Why Facebook's 'Whisper Campaign' Against Google Isn't Okay

Categories: Tech
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I'm a big fan of Jack Shafer, Slate's media columnist. But his libertarian worldview sometimes tends to make him go overboard with his "oh, what's the big deal" shtick. That's the case --  somewhat -- with his latest column, wherein he wonders why people are so shocked that Facebook hired a PR firm to plant negative stories about Google.

His message seems to be: well, that's what PR firms do.

Yeah, but that doesn't make it okay. And while he's right that this kind of thing is fairly common practice among government flacks, it's pretty unusual for tech PR firms. (That's one reason people freaked out over it.) What Facebook did was pretty sleazy and -- given its history of whoring out users' personal information -- hypocritical.

Dan Lyons of The Daily Beast discovered last week that Facebook was behind the smear campaign, where Burson-Marsteller was hired to urge reporters to write about Google's purported privacy breaches using that company's Social Circle tool.

Never heard of Social Circle? That's sort of the underlying point here. While Lyons says that "nobody suspected" it was Facebook behind the "whisper campaign" against Google, which was first reported by USA Today, it's increasingly clear that the major hearts-and-minds battle in Silicon Valley is between these two companies.

The battle is over where people spend most of their time online. In this battle, Microsoft has become a joke, and Yahoo has become a hilarious joke. It's left to the currently ascendant Facebook and the currently descendent Google. (Apple is operating on a whole different level, and succeeding at it, but that's another story.)

A couple of years ago, before Facebook became truly mainstream, Google was the hub of most people's online experience. You might go traipsing all over the Web, but eventually you would come back to Google. Now it's Facebook. (Look for people in the comments below to make sure everybody knows that they're way too cool to be on Facebook. They don't matter.)

Google has tried, in vain, to get into the "social media" game. But that's a game it has probably already lost. What's more troubling is that its once-stellar service -- Web search -- is becoming ever more terrible. It's not really Google's fault -- it's because search-engine gaming, or what is called "search engine optimization" by all those vacant-looking "Internet marketing" droids who follow you on Twitter with links to their skeevy sites. It's thanks to the "article marketers" and companies like Demand Media that dump untold amounts of useless crap onto the Web. It's thanks to terrible "people search" outfits like MyLife.com, Radaris, PeekYou (and many others) who have rendered Google's image search all but useless, at least if you're looking for a person.

The Web as a whole is getting worse. And because Google is a guide to the Web as a whole, Google is getting worse. It tries, by tweaking its famous algorithm, to push the good stuff to the top, but it can only do so much given the tidal wave of feces with which it is faced.

Facebook, by contrast, is a controlled environment -- controlled by you. It may be on the Web, but it's also a place to escape the Web. Links there (and on Twitter) are shared not by an algorithm, but by people and organizations you've chosen to follow. You don't have to wade through enraged, half-literate comments about "dimmycrats" and "rethuglicans." (If you see such comments on Facebook, you can hide or delete them, or even just zap the person who made them. How satisfying).

Google, though, is still a behemoth, and it is still Facebook's main competition. Hence Facebook's sleazoid tactics in this case. Now that MySpace has been rendered inert by its own managers' breathtaking incompetence, Google represents the biggest threat to Facebook's continued dominance. That rightly scares Facebook. But as is always the case, fear leads to stupid decisions -- like mounting a bumbling smear campaign.

There are a couple of upshots: First, Google wasn't really violating anybody's privacy in the first place. And second, not a single reporter took the lying flacks' bait. In fact, the whole thing backfired on Facebook and Burson-Marsteller in a way that all but guarantees that it will be a while before anyone tries a similar smear.

That is -- before anyone tries it in the tech sector. In politics, there are undoubtedly a dozen such campaigns being crafted even as you read this.

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