Breaking the Belkin Scandal: Blogger Schools Old-School Journalists

Arlen Parsa is about to get his degree in documentary film from Chicago’s Columbia College. Yet he seems to have already graduated cum laude from the unofficial School of Blogs.

Thanks to his mashup of old-school reporting and new media-fueled advocacy, a major consumer electronics company is reeling from scandal, traditional media is following his news trail and anyone who ever had doubts about the validity of Amazon customer reviews is having their worst suspicions confirmed.

“Politically speaking, I’m a progressive, so I think consumer advocacy comes naturally,” Parsa told me.

It’s quite possible that the executives at Belkin are wishing he’d stuck to politics.

The Background on The Daily Background

The 21-year-old first broke the story last Friday on his blog, The Daily Background, which normally is Parsa’s megaphone for thoughts and analysis on America’s political landscape. But there was Parsa reporting that an employee of Belkin — a maker of routers, cables and various iPod accessories (their brand is fairly ubiquitous in any Apple store) — had advertised on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk freelance jobs board service for people to review his company’s products on Amazon and other Web sites.

The employee, Mike Bayard, was willing to pay 65 cents per review — as long as they were positive, 5-star reviews. And actually trying the product? Not really a pre-requisite for the job. He even counseled those interested in the position to mark any negative reviews of Belkin products as “not helpful.”

What was Parsa doing on Mechanical Turk in the first place? “College is expensive, so it’s always important to me to find ways to save money where I can,” Parsa said. “After my girlfriend stumbled across Mechanical Turk, I signed up to see what it was all about. I thought, ‘Hey, this is a really cool concept. Maybe I can make a few bucks to buy some stuff off of Amazon.’ So, as part of the service, I hand-transcribed some videos and made a couple of dollars.

“Then I came across this request that read ‘Write a Positive 5/5 Review for a Product on Website.’ I practically did a double take. It looked suspicious right from the start.”

Parsa Googled “Mike Bayard” and came up with a LinkedIn profile identifying him as a business development employee of Belkin. Parsa snapped captures of the profile and the Mechanical Turk ads. Further digging revealed that Bayard had also advertised for glowing product reviews on Buy.com and Newegg.

Parsa sought reaction from Belkin. Then he got to work.

“I know that people like my mother rely heavily on customer reviews left on Web sites like Amazon to evaluate products. I thought, whoa, people need to know that this is going on. So I did the only thing I could do — I blogged about it.”

New and Old Media’s Reaction

It took just a few hours for other blogs to link to the story. CNet, Gizmodo, Engadget, Digg, Slashdot, CrunchGear — a Who’s Who of tech watchers weighed in, and their commenters went to town on Belkin and the practice of “astroturfing” (manufacturing fake grassroots appeal.) The link-love crashed Parsa’s server while giving him a crash course in the viral power of the Web.

“This whole situation really seems to have touched a nerve with people, and for good reason,” he said. “I’ve been very interested in reading the hundreds of comments left at many different sites about this fiasco as well. One of the wonderful things about the Internet is, news can spread really fast, and that’s exactly what it did in this case.”

“Maybe I’m naive, but it never occurred to me that somebody would stoop so low as to pay people to fraudulently write positive reviews for their products.”

Parsa spent his weekend pursuing the story and hounding Belkin for comment. By Sunday night, Belkin’s president Mike Reynoso had posted an apology on the company’s Web site, acknowledging that an employee had violated customers’ trust. “We want to stress that this is an isolated incident,” Reynoso said.

Well, maybe not. The floodgates were roaring; The blogosphere was now providing updates to Parsa’s work. While The Daily Background moved the story along by reporting that Bayard himself may have written positive reviews of Belkin products, anonymous tipsters were feeding Parsa and Gizmodo more allegations about Belkin and fake reviews. Maybe others at Belkin were involved, they claimed. Maybe it was ingrained in the corporate culture.

Soon The New York Times’ influential technology columnist, David Pogue, was blogging about Parsa’s reporting and nominating him for “Internet Hero of the Week.” The Associated Press finally picked up the story (“without citing me, ha ha,” Parsa said.) The latest comment from Belkin’s Web site: “Thank you for everybody’s comments and concerns regarding the issue of a Belkin employee paying for positive product interviews (sic). We are still conducting an internal investigation on the matter, and when more information becomes available, we’ll provide it here.”

The New Journalism at Work

Are guys like Parsa the second coming of Tom Wolfe? He may indeed represent where the 21st-century version of the New Journalism is heading; a volatile mix of shoe-leather reporting, a reliance on links to publicize and advance the story and a helping of unabashed opinion/advocacy. In his first story, Parsa told his readers to e-mail Amazon and Belkin and added that “Amazon should reset its ratings for this product, and Belkin should discipline or fire this Mr. Bayard, ASAP. This is one of the more scummy, totally awful advertising schemes I’ve seen.”

The L.A. Weekly’s Nikki Finke, who regularly scoops the traditional Tinseltown media while eviscerating studio heads and celebrities in her Deadline Hollywood Daily blog, would be proud. But traditional media types are probably already growling to themselves about the reliance on anonymous commenters — one claiming to be a Belkin employee — who have figured prominently in follow-up stories.

New century, new media, new rules. Maybe these inside commenters will in the future provide verifiable identities and contact info — privately — to the bloggers, including Parsa, who can then vouch for their credibility.

Digital PR/marketing guru Steve Rubel sees irony in Mechanical Turk helping to launch Parsa’s expose’ of Belkin. “The Amazon community is very closely aligned with the blogging community. Mechanical Turk grew out of an ethos of collaboration and participation under the gracious auspices of Amazon. These communities, while separate, do interact, so it doesn’t surprise me that a blogger uncovered this story. Lots of bloggers spend time on Turk and use the service.”

Rubel, who is Edelman Digital’s senior vice president and director of insight, doesn’t see this as a case of new versus old media. “I don’t think it’s any discredit to the traditional press,” said Rubel, author of the MicroPersuasion blog. “If anything it just shows how people can’t be everywhere. There’s always going to be somebody who has time to look into something. If it’s resource-intensive, it will be the traditional press.”

Parsa’s takeway from his reporting on the scandal reflects the cynicism many have had about Amazon’s customer reviews — and, some might say, a very young man’s loss of innocence regarding the real world. “I always look at customer reviews on sites like Amazon before I buy products online. I thought they were great, because unlike the manufacturer’s official product description, it was actual unbiased users. Anybody could write anything — good, bad or neutral. But this whole situation had made me think twice about that. I’m sure I’ll keep on reading customer reviews, but I think I’ll have to start taking what they have to say with a grain of salt from now on.”

Not that his newly tarnished view of retail Web sites and wayward marketing ethics is going to keep him from pointing a camera at that same world, and writing about it in his own way.

“I’m going to pursue my dream of working in documentary film after graduation in a few months,” he said, “but I think I’m definitely going to continue writing and blogging no matter where I end up. I think my absolute dream job would be working as an independent documentary producer making films for theatrical distribution, while blogging. Ideally I would work on short-term projects (like blogging) and long-term projects (documentaries).”

Let’s hope that dream job pays well enough so that Parsa won’t have to rely on Mechanical Turk for Amazon mad money.

Lest I forget, there is another byproduct of Parsa’s work: He’s got this 29-year veteran of journalism suddenly feeling really old and very irrelevant.

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