Marketing Insights From the Manti Te’o Scandal

My picture is above this post. There I am smiling at you, right next to a byline telling you that I wrote this.

Does the photo above this article make you feel more connected to my content? Do you trust my words more now that you know who I am? Obliviously, I think so. Or why else would I bother telling and showing you who I am?

Now, how would you feel if you found out that the person actually writing this is a middle-aged man named Steve Daley? Would you feel cheated knowing that Steve stole a photo from Facebook, made up a name, and claimed it his own? Would it make you trust the words less? Would it make you uncomfortable?

shutterstock_99318593Dave Snyder called out a similar equation in his post What Is Authorship, Really? Dave wrote the article, and then used Joe Hall’s photo and byline to point out how quickly (and sneakily) you can become someone else on the Internet.

It was in early January when Dave wrote his post. About two weeks before, “fake Facebook profiles,” “Internet hoax,” and “catfish” became buzz words. It was right before the story broke about Manti Te’o.

The Manti Te’o story is the first time I can remember fake online profiles becoming national news, and it is certainly the incident that will land “catfish” as the new pop culture catch phrase of 2013.

Catfish – someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities… — via Urban Dictionary

Manti Te’o’s story and Dave’s post are pretty different (Dave stole someone’s persona to fool his reader for about one minute. Someone created a fake persona to fool one man for months.), but they both point out some interesting observations about how we interact on the Internet.

In the Internet We Trust

When it comes to the Internet (and a lot of other things), it is still our natural tendency to bend toward initial belief.

We believe in online profiles.

When you first opened this post, you saw the picture. You read the byline. There was no reason for you to think that the person next to the byline didn’t write this post. Manti Te’o and a lot of other people around the country according to MTV’s show Catfish believe that the people who connect with them through the Internet are real.

But a CNN story says that an estimated 14.3 million profiles on Facebook are fake. The article, which was published in August 2012 (way before Te’o was trending), blames the fake accounts mostly on spammers without mentioning anything about fake persona accounts.

But how many of those fake profiles could actually be people pretending to be other people? In the popular movie that honed the catch phrase, Catfish, the lead character had a total of 21 profiles that she managed. So, who can really know how many of the billion Facebook users are fake?

We believe in what real (and fake) people tell us.

The only reason Manti Te’o’s story is such a big deal in the first place is because back when Manti Te’o believe that Lennay Kukua was real, he thought she died. He told the press and participated in interviews. His sob story was mentioned in every Notre Dame game after the incident. No one checked the facts until weeks later.

We believe everything on the Internet is true.

This commercial pokes fun at our inclination to read it and believe it. Two million blog posts are created every day. Somewhere in that mass amount of information there are certainly falsities – whether intentional or not. We shouldn’t believe everything we read on the Internet – but we usually do.

In Internet Marketers We Trust

So what does that mean for us – the internet marketers, publishers, and writers of the world? Well, we hold a lot of power in our hands, and we all know that with great power comes great responsibility.

We need to know the difference between online profiles and online pseudonyms.

It’s not unusual for publishers and bloggers to use both ghost writers and pseudonyms. Ghost writing – when a writer is paid to write something that another person will be given credit for, is very common the writing world.  Did you really think Kendra from The Girl’s Next Door wrote a memoir or Paris Hilton’s dog published a book of deep thoughts?

raubi1Pseudonyms are also popular in the publishing world (both online and offline) as writers may want to protect their identity and draw a line between their personal and professional life. Neither one of these things are wrong – when used ethically.

Stealing someone else’s work and calling it your own is wrong. Creating a fake online persona in order to falsify your identity is also wrong. As marketers, publishers, and writers, we need to be aware of the line between business and fantasy. Only use ghost writers and pseudonyms when it is for the privacy of the company and client. And don’t use them when it tricks, fools, or abuses trust.

We can’t wait for Facebook and Google to help us recognize the liars.

So far I haven’t seen Facebook respond to the Manti Te’o’ story or any other catfish hoaxes, but I can’t image that it isn’t bugging Mark Zuckerburg. Google also hasn’t seemed to really address the issues that will likely arise by the problems in their Authorship strategy (as Dave points out in the post previously mentioned).

Their silence doesn’t mean that both of these powerhouse social profile sites aren’t brainstorming ways to add authenticity to their sites, but I guess we will have to wait and see. If they expect to add value to their sites through authenticity, they will have to figure out a way to beat those beating the system.

But until then, it looks like the responsibility is left on us as users and promoters. No fake Google+ profiles for our personas and no fake Facebook profiles for spamming.

We need to spread the truth, correct our mistakes, and be aware of the lies.

As a blogger, I know the pains of publishing something I thought to be true, only to be called out on its untruth later. It’s embarrassing. It breaks trust. It makes me feel stupid.

Fact checking is extremely important, especially if you are sending your content to another publisher. That doesn’t mean just making sure that a quote is accurate. It means being mindful of even the small details.

And when you do make a mistake, don’t cover it up. Be transparent and honest. The New York Times makes mistakes every day, and they always admit it the following day. They are one of the largest publications in the world and okay with admitting their wrong.

But don’t confuse the public’s tolerance of mistakes with acceptance of false information. Don’t intentional write lies, and even more importantly, don’t write anything that you aren’t entirely sure of its accuracy. Being 85% sure about a fact is not enough to jump to conclusions.

Check you facts – even before something as simple as sharing the photo of the poor, sad girl with the poop back tattoo. And before you “share the hell” out of an image renouncing Heineken for sponsoring dog fighting events – stop and ask yourself, am I adding to the ignorance and untruth of the Internet?

Raubi2As marketers (and members of the online universe), we need to accept our portion of the responsibility for keeping the Internet honest. My name is Raubi Perilli, and I wrote this post. Believe me?

About the author

Raubi Marie Perilli

Raubi Marie Perilli is the founder of Simply Stated Media. She regularly writes about freelancing, writing, and marketing on her blog and around the internet. Learn more by following her on Twitter or signing up for her free training, How to Get Your Freelance Business Off the Ground Without Wasting Time.