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Lie to Me: The Dirty Truth About Online Manipulation
Posted on August 19th 2012
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