I was looking at inbound links this evening and came across one originating behind the firewall of a company called NetVocates which is a "blog intelligence and advocacy service". The website blurb says, reasonably enough:

"…blogs frequently impact an organization and its products and image in uncontrolled and often unexpected ways. In addition, the sheer volume of blogs, message boards, and other discussion forums makes it difficult for organizations to effectively monitor the activity relevant to them."

Organisations want to know what people are saying about them online – that makes perfect sense. However, I spent a bit more time on the NetVocates site and found this:

"NetVocates then recruits activists and consumers who share the client’s views in order to reinforce those key messages on targeted blogs – and rebut misinformation when appropriate."

So they hire sockpuppets to go out and pretend to be "ordinary users" when they post stuff on blogs? ANYONE THINKING OF HIRING A COMPANY TO DO THIS needs to think very seriously about the backlash that’s likely to happen if people find out. Don’t believe me? Then see this post about a company that tried it and got caught.

Other bloggers who have found themselves visited by NetVocates include:

PSoTD
Make Chai, Not War
CracksInTheFacade
pandora’s jar of mixed nuts

What do each of these have in common? Well, based on a very brief visit to each, I’d say they all discuss political issues at least some of the time. On my visits, Pandora’s was discussing nuclear power plants in Australia, Cracks most recent post was about American troops in Iraq but the following post had a link to an article about energy, MakeChai describes himself as a "Pakistani American Muslim… human rights and responsibilities advocate…" and PSoTD has a "leftie blog" badge on his site and reckons the netvocate people visited this page about the Al Gore movie. I also just found this guy who posted about Net Neutrality on the day he was visited.

I’m starting to worry…

So who are they? Well, a search of the whois database on network solutions, where they registered their domain name late last year, found that the owners are Griffin Strategy Group, LLC who list an email address at eoutreach.com as their contact and a non-sense contact phone number of 999 999 9999. Searching based on the listed zipcode + "Griffin" I found this page which seamingly ties netvocate to a profile on iKarma for Chip Griffin, Chief Innovation Officer at CustomScoop, a trademark of "eOutreach Solutions, LLC". Which leads me to a biography of Chip who also has his own blog here. Customschoop has actually been featured in TechCrunch and in this post on Micro Persuasion who, I reckon, don’t have a clue that Chip is also involved in a company like NetVocates.

So returning to the whole who is Chip Griffin question, a quick google search throws up lots of stuff. He seems to write a lot of stuff of interest to Republican candidates, congressman, etc and his own blog says: "Griffin worked for a variety of politicians, think tanks, and public relations firms in the Washington, D.C. area. In addition, he headed townhall.com, a conservative internet portal." I won’t embarrass the guy by telling you he used to be into knifemaking and castle wolfenstien…

So do people out there know that the guy behind NetVocates, a service that watches blogs and message boards then hires "activists and consumers who share the client’s views in order to reinforce those key messages on targeted blogs" is also the guy behind CustomScoop, a service that’s getting some kudos in the blogosphere? Somehow I think people haven’t noticed – what blogger would talk up a service that has a sister service that, basically, pays people to post comment spam?!

There’s still some room for a bit of sleuthing around this… have you been visited by NetVocates? What was your content about? Maybe you’ve been approached to "blog" or "comment" by them? Let’s find out more.

Update 22:52 BST: It looks like cracksinthefacade and PSoTD both posted about the Al Gore movie, as did the Pandora’s jar guy – so someone has paid to find out what people are saying about the Al Gore movie, An Inconvenient Truth. Did you post about the film? Did you get inbound links from NetVocates? More interestingly, did any user comments appear and what did they say? Let’s see if any feedback posted looks similar…

Update 18.22 BST 06/01/06: Chip has posted a bit of info on his blog in response to this and posts made by other bloggers. One paragraph of it, if true and I have no reason to doubt that it is, makes me feel quite a lot better about the idea of NetVocate asking people to post comments (see my other post – I’ve since changed my mind about that). Chip says: We have a few basic principles we ask all of our staff and the activists we work with to operate under. First, we ask our activists to only engage on issues they actually believe in. Second, we ask everyone not to lie about anything. Third, we ask our activists not to create multiple online personalities to engage in blogosphere conversations.

[see my other posts about netvocates]

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Cybersoc by Robin Hamman
With over 13 years of professional experience in the digital and social media industry, and a client portfolio that includes some of the World's most recognisable brands and organisations, I've built a reputation internationally as a leading practitioner in the industry.

28 Comments:


  • By Liz Strauss / 01 Jun 2006 /

    I get about 6 or 7 visit an hour from two group of them during the daytime hours arrca.netovates.com and arrcabeta.netvocates.com both use the scoopscraper on the phrase net neutrality. I post everyday on both sides of the issue. I rarely comment or get comments on the issue.
    I’ve tried to track behind them and once ended up in a communist webring. creepy.

  • By PSoTD / 01 Jun 2006 /

    More on NetVocates

    Cybersoc.com has done some digging. Give it a read.
    It looks like cracksinthefacade and PSoTD both posted about the Al Gore movie, as did…

  • By Chip Griffin / 01 Jun 2006 /

    I’ve addressed these questions on my own blog: http://www.interadvocacy.com/2006/06/about_netvocate.html
    Hopefully it will help clear things up.
    Chip

  • By Baraka / 08 Jun 2006 /

    Thanks for all this information!
    I noticed a spike in visits after I posted a couple of entries on Israel/Palsetine relations.
    Oh, & I’m a girl ;)
    Cheers,
    Baraka

  • By mckreck / 09 Jun 2006 /

    I got a visit June 9 to a post from June 8 about Michael Berg, father of the Nick Berg that was beheaded by Zarqawi.
    At the bottom of the post a technorati tag was highlighted. The tag said “media bias”
    I post on political issues a lot but it’s mostly pretty conservative. I can’t say I like what this guy is doing. It seems to me to be more than just research, showing a client a bunch of links. It’s a bit creepy.
    FYI, the url of the page loaded was not at my site (on Blogger)
    The load page was:
    http://www.netvocates.com/tools/cleanpage.pl?postid=86083&postcheck=1908917402&dataset=21
    The referring page was:
    arrca.netvocates.com/Default/index.cfm
    Hope this helps.

  • By calistan / 12 Jun 2006 /

    I received a hit from that arrca.netvocates.com on my website. I couldn’t figure out why until I found this post. I recently posted a piece that is critical of a representative in Wisconsin who voted in against of “net neutrality.” That must be why. Interesting.

  • By Big Gav / 13 Jun 2006 /

    I’ve had a few visits from them – the first one I noticed was in mid May – at the time they were trawling for blogs that mentioned “climate change”, “earth” and “al gore”.

  • By DBK / 13 Jun 2006 /

    Thanks for running this down. I also post on political topics and have had a slew of hit-and-run comments lately that challenge the positions of the posters, but don’t actually offer anything substantive in response to genuinely substantive postings. Now I am going to post on my visitors from arrca and link your posting.
    Nice work, my friend.

  • By A_B / 14 Jun 2006 /

    They hit my page today. They were looking for “Coca-Cola” and “fat tax.” Apparently the big purveyors of corn syrup are nervous about the AMA.
    Here’s my blog post with a screen cap: http://anonymousblogger.blogspot.com/2006/06/are-you-paranoid-if-theyre-watching.html

  • By AGITPROP: Version 3.0, Featuring Blogenfreude / 14 Jun 2006 /

    Get Out Your Tinfoil Hats

    Isn’t This Fun …Blanton’s Ashton’s reports that a group called Netvocates has been watching their blog. Who or what is Netvocates, you might ask? Their website claims they go after blogs who say bad things about a company or its

  • By Agen Schmitz / 15 Jun 2006 /

    Hey – thanks for doing some research into this. I am the lead blogger at Cracks in the Facade and have been curious about all the hits I’ve been getting this spring from Netvocates. I don’t get that many comments, so I was able to do a quick review. On May 30, I did a post leading up to Al Gore’s movie and subsequently got a comment from “ChinaLawBlog,” noting that Gore was wrong to assert that China could be held as a good example of working toward reduced CO2 emissions. There was no link to the ChinaLawBlog blog, but a link to the profile–which is empty, save for the title. I checked my logs and it seems I got a visit from Netvocates right around the time that I received this comment.

  • By Blah3 / 16 Jun 2006 /

    [DON'T] Get Out Your Tinfoil Hats

    Agitprop respectfully suggests that all bloggers, big or small, tag all your posts with the Netvocates label. We’ve got to help them watch us, after all.

  • By nika / 17 Jun 2006 /

    I was hit too by these monkeys.. its easy to see what they were looking for by hitting the referring URL.. Why dont you all set up a clearinghouse of sorts where we hit-ees can report their scoop or scrape search terms.. that way you can track what they are looking for and it might give a heads up re: Rove’s tactics.
    Might be valuable to campaigns as well as it moves into that level of granularity.

  • By Trustworthy_Guy1234 / 17 Jun 2006 /

    You’re completely misstating Netvocates position! Netvocates is a grass-roots effort to put the views of the people front and center on the web! They advocate fairness, trustworthiness, and give food to starving puppies!
    To slander them with your lies and half-truths speaks poorly for your moral character.
    (yes, just kidding – thanks for doing some exposition on these guys)

  • By Human / 21 Jun 2006 /

    Peace to you and yours Mr. Hamman.
    Thanks for the research. Reading yours and the comments, my best estimate so far is that it is an attempt at mass spam comments. There is no reason to “urge” people to blog. There are thousands of sights created a day. Anyone being paid to blog is quite suspect and scores low on the veracity scale from the get go. If someone is paid to be a freelancer, where articles are accepted and put up with proper attribution than that is alright by me.

  • By Bob Reynolds / 06 Jul 2006 /

    NetVocates is a fine and upstanding corporation that does a LOT of good work for the internets.

  • By Christopher / 03 Aug 2006 /

    I think we are all jealous becuase people get paid to read and post in blogs and it isnt us.
    lol
    Netvocates looks neither good nor bad to me…..just another company making the $$$ far worse things out there imho.

  • By Making Light / 30 Aug 2006 /

    Further instances of astroturf in blogs

    See posts in: Sivacracy, Cybersoc.com, Pandagon, Blantons and Ashtons, Dr. Peter Rost, Watch Me Sleep, and Deconsumption (twice). Sivacracy also…

  • By sans-culotte / 26 Sep 2006 /

    PR companies have been known to do this sort of thing. . .
    The Man Who Sold the War
    Meet John Rendon, Bush’s general in the propaganda war
    ” Rendon was also charged with engaging in “military deception” online — an activity once assigned to the OSI. The company was contracted to monitor Internet chat rooms in both English and Arabic — and “participate in these chat rooms when/if tasked. ”
    http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/8798997/the_man_who_sold_the_war/1

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  • By Zaphod / 12 Mar 2009 /

    This is hardly a new issue. During the run up to the U.S. presidential election, Soros’ MoveOn.org had set up networks and actual offices full of paid workers to monitor major publications, news and media sites, and blogs for the sole purpose of posting talking points into the comments. And they were not so shy about using multiple profiles and “swarming” to overwhelm dissenting opinion. Though scaled back, I am told that these operations are still funded and active today.

  • By Smirnof / 24 Jun 2009 /

    I’ve got a small blog with few readers and hardly any commenters, and suddenly I get 3 or 4 commenters on the ‘net neutrality’ issue! But they are all the same, looking like corporate PR guys. What a disappointment.

  • By Neil B ♪ / 13 Aug 2009 /

    Here is a related, more recent story about another (?) company doing this astroturfmenting (eh, sorry):
    http://www.politicsandtechnology.com/2007/07/make-no-mistake.html
    There’s a company called Advantage Consultants that’s offering up “professional blog warriors” to “flood the zone” with comments. In short, astro-turf trolls for the blogosphere.

    Incidentally, who are these people? Who is Advantage Consultants? Their president is Doug Guetzloe, a right-wing radio host and anti-tax activist in Florida.
    ~~~~~
    BTW if their commenters IDed themselves as working for either company, who would listen to them? So is the “ethics” thing really to the point, can it even work?

  • By Neil B ♪ / 13 Aug 2009 /

    Here is a related, more recent story about another (?) company doing this astroturfmenting (eh, sorry):
    http://www.politicsandtechnology.com/2007/07/make-no-mistake.html
    There’s a company called Advantage Consultants that’s offering up “professional blog warriors” to “flood the zone” with comments. In short, astro-turf trolls for the blogosphere.

    Incidentally, who are these people? Who is Advantage Consultants? Their president is Doug Guetzloe, a right-wing radio host and anti-tax activist in Florida.
    ~~~~~
    BTW if their commenters IDed themselves as working for either company, who would listen to them? So is the “ethics” thing really to the point, can it even work?

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About Robin Hamman

My website predates Google by three years and I am somewhat nostalgic when I think about the command line entries I had to learn to control my 300 baud modem. For me, the internet, like the peer-to-peer dial-up BBSs that proceeded it, has always been social. We just lost sight of that for a decade or so when most people thought it was all about "internet shopping malls", inexpensive flights and cheap books. In internet years, I've been here a very long time so you'll have to forgive me if I repeat myself from time to time.

With 14 years of professional experience in the digital and social media industry, and a client portfolio that includes some of the World's most recognisable brands and organisations, I've built a reputation internationally as a leading practitioner in the industry.

In January 2014, I joined Fleishman Hillard as Director of Social Business for EMEA. Previously, I've held a variety of roles including Managing Director of Dachis Group Europe, Director of Digital at Edelman, Head of Social Media at Headshift, Acting Editor of the BBC Blogs and Executive Producer at ITV.

I hold a BA in Education, MA in Sociology, MPhil in Communication Studies and a PgDip in Law. I've also been a Non-Residential Fellow at Stanford University Law School and a Visiting Fellow of Journalism at City University, London.

Why cybersoc.com? In 1995, I tried to register, for the purposes of researching "ordinary users", the username Cybersociologist on AOL. They truncated my name and I stuck with it....

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