Facebook's Portal, a family of video-conferencing and smart assistant devices tied into the company's social networking platform, has found itself at the centre of claims of astroturfing, with employees having been posting glowing reviews on Amazon.
Launched late last year as Facebook's first true entry into the hardware market, discounting the Oculus family of virtual reality products which it acquired in 2014 and has since developed further, the Portal and Portal Plus devices are designed for those who use the social networking service primarily for face-to-face communication: Looking like tablets in strange docks, the devices combine person-tracking cameras with microphone arrays to allow for more comfortable video conferencing than a laptop or smartphone while also adding in integration with third-party services including Spotify and Amazon's Alexa.
Portal's launch did not go smoothly: Coming as it did during a time when Facebook is under increased scrutiny for how it handles, gathers, and monetises user data, Portal was met with scathing reviews and concerns that - even coming, as it does, with a physical cover for the webcam section - installing a Portal in your home may be a terrible decision for your privacy.
Since its launch, however, the tide appears to be turning: Many user reviews on Amazon have been considerably more positive than those of the technology press, but it appears that the results have been fudged by an apparent astroturfing campaign - a campaign Facebook soundly denies having orchestrated.
Journalist Kevin Roose revealed the campaign on Twitter, pointing out that a raft of glowing five-star reviews of the device on Amazon have been made by people bearing the same name as Facebook employees - a breach of Amazon's rules against posting content relating to products or services provided by your employer, business associate, relative, close friend, or part of your own business. One such review, credited to Tim Chappell, opens with the claim that he has 'historically not been a big Facebook or other social media user', which comes as a surprise given that someone with that very name is Facebook's head of supply chain and strategic sourcing for augmented reality and virtual reality products.
The fact that the reviews from apparent Facebook staff are posted one after another points to coordination, but while the company proper hasn't commented on the matter its vice president for augmented and virtual reality products Andrew Bosworth denied responsibility via Twitter: '[These reviews are] neither coordinated nor directed from the company,' Bosworth claims. 'From an internal post at the launch: "We, unequivocally, DO NOT want Facebook employees to engage in leaving reviews for the products that we sell to Amazon." We will ask them to take down.'
Facebook's apparent attempt to skew the ratings for its latest device, whether coordinated by management or simply the actions of a collection of lone-wolf employees who had the same idea at the same time, is far from the industry's first: Back in 2009 Belkin was caught paying users on Amazon's Mechanical Turk to post five-star reviews of Belkin products they'd never even seen, much less tried.