Microsoft Shilling and Astroturfing

Bruce Ediger
Bruce Ediger's web pages

March 12, 2003

Shilling

Shilling comprises the practice of placing material (which may or may not be your own opinion) in public forums at the behest of your employer, without stating that you're doing it for your employer's reasons, with their money.

I'd like to make a distinction between advocacy (no matter how strident, wrongheaded, or fabulously biased) and shilling. In my view, as long as you state or write or say your own opinion, and it really is your own opinion, that doesn't constitute shilling or astroturfing. It's mere advocacy.

Astroturfing (in my view) comprises the practice of flooding a public forum with material that purports to originate at the "grass roots" - from many, supposedly real, people. If the corporation employs those supposedly real people who post marketeer's material as their own opinions, it's astroturfing.

Shilling Stinks

I think that shilling constitutes an unfair form of advertising. Ordinary opinions, based on experience, gain credence from the fact that the person who states the opinion actually tried whatever makes up the subject of the opinion. The opinion carries the weight of that experience.

Expert opinions carry credence because the expert nominally has examined all the alternatives, thoroughly and without bias. An expert opinion, from a think tank or authority figure, carries weight because many or most alternatives got examined in the course of determining the expert opinion.

Astroturfing has some of the same problems as shilling. Ideally, the material in a given public forum should carry the weight of mass opinion. If enough people believe a certain way, we should give that belief some credence. If a corporation fills a public forum with material that the corporation paid for, one may end up giving credence to a viewpoint that doesn't constitute a real mass opinion. Most of the public may in fact feel otherwise.

Shilling and astroturfing share the same problem. Practitioners of both hope to give their viewpoint a great deal more credence by concealing its origins.

MSFT Shilling and Astroturfing

Fake letters-to-the-editor provoked at least one nominally humorous editorial in 1998.

Microsoft had a front company lobby to have Google investigated on anti-trust charges in the European Union.

Astroturfing of The Register reporter seems a bit more subtle than most, and deserves a better explanation. In 2001, a major industry analyst, Gartner, advised its clients to stop using IIS 5.0. An online publication, The Register got hold of a MSFT sales channel notice promising better security for IIS 5.0 while MSFT writes IIS 6.0. The Register printed part of the sales channel letter. Over the next 24 hours, The Register got a bunch of letters from nominally "real" people outlining the rest of the talking points The Register had left out of the first report, essentially confirming that MSFT gets people to astroturf for them.

Just to clarify the multiple, confusing allegations of letter writing campaigns, I perceive two sets of articles on it. First, an April 10, 1998 Los Angeles Times article (only abstract can be had on-line for free) led to several of the articles above.

The second set of articles stems from an August 23, 2001 LA Times article. Again, only the abstract is available on-line for free. This is the campaign that had dead people writing in support of MSFT.

Except maybe in the case of stuffing an on-line ballot box, nobody can object to any of the material itself in the context of the usual press release and advertising output of a major USA corporation. Microsoft tried to conceal the origin of this material. The material gains credibility if one reads it in the context of a whitepaper from an unbiased think tank, or Joe Sixpack writing a letter to the editor of the local paper, or some techno-nerd posting to an on-line forum.

I grant that the fake user testimonials don't truly constitute shilling - after all, the fake testimonials appeared on MSFT's own web site. I also grant that many companies other than have membership in lobbying organizations. I do think that the fake testimonials, and the solicitation of other already-pro-MSFT companies to join a lobbying group help support the notion that one must examine very critically any pro-MSFT opinion that appears publicly. Darn near anything, from a "12 year old boy's opinion" to "unbiased research" to lobbying group PR to an online ballot box can contain MSFT propaganda, not the opinions or research or indenpendent thought they purport to contain.

Conclusion

The alert reader cannot believe any pro-Microsoft opinion presented in any forum.

I remain morally certain that some people hold legitimate pro-Microsoft opinions, with better or worse justification. Microsoft, or its public relations company(s), have so muddied the water with all the shilling and astroturfing that a neutral observer cannot determine whether a paid shill produced an arbitrary pro-Microsoft opinion as propaganda, or a random person produced it as his or her own opinion.