Reputation Laundering: Privacy-Washing in Close-Up

Popzazzle | Saturday, 13 November 2021 |

"A measure of our acceptance of ads-in-disguise if ever there was one. We see the ads. We just don't realise they're ads."


Washing
Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash (image cropped)

Over the past few days, I've looked on in bewilderment as yet another new... ahem, "private" search engine entered the market. This one's called You.com, and it's an annoying, heavily-bankrolled spyware den with conditional access, forcible key-logging (i.e "search suggestions"), micro-monitoring of users' page actions, and in default mode, both Bing and Azure loading their trackers on the page. Yet people have taken the brand's "private" headline seriously, and the buzz appears to be flying - much to the frustration of one or two long-established rivals.

I was wondering how comical the privacy-washing genre would have to become before the first wave of privacy brands started grumbling...

"Hang on, we've all spun a bit of spin here and there, but smart-ass newbies can't just crawl onto the scene with some aggressive blob of spyware and blag our market!!!"

That moment appears to have arrived. And judging by public reaction to You.com, smart-ass newbies very much can just crawl onto the scene with some aggressive blob of spyware and play the Eth Tech game.

The existing Eth Tech brands only have themselves to blame for this. They built a culture in which we, the public, were directed away from their privacy policies and onto marketing pitches. Often, indeed, the opening salvos of their privacy policies were (and still are) marketing pitches, designed to shut down our page views before we got to the uncomfortable legal. Now they're mad because similar tricks work for spyware builders.

In this post I'm going to look at how we got into this mess, in which no matter how sharp the surveillance-teeth of a new product, its vendor can shout the word "PRIVATE!", and we'll launch into a spontaneous round of applause.

HOW WE GOT DUPED BY PRIVACY-WASHING


Privacy-washing works in part as a product of our own optimism. We're more likely to believe something that sits well within our psyche. So merely by telling us something we want to hear, brands can give themselves a head start.

But the spread of privacy-washing is a lot more dynamic than that. Its primary weapon is a calculated distortion of the perceived message-source. Simply, the brands present their message as if it's coming from someone else, or is at least validated by someone else. This incredibly powerful weapon has traditionally been filed under "Public Relations", or PR. More recently it's been lumped into the category of "growth-hacking", but my favourite term is "reputation laundering" - that's the most accurate description of what happens.

PR is the art of advertising through a system of credible proxies, which purport to be (and importantly, are considered by the public to be) a trustworthy and independent source. Public trust in businesses is dramatically higher when a message appears to be coming from an impartial third party, and driving public trust in that way is what PR is all about.

Award-winning UK journalist and best-selling author Nick Davies is someone who’s broken some of the nation's most incisive public interest news stories. There's nothing he doesn't know about the news and features industry. His insider understanding will give us a perfect soundbyte to encapsulate how PR works. For not only has Davies delivered news and features at the highest level, he's also extensively analysed news reporting itself. Based on his extensive experience, he's cited a culture of laziness within journalism, which allows PR-savvy marketers to control what the public see and hear. Interviewed in a BBC television documentary, Davies said…

“Good PR does not reveal its own hand. Good PR is disguised as though it were simply news, or a feature. And in that very important respect it’s different from conventional advertising. PR comes in pretending to be the work of a journalist, and therefore the consumer isn’t alerted, and is therefore more likely to be manipulated by it.”

And this – more insight from longtime insider Davies, speaking in the same documentary…

“The reporters don’t know what’s going on, so they rely to an alarming extent on stuff being fed to them – little titbits from the PR people.”

This notion of the news machine being widely ignorant, idle and/or reliant on spin is indeed evidenced in the derivative nature of websites, blogs, and now the particularly manipulable world of independent podcasts and vidcasts. The presentations are so often almost identical from outlet to outlet. They’re spun from the same angle, with the same quotes, the same cliches… One would have to be staggeringly na├»ve not to recognise that many ‘copywriters’ on the tech blog scene are merely embellishing the same press release.

In theory, the more of the outlets' work that the PR marketers can do for them, the better the chance the marketers have of grabbing a place on a high-reach soap box. By feeding forth a raft of juicy quotes and newsworthy claims - taking charge of a creative element that news blogs can find difficult, and doing so FOR FREE - the PR marketers can make it almost inevitable that their message will hit home with all the authority of a third-party source.

Couple this with some of the less powerful tech blogs' need for a relationship with the brands - which they know they'll destroy if they give the brands a hard time - and you have an ecosystem tailor-made for whitewash copy. Mouthpiecing for the brand, with just a sprinkling of harmless, trivial crit to make it look unbiased. I used to write for magazines. I know how that shit works.

We should also not forget about straightforwardly paid placement of content marketing, which we the public perceive as content rather than marketing. Brave Software CEO Brendan Eich said in a Reddit discussion, when asked why the company was not advertising...

"We are advertising, we do paid-media growth hacking every month. Are you asking a more specific question about why you don't see Brave ads on certain media? Thanks for any clarity but don't assume we are not advertising. We are, I see and approve the budget!"

A measure of our acceptance of ads-in-disguise if ever there was one. We see the ads. We just don't realise they're ads. And our rampant sharing of these ads-in-disguise, as is, with no critical contribution of our own, takes brands' messaging to an even wider public, undiluted.

Hop into social media and take a look. You'll see the same tech headlines repeated over and over in an optimism-drunk party. Headlines that didn't even come from the author of the blog post that people are linking to. We are spreading slogans that came straight from the brand's own marketing department, but we think we're passing on some intrepid journalistic assessment. We're literally spreading adverts. We don't realise we're being used as human spambots.

UGC MANIPULATION


But if you think privacy-washing has to be confined to complicit tech blogs, guest-desperate pod/vidcasts and staked out growth-hack venues, think again. Brands can also use massive user-generated content (UGC) sites to spread their spin. Classic UGC venues for privacy-washing include Reddit, Quora, YouTube and Twitter. These venues are not owned by the privacy-washing brands, so once again they can make a message look as if it's open to scrutiny. But the brands have been very careful where, and how, they tread. On Twitter they've recently used tactics like banding together, which increases their reach, and helps cloud the targeting of questions, making the tough ones even easier to avoid than Twitter's design already makes them.

Avoiding tough questions is a common theme on UGC platforms, and it often sits at the epicentre of brand strategy.

For example, in August 2021, Brave held a discussion on Reddit about their browser's privacy. So the venue for that would have been a privacy subreddit, right? Nope. It was their own BAT Project subreddit. And there's a major difference between playing at home and playing away, so to speak.

Apart from the obvious concerns about bias and filtering on a sub controlled by Brave themselves, why not hold a privacy discussion on a privacy forum? Answer: because Brave already knew they could not take the inevitable criticism from actual privacy subs, and had specifically asked to be disassociated from at least one of them. Here's the basis on which they made that request...

"[W]e, the maintainers of Brave, do not have the necessary bandwidth to respond to all complaints and/or trolling about Brave as a result of it being listed on privacytools.io."

Wow! You won't be seeing that one in a tech blog interview.

What the brands are looking for is a public impression of scrutiny, as opposed to actual scrutiny. They calculatedly set out to manipulate not only what the public sees, but also the lens through which the public perceive themselves to be seeing it. The companies funnel their adverts through apparently independent information sources, creating fake systems of neutrality and transparency in the process.

And when all that fails? Pay a highly credible voice to scrub up your image, as MeWe did with Tim Berners-Lee. It's not clear how long this - the tech equivalent to Ricky Gervais endorsing McDonalds - will remain an option for privacy-washing brands, if indeed it hasn't already disappeared from the menu. The MeWe association has proved damaging for Berners-Lee, and if names of that stature were not already averse to doing deals with Eth Tech brands, they certainly will be now. But it's shown us another of the many ways in which Eth Tech PR has sought to proxy its brand message through far better trusted podia.

THE REAL PROPELLING FORCE


It may seem that we've already reached the nub of the problem. But actually, we haven't. The nub of the problem is not any of the above tactics. It's not that Eth Tech wants to present itself through a fake lens of impartiality, or indeed that so many parties are more than willing to let that happen. The nub of the problem is that it's possible at all for adverts-in-disguise to achieve prominent online visibility. And that's the fault of Big Tech - most centrally, Google.

I've discussed the corrupt face of search engine optimisation before on this blog, but to summarise...

Google's algorithms decide what we do and don't see on the visible pages of a search engine, and those algorithms are very easy for the wealthiest publishers to subvert. Publishers who can pay PR or SEO companies to run underground email outreach campaigns (many of which involve bribery), will perform the best in terms of search engine visibility. Search visibility heavily depends on authority backlinks, and those who can afford it do off-the-radar deals to gain authority backlinks.

As I said in a previous article...

"It should not be possible, in the 2020s, for PR companies who have nothing to do with writing content, to increase the visibility of that content in the web search results."

But due to the mess of underground corruption - of which Google is fully aware - it is perfectly possible, and it happens every minute of every day. Because of the way Google ranks its top content - upon site status rather than upon exact, expressed needs-matching - the door is open for high-status sites to run what amount to full page ads, dressed up as articles, and still obtain premium placings for them in search. Google could change its algorithms to stop this gruesome gravy train overnight, but won't, because letting capitalism define what we do (and more importantly don't) read, creates a safe and generally supportive environment for a staunchly capitalist operation like Google itself.

Social networks have become better recognised than search engines for distorting the visibility of content. But that doesn't mean they're worse. It's just that with social media, a huge proportion of the public are contributing, so they see the unfairness of the algorithms for themselves, at first hand. Indeed, nearly all powerful online platforms willingly allow corruption when it benefits them.

Review sites are another classic example. They know very well that no modestly-sized company will naturally receive 50 positive customer reviews a day. That's way beyond the reality check threshold. People don't have time to write reviews every time a brand actually manages to do its job, and as long as they get what they pay for they don't care. If an unnaturally high volume of positive reviews appear, it's either because the company is paying someone to fake them, or because the company is incentivising its customers to write them - usually before those customers have had a chance to find out what the service or product is like. That's why positive utility reviews say things like...

"Five stars! The salesman was nice and he made signing up really easy!"

He would do. He wants his friggin' commission. But companies know they can manipulate positive reviews by offering a small incentive at a point where all the customer has encountered is the signup process or purchase experience. It's a scheme I've been involved in as an employee with a small business. Doesn't really apply to Eth Tech brands, but it does once more show the ugliness and dishonesty of reputation laundering, and how it requires the complicity of all parties.

VOYAGE OF DOOM


At some point, the Titanic voyage of privacy-washing will hit the proverbial iceberg. The problem is, some projects that genuinely do care about privacy will go down with the ship. If we can't distinguish between a product that behaves well, and a product that behaves very badly but continuously chants the privacy chant, we are well and truly doomed. And at this moment in time, the vast, vast majority of us cannot make that distinction. We MUST begin to recognise an advert when we see it. Even when it's in the last place we'd expect to see an advert.
Bob Leggitt
Post author Bob Leggitt is a print-published writer and digital image creator, multi-instrumentalist, twice Guitarist of the Year finalist, web page designer and software developer.
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