picture
    Aug 19 Posted 4 years ago tommyismyname

    No, it's not. 


    And in the end I think it's important you understand how it all works so you can make your decisions accordingly. 


    Many bloggers beat themselves because they think they're not good enough, when really a good percentage of the competition is overinflating themselves. 


    Once you understand that you're intentionally taking the harder, more noble route, you can feel more accomplished over your real wins. 

  • tommyismyname's picture
    Aug 19 Posted 4 years ago tommyismyname

    I think you're right, but I also think it depends on who you're targeting...


    IF you're a person who sells information on gardening for example (let's take it away from social media) and I don't know jack about gardening (I really don't) and you've done a fantastic job targeting the long tail keyword I'm typing in AND you have all this manufactured social proof, how am I to know you're not legit on gardening? 

    Is it before I decide to buy your infoproduct, or after? 


    Furthermore, if your product funnel is designed to always keep me needing more, at what point do I blame YOU instead of myself for being duped? 

    And even I do say "This person is a phoney!" when most of your social proof consists of robots... who am I telling really?



  • socialitesos's picture
    Aug 19 Posted 4 years ago socialitesos

    I have mixed feelings on this.  People using their networks  to get more shares is just another way of getting more shares.  At the end of the day the truly valuable content will rise to the top.

    That said, how is 'buying shares' any different really to buying advertising space?   OK, it's sneakier and more underhand, but not surprising.  Many top bloggers either have done this, or still do this even now.  They do this because they know it's highly competitive and getting your name out there sometimes takes more than just talent. 

    If your figures are manipulated, but your content doesn't stack up, people will soon see that and as such this wont work. 



  • Aug 19 Posted 4 years ago barbfow50

    I think sharing the practices, even though they don't speak well of what you did, is valuable to all of us. As to does it matter, if someone broke into your house and looked through your things, but didn't steal anything, does it matter? It matters, but you are right that if everyone else is doing it, it is easier to justify. But it is not JUST. Thanks for sharing. @barbfow50

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