If you’ve ever taken a dive on AstroTurf, you know it hurts – like the worst kind of carpet burn. It also hurts to AstroTurf online – which is an expression for seeding fake, faux-grassroots material that’s disingenously disguised self-promotion. For example, posing as a fan of your employer and posting comments to a blog as if you’re a third party. AstroTurfing hurts your organization. It hurts you. And it hurts the people you deceive. And the burn is the fifth-degree kind.
There was a sad case of this over the past few days. Holden Karnofsky of GiveWell, an organization that’s been pushing for greater transparency in grantmaking and results from nonprofits, was found to have been AstroTurfing for his organization. AstroTurfing is always bad, as I’ve noted on this blog in the Whole Foods case. It saddens me so much in this case, because Holden’s actions flew in the face of what he called for: namely, honesty and transparency. Here’s what the Chronicle of Philanthropy described today:
On Metafilter, an online message board, Mr. Karnofsky promoted GiveWell without identifying himself. In one message he asked for ideas on how to choose a charity to support and then “answered” as another writer by touting GiveWell’s evaluations of nonprofit groups.
A Metafilter member uncovered the self-promotion, which violated the Web site’s rules, and announced the discovery on the message board.
Mr. Karnofsky quickly apologized and said that he had a “horrible lapse of judgment” by hiding his identity. He also offered to make a contribution to Metafilter to compensate for his mistake – an offer that was derided by Metafilter contributors as a bribe.
Metafilter members found other examples of Mr. Karnofsky’s praising GiveWell as an anonymous source, including instances where he criticized other nonprofit groups.
I met Holden when he minced no words in criticizing Network for Good (my organization) on his blog, and I responded. We ended up having a productive conversation and ultimately a collegial professional relationship. I’ve followed and blogged what he’s doing. He’s committed a lot of energy to what he believes, and while we haven’t always agreed (including on this blog), I respected his energy and the end result of what he wanted — motivated donors and the most effective nonprofit sector possible. But it seems his energy has gone terribly awry, and it’s a real shame. He’s apologized, but he lost his job [clarification: he was demoted] and a lot of people are furious, particularly because Holden (often harshly) demanded such honesty and transparency of others. Bloggers and commenters have written literally hundreds of posts and comments on this turn of events — read them here.
I hope some good comes of this – for the [very worthy] work Holden wanted to do and for anyone observing the situation. I’d like to use this sad tale as a reminder to all of us that you MUST be honest and authentic online, or else. In the Web 2.0 world, no matter how good your intentions, you pay a big price for misrepresenting yourself. In your job, please never be tempted to AstroTurf. Don’t anonymously post good things about your organization or bad things about others without identifying yourself, because it’s unethical in my view. And if that’s not incentive enough, know that those tricks tend to get discovered. They will estrange and enrage the very people you set out to influence. You and your cause will get burned.