“Mind Control: To control mental output you have to control mental input. Take control of the channels by which developers receive information, then they can only think about the things you tell them. Thus, you control mindshare!”
–Microsoft, internal document
Summary: Microsoft has yet again been caught bribing people to illegally generate fake, widely-distributed positive coverage, but don’t count on any legal action against Microsoft
TIME AFTER TIME, as we have covered in great length with many examples of Microsoft’s AstroTurfing, the monopolist got away with illegal activity, ranging from bribes to editors to bribes to people who edit Wikipedia. Microsoft also bribed professors, famous bloggers, and committee members. Normally it seems like Microsoft can just get away with anything. It’s like the NSA.
“Microsoft, as always, is hiding behind its shadowy PR agencies in order to make the bribes harder to see.”Microsoft is exceptionally corrupt a company with a long history of crime and abuses (with no real response from the state, which is also bribed by Microsoft), so AstroTurfing for Xbox is hardly a surprise. Microsoft, as always, is hiding behind its shadowy PR agencies in order to make the bribes harder to see. Not too longer ago Microsoft bribed people to post positive comments in Reddit about products like Xbox. This shouldn’t shock anyone. It’s quite normal, but rarely does the corporate media cover it.
This time too coverage of another scandal comes mostly from small technology news sites. To quote: “The line between traditional, paid advertising and organic editorial content on the Internet can sometimes be hazy. A recent stealth promotional campaign between Microsoft and Machinima highlights just how hazy that line has become, and how behind-the-scenes payments can drive ostensibly independent opinion-mongering on by users on services like YouTube.”
Over the years I repeatedly complained to the FTC about what was clearly illegal behaviour by Microsoft. But complaining to the US government about Microsoft is a bit like complaining to the US government about the NSA. Microsoft is connected to NSA/CIA (it receives money from the CIA and works with the NSA), so just like them, Microsoft enjoys infuriating protection from the state. Right now the company is sort of treated like a part of covert criminal enforcement (hailed by the state for tackling its own virus plots), even though what it actually does can be classified as criminal activity (including financial fraud that it got caught engaging in until the SEC let it get away with for a small fine). Given the futility of the FTC, iophk asked: “What about complaining to the BBB?”
“Even with sufficient corporate press coverage it seems unlikely that someone will be held accountable and receive punishment.”Now that Microsoft is bribing governments (Ballmer seemingly escaped on time) there’s plenty of discussion in our IRC channels, trying to assess if and how Microsoft can be held accountable for clearly illegal behaviour. Forbes has covered this scandal and there is an overview of coverage in IDG  (some are Xbox foes), so there’s no lack of evidence and reporting on the matter. This is the exception, not the norm (the coverage, not the type of activity). iophk said: “When I checked a while back there were lots of complaints but all glossed over.” As Slashdot put it , “breaks FTC disclosure rules (PDF). Microsoft has a well-known history of astroturfing, but is this the first proof of them doing it illegally?” No, hardly! We covered about a dozen such examples (the ones we know about), but the media failed to report on them.
Even with sufficient corporate press coverage it seems unlikely that someone will be held accountable and receive punishment. Microsoft was thinking it would not get caught, but this time it was wrong. Well, often enough it’s caught bribing but rarely is it paying a fine or even receiving negative publicity for it, so why not take the risk anyway?
The main problem here is that inaction from regulatory bodies and law enforcement will send Microsoft the signal that the practice is still worth pursuing. It is “astroturfing still,” iophk argued, and “if they stopped paying, you’d probably hear nothing of MS again ever, at least nothing positive” (Microsoft has been artificially injecting coverage about itself for several decades and we gave a lot of examples).
“According to a leaked copy of the full legal agreement behind the promotion,” said one article, “video creators “may not say anything negative or disparaging about Machinima, Xbox One, or any of its Games” and must keep the details of the promotional agreement confidential” (i.e. hide one’s participation in illegal practices).
iopkh says that “more such whistleblowers are needed to show this thing as it is” and he rightly notes that “the long history of astroturfing is not yet mentioned. Press has a short memory, if even they covered the problem in the first place.”
The conclusion, as Sosumi puts it, is that “every time you see a positive Microsoft review” you can assume AstroTurfing. And moreover, “if you raise too many concerns about a product or just give a negative note, you’re out” (that’s how journalists are being pressured to self-censor).
iophk says that “if the astroturfing and bribery went away, you’d stop hearing virtually anything positive about MS” (there’s not much of it left, unless it’s paid for).
The most important point of this post is that we should eagerly pursue legal action. Failing to do so assures that Microsoft will continue to do this. Microsoft has done this for decades. █
Related/contextual items from the news:
Forget the console wars of years past—the bombs dropped on E3 stages, the quippy ads with lines like, “Genesis does what Nintendon’t.” Those days are gone. We’ve now entered the Cold War phase of the console wars, a period of secrecy and cloak-and-dagger tactics.
A copy of the full legal agreement behind the promotion escaped into the wild. In it, there’s a confidentiality section that states unequivocally, “You agree to keep confidential at all times all matters relating to this Agreement, including, without limitation, the Promotional Requirements, and the CPM Compensation, listed above.”
Additionally, creators “may not say anything negative or disparaging about Machinima, Xbox One, or any of its Games” in their videos.
“Microsoft, partnered with Machinima, has put forth a promotion for YouTube personalities: make a video about the XBox One and get money for it. Problematically, they also require the reviewer not to disclose that they’re getting paid (or mention anything negative), which breaks FTC disclosure rules (PDF). Microsoft has a well-known history of astroturfing, but is this the first proof of them doing it illegally?”