More and More on the Internet, Everyone Knows You’re a Dog

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The most memorable sock-puppet of 2007 was John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, who was revealed last year to have used a pseudonymous identity for more than seven years on an online message board. Mackey was not the first executive (or person from journalism, politics or the blogosphere) to have done what the New York Times defines as “creating a fake online identity to praise, defend or create the illusion of support for one’s self, allies or company.”

But with the coming of the New Year, we’ve already seen one of the first widely public cases of two people from a non-profit using an astroturfing campaign to anonymously promote their organization.

The organization is GiveWell, which was launched in 2007 and attempts to analyze the effectiveness of other charities, publishing its findings as a resource tool for potential donors. It received a flurry of attention on December 20, with stories in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal among other media outlets, with some praising their approach and others offended by their harsh criticism of other charity review sites and charities themselves.

But the greater attention came after first one founder, Holden Karnofsky, and then the other, Elie Hassenfeld, admitted that they had used fake identities to promote GiveWell online. (You can see the overview of all activity relating to this crisis on the MetaFilter wiki here, and an example of Karnofksy’s posts on MNSpeak.)

Karnofsky was demoted from his position as executive director and secretary of the Board, was fined $5,000, and is being required to take a professional development class. Mr. Hassenfeld was also fined $5,000 but is still in his position as program officer. (You can read the statements from the Board and Karnofsky on GiveWell’s blog.)

There are a number of lessons from this crisis. While Karnofksy did admit his transgressions and apologize after he was discovered, it took Hassenfeld till after the first Board announcement of Karnofsky’s transgression to come clean and apologize. As one person had already been unveiled, it would have been much better, both personally and for the organization, for both founders to have come clean at the same time. Peel the Band-Aid off only once – don’t make everyone go through the pain (time, energy, loss of organizational focus) twice, especially when the second action is inevitable.

Second, the kinds of comments and communication both were writing under fake identities would have been acceptable coming from themselves – if they’d revealed their identities and affiliation with the organization. Mostly, they were trying to let people know about GiveWell, and recommending it as a resource for people looking for information on how to distinguish between charities. If they’d been upfront about their identities and affiliation, people would have taken the recommendation for what it was and used their own judgment about whether to visit their site or not. Karnofsky said that he thought if he’d made the recommendations under his own name, they would have been “dismissed as ‘plugs.”

One of the questions we often ask our clients is, “what is the absolutely predictable outcome if you pursue action x?” If Karnofksy had asked himself that question, he might have been able to choose the action based on the outcome: it’s much better to be dismissed as plugging your organization than to be unveiled as lying, especially when the principles of your organization are based on transparency and honesty.

Finally, this case highlights the need for all organizations, for-profit and non-profit alike, to have a clearly outlined employee policy regarding online communication. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) has a “WOMMA Ethics Code” that is a good groundwork than anyone can build off of and adapt to their own needs, and the ePhilanthrophy Foundation has a “Code of Ethical Online Philanthropic Practices” and an “Ethics Self Test” that non-profits can use to address some of the issues specific to the non-profit/philanthropy world.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this will be the last time this kind of behavior will be uncovered on the Internet, but hopefully it will serve as a constructive lesson for organizations using online communication to connect to stakeholders.

(Image from mushon’s Flickr photoset under a Creative Commons license.)

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