As the classic New Yorker cartoon put it, “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The ease of publishing online combined with the (apparent) anonymity that often prevails can make it tempting to post something that might not be, well, completely accurate.
Like a fake review saying how wonderful you are – or what a bozo your competitor is. Or a profile that misrepresents your background.
You’d like to think that attorneys would know better than this, realize the clear deception involved, and not let their professional integrity succumb to the temptation to falsify.
But such behavior happens. And there’s a name for it when it comes to online user reviews: “astroturfing.”
This dynamic is most commonly seen with false positive reviews, and there have been several cases outside the legal industry where companies have been investigated for astroturfing. In the most high-profile example, a “minimally invasive” surgery outfit called Lifestyle Lift entered into a consent decree with the New York Attorney General’s office and paid a $300,000 fine for astroturfing. In a related case, the Federal Trade Commission brought an enforcement action against a public relations firm that had been hired to promote iPhone games – and had done so in part by having the agency’s employees post glowing reviews of the games in the Apple app store. Most recently, the New York Attorney General’s office struck again, entering consent decrees – along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines – with 19 companies and marketing agencies.
There have been recent cases involving lawyers as well:
A Minnesota attorney was disciplined for leaving a negative review – couched as coming from a disgruntled client – for a competitor. 1
In August, 2013 the Dallas Morning News revealed that a public relations executive hired by a Dallas law firm had posted comments on the paper’s website under a false identity, pretending to illustrate community support for the law firm’s client in a messy and very public dispute over an overly-reflective condominium tower.
A New York attorney was suspended for creating a false profile of a woman he knew on a lesbian dating site. 2
- Attorneys in the U.S. Attorneys’ office posted anonymous comments in a New Orleans newspaper, disparaging defendants and defense witnesses in a high-profile case against former police officers – resulting in the officers’ convictions being thrown out in September, 2013. Bar discipline for those involved is sure to follow.
Again, it should be obvious that posting fake stuff online is bad and can lead to discipline. But there are two additional important lessons to take away from these examples: First, even if you aren’t dissuaded by the unethical nature of such postings, consider the fact that true anonymity online is a very difficult thing to establish. Most users leave an electronic trail. For someone with the right experience and motivation, tracking that trail back to its source is very easy work.
Secondly, consider actions taken by intermediaries. As New York personal injury attorney and blogger Eric Turkewitz memorably put it, “outsourcing marketing = outsourcing ethics.” Attorneys are responsible for actions that those they hire take on their behalf. If your marketing consultant or public relations firm is posting bogus material online, that stuff can and will come back and be laid at your door.
This isn’t to say that attorneys shouldn’t hire professional marketing help – many of them should, as most attorneys aren’t exactly born marketers. But attorneys using marketing services need to have frank and open discussions about what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and understand at all times exactly what actions are being taken on their behalf.