Are bloggers untrustworthy?
Obviously, we all blog for different reasons and we all approach blogging in a different way, but a recent statement of intent to enforce disclosure laws in the United States by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) means that bloggers in the US are required to disclose when they mention or review any item or service that was provided free of charge or that they are being paid to write.
What does that mean exactly? It’s nebulous. The laws are being enforced mostly to clamp down on websites like ReviewMe or PayPerPost where bloggers can register and advertisers can select blogs to write advertorials about their product or site. Usually there is no free product offered for these services – during the brief period when I was registered with ReviewMe.com a few years ago, I was asked to “review” a miracle berry juice product (acai or goji or something like that) based solely on their website. I pretty much tore it apart and was inundated with cranky emails from distributors selling this stuff to desperately ill people under the premise that it cured cancer, so I certainly didn’t get paid for a favourable review, although the advertiser did pay me, and ReviewMe does require disclosure of the association.
Also suspect in this situation are occurrences of restaurants paying or bribing reviewers or bloggers to favourably cover their business, such as the case that recently occurred on Yelp when a California restaurant offered a discount to anyone who came in and showed the manager that they had written a review of the place on the local Yelp website.
A bonus of this legislation is that it may put pressure on viral marketers (sorry… “social media experts”) who target bloggers and invite them to events with freebies and swag, provide misleading comparative product information, and then pressure bloggers into writing about the product.
However, the laws don’t pertain to news or mainstream media. From Slate:
Because of a pesky thing called the First Amendment, the guidelines don’t apply to news organizations, which receive thousands of free books, CDs, and DVDs each day from media companies hoping for reviews. But if the guidelines don’t apply to established media like the New York Review of Books, which also happens to publish reviews on the Web, why should they apply to Joe Blow’s blog? Regulating bloggers via the FTC while exempting establishment reporters looks like a back-door means of licensing journalists and policing speech.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, magazines and papers don’t disclose free product or free dinners – it’s assumed that they’re comped (note that the exception to this would be restaurant reviews that are always done anonymously and therefore are paid for by the reviewer personally or the media organization). Having worked on the other end of things when I ran a record label, we gave away dozens of free CDs to magazines and websites each month without ever expecting disclosure. The same occurred when I worked at an accessories distributor – we gave free product to magazines to be used in fashion shoots – we seldom asked for the items back unless they were expensive.
So are blogs news media? At TasteTO, we often say that while we use blog software, we don’t consider the site to be a blog. We run our website with probably more professionalism than a lot of dead tree publications – who determines if we’re media or hobbyists? I run this blog as a professional site as well, although the content is more general – am I a “writer” or a “blogger”? Is it the terminology that will make a difference when it comes to the legality of writing about a free jar of jam?
Incidentally, as Eat Me Daily points out, the laws are very much designed to deal with sites and organizations openly soliciting bloggers, and not individual hobbyist bloggers who write about a free cookie from their local bakery.
Even if you fail to make the appropriate disclosures, it’s important to recognize that your risk of fines is quite low. For one thing, the FTC doesn’t actually have the authority to impose fines for this sort of regulation. It must seek court orders to enforce the regulations, and the courts can impose fines if they choose, but that would take a long string of very preventable and unfortunate events. The worst-case scenario in which you actually get fined would probably require you to refuse to comply with a cease and desist letter from the FTC, then later disobey a court order to remove the offending posts. In other words, fines will likely be quite easy to avoid, even if you don’t start making the called-for disclosures. And just in case you still need reassurance, officials from the FTC have now said repeatedly that the FTC will not ever be going after bloggers.
So it’s actually a moot issue. But one that can be the beginning of another conversation. Is it time for bloggers, individually and as a demographic, to start taking reviews more seriously, and approaching their writing more professionally? Should we be looking at maybe dividing bloggers into professionals and hobbyists in some way in order to instill some trust from government organizations? Or are individual bloggers okay with being treated like children and forced to disclose that free cookie in fear of vague legislation (from another country if you’re not in the US) that will likely never be enforced?