Spam Ethics

I was not previously familiar with the extent of that scourge of all blogs, spam. Nor did I realize that deciding which comments qualified for instant deletion would involve an ethical balancing act, but it does, and I am getting the hang of it.

WordPress, thankfully, gives its blogs a program that flags the most obvious spam, fake, automatically generated comments that have nothing to do with the post they are attached to, entered only to get publicity for websites that are selling something. Sending out this junk is pretty sleazy: it aims to junk up a serious website with dishonest drivel and use it as an unwilling billboard, usually for less-than-admirable products and services. The worst ones try to waste my time as well, falsely “alerting me” that my blog doesn’t work with their browser or that my RSS feed is malfunctioning. This kind of spam never gets through the door.

The next level, a bit less objectionable but still spam, consists of the bloggers who want to increase their search engine ranking by getting their links on other sites. Their technique is to find a topic or issue that many websites are covering, write some generic opinion on the topic, and end by saying, “If you want to read more about this, visit [the URL of their blog], and paste the same comment into multiple sites.” I discovered this tactic while doing research and seeing the same comment on numerous sites with a link to one of my least favorite blogs, a narrow-minded,  standard-issue Left talking-points site (that hypocritically says that it wants to eliminate bias from policy debates) called “Armchair Firebrand,” run by a guy who deletes critical comments and typically argues with critics by telling them about his degrees, which aren’t nearly as impressive as he thinks they are.  I wrote him that I was sick of seeing his spam everywhere, and he retorted, in his patented style, that I didn’t know what spam was. Well, what he does is spamming, and it is completely unethical. Carbon copy comments are not honest because they do not address a specific post, and they constitute a bait and switch for readers, who assume such comments are trying to make points when they are only trying to publicize blogs. This technique is increasingly common, probably because large websites that get hundreds of comments per post tolerate them. Because they do, bloggers like me have to ferret out these spammers.

Finally, there’s the new breed, those who have hired a service that provides them with URL’s. Their mission: go to these sites, post more or less substantive comments, and get their links out to other commenters and the search engines. Scott Greenfield, a New York criminal law attorney who writes an excellent blog (Simple Justice) has declared war on this conduct as well, and in the most unwavering terms:

“For those who feel that they are entitled to spam the internet for their own self-promotion, do you wonder why those of us who actually provide the content might not think it’s no big deal?” he writes.  “Going forward, any lawyer links that are used in these spam comments will be outed with extreme prejudice.  Needless to say, I do not find this waste of my time funny.”

Angela Edwards, a website marketer who sells lists of  sites and tells her customers to send in comments to increase their traffic, defended her work and her clients with a message to Greenfield, arguing…

“I CLEARLY tell folks to make pertinent comments and show them to ONLY use the set up that the blog allows and I specify to use their REAL names and not do the “keywords-as-name” thing that really does look spammy. I would be glad to send the website owner my instructions about this. Google and the other Search Engines have set up this system and “blog commenting for links” has been around since LONG before I ever came into this game. Yeah, I think putting lists of links to sales sites in the middle of conversations is spammy, but I don’t see how using the blog’s “link set up” exactly the way it’s supposed to be used is “spam”. Is it “spam” SIMPLY because it benefits the commenter’s website? Who makes up the “spam rules” and decides what is and isn’t spam? What about a comment that benefits the website that the comment is on? Is that “spam” if the commenter used the URL set up that the blog allows? If the blog doesn’t want people linking to their sites, it’s easy to remove the URL feature.”

Angela’s point about the URL feature is hard to argue with, but the “Google makes us cheat” logic is unethical rationalization at its most obvious. As for the definition of spam, it is this, at least on Ethics Alarms: Is the comment intended to participate in the discussion, or is it primarily to promote a website? If it is the latter, the comment better be awfully perceptive—“one charming pig,” to paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson’s memorable speech from “Pulp Fiction”—or it will be deleted as spam. On the other hand, what I deem to be a genuine effort to participate in the discussion, especially by someone with special expertise ( like Josh Axelrod, who often comments on gambling ethics issues) is always welcome, and when the website is germane to the discussion (like Josh’s “(rich)”), that’s welcome too.

Unlike Greenfield’s blog, Ethics Alarms is designed for a wide audience to provoke consideration of a wide variety of ethics issues. Spam is not welcome, because it is dishonest and disrespectful of both the goal of this site and its readers’ time. We are seeking wisdom here, however. Help us in our search, and I won’t begrudge your website a little exposure.

3 thoughts on “Spam Ethics

  1. Pingback: Valuable Internet Information » Spam Ethics « Ethics Alarms

  2. I recently commented on a police related blog and was absolutely attacked as a spammer because I included a link to my own site. At first I was a bit offended because they accused me of being unethical and questioned not only my character but my credentials. After some lengthy self-analysis, I realize that this was their site, so to speak, and I should respect their views of what is spam and what is not, although I wish they had been a bit more civil about it.

    This post has given me, as a relative new-comer to the blogging world, some needed insight into what is acceptable and what is not. Thanks for your thoughtful insight…

    Sheriff Ray Nash
    (link to blog site intentionally left out….)

  3. Most blogging software provides the capability to link the commenter’s website in his profile, so that one need only click on the name of the commenter to be taken to his or her website.

    Unless it is directly related to the blog post in question or germane to the conversation that results, links to external sites are almost always spam. I deal with it all the time, and even though I let a good bit of it go if there is even the most Byzantine relevance to the commentary under discussion, it is arguably all a candidate for /dev/null.

    Just as you say, you have to deal with these self-promoters on a case-by-case basis and try to divine if there is enough value in their contribution to justify leaving it up.

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