Fake Facebook Profiles and Other Portents of the End of Times

One issue up for discussion in this evening’s free-form health care social media tweetchat was the fake Facebook page of eSara Baker, posted as a form of marketing for a company providing online health-related services (which sound like typical patient portal stuff like scheduling appointments and accessing test results).  The page prominently states: “If you haven’t uncovered our secret yet, here it is: Sara isn’t a real person.”

The identity of the company and the services provided are not at issue here.  The issue discussed in the #hcsm tweetchat was whether using social media to market a health care service through the use of a fabricated profile was unethical and/or harmful to authentic uses of social media for health care.I disagree with some of my #hcsm cohorts who tweeted their upset with the fake Facebook page, saying it represented a setback for health care social media (i.e., that it would harm “authentic” health care social media efforts).

My take: This is just an example of the medium’s coming of age.  Marketing on Facebook can now be as fake and manipulative as it may be in other media.  Infomercials, product placements, dramatized ads using characters from TV shows, guys and gals in white coats pretending to be doctors in TV commercials, etc., etc. — social media is not immune to manipulation, because despite the many differences from mainstream media, there are still many ways in which “old media” and “new media” are alike.

Hey, it’s the end of the “underground” era, that’s all.  FM radio started life without ads, and now that it’s saturated with ads and hyper-segmented and targeted, many programmers and listeners have migrated to other platforms: internet radio, XM, podcasting, etc.  Whether this is the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end, all that the appearance of this fake Facebook profile (which wasn’t super-engaging, or convincing, by the way) says to me is that the health care social media pioneers have a choice to make: they can take this to be one more reason to bemoan the collapse of Western civilization, or at least Facebook (“nostalgia isn’t what it used to be”), and migrate elsewhere — or they can have one more reason to keep doing what they’re doing incredibly well, because if they maintain a continuing, authentic, transparent interaction with their public, developing trust and influence, then the presence of some fake profiles (that really, at the end of the day, do not pose a threat to this level of engagement) shouldn’t really bother anyone all that much.

What do you think?

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  1. Facebook and Twitter are useless applications of computer and networking technologies. They epitomize the latest of the ever-overhyped consumerization of the technologies. I can think of little more idiotic than Twitter. Facebook is in essence nothing more than a personal-website creation tool that provides links to other personal websites.
    Nothing wrong with that in and of itself but with a supposed potential market valuation of some absurd number “investors currently buying or looking to buy Facebook shares anticipate the company will go public in 2011 with a market capitalization of between $35 billion to $40 billion, according to people familiar with their thinking” from: http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2010/03/04/investors-bet-on-price-of-facebook-ipo/tab/article/
    this is more AOL-type fantasyland. But no matter, I guess, life and foolishness go on.
    That there is rampant phoniness of one sort or another generated through these two services is not surprising in the least. No different than e-mail (or more generally messaging) technology – a truly useful aspect of the technologies – used as means of distributing spam.

  2. @John: Constitutional Facebook Framers? Not a bad idea, especially if it includes a Friends Bill of Rights. 😉
    Seriously, it’s not that I think it’s all-or-nothing in the virtual world, any more than it is in the brick-and-mortar one. The point is that these things will happen, just as they happen in “real” life. I might think the decision to pull Dr. Jarvik’s ad was weird, but there’s a perfect example of traditional marketing found by some to be go far and called into question. I’m not sure how Sara Baker’s fan page is so different from the magazine/newspaper ads that are designed to look like faux articles, with personal interviews, pictures, and stats to back up their findings. I’ve always felt they were intrusive and misleading, but so far as I know they’re legal.
    Naturally we should discuss this issue and attempt to decide where to draw the lines. It’s a subject for everyone to get involved in: citizens, policy/law makers, and judicial representatives. And certainly, as you say, someone will push the envelope; someone always does. Already spammers are targeting SM since so many people are turning to that outlet for communication. There will come a case that sparks enough public outrage enough for litigation or legislation (or both).
    At the least, this particular incident has generated a lot of attention and will hopefully educate people on the potential dangers as well as benefits of SM. If Sara Baker informs people to think twice about what they read and post, and to better evaluate what sources of information they use to make important choices in their lives (including health care), then she’ll have served a good, if unintended, purpose.

  3. Stumbled upon the Sara Baker ad on one of the healthcare trades a few minutes after I read this. Can see how marketing people might think the idea is a good one – after all most people get that the actors endorsing products on tv are not real people and are able to deal with the concept – but the downside is very real and potentially troubling. There is a danger that people will be misled, confused and (ultimately) extremely annoyed when they figure it out. This campaign may be relatively inoffensive but it’s a safe bet that other marketers will come along and push it even further. The issue as David suggests, is what happens when companies start creating fictional identities and having them send you friend requests. That’s when things will get interesting ..
    I’m not sure I agree with Michelle who seems argues its all or nothing. Not sure the framers of the constitution were caring so much about our right to create fabricated facebook identities for our agency clients. But, hey, who knows? Maybe I’m wrong.

  4. Interesting read, especially in light of all the Facebook privacy issues being written about. I hadn’t heard of Sara Baker, but really, it was just a matter of time. As you say, all things eventually become commercialized or capitalized on. In an open society with rules that protect the defendent or the accused, there will be people who mislead, lie, or at least present the facts in the best light possible. The amount of criminality is debateable, depending on how much the facts are bent.
    It’s simply another case of media literacy we’ll all have to learn, as with Karen’s mention of the doctor dramaitizations we’re all familar with. Personally, I’ve never understood why that’s perfectly kosher but the old Lipitor ads featuring Dr. Robert Jarvik (inventor of the inventor of the artificial heart) weren’t. At any rate, people need to remember that the virtual world will only have all the problems we already have and that we bring to it.

  5. It’ll be interesting to see if Sara Baker is successful. If so, we’ll see more faux patients just as we have seen faux testimonials or advertorials for decades. I can’t help but remember, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”
    I agree that the more effective communications will be authentic dialog — that’s what will spur positive word of mouth. Great post!