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Ethics

Astroturfing In Real Estate and How to Spot It

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astroturfAstroturfing- the PR reality

We all remember back 1.5 years ago when we had what seemed to be hundreds of commenters coming out of the woodwork aligned against Realtors, The National Association of Realtors, and local MLSs, mostly anonymous, and incredibly knowledgeable on all things real estate- it seemed they all alledgedly disappeared around the time that Ziggy’s House dropped its bid to go public. You still see it today in forums around the country on all sorts of topics, not just Real Estate.

Definition of Astroturfing:

Astroturfing is a word in English describing formal political, advertising, or public relations campaigns seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous “grassroots” behavior, hence the reference to the artificial grass, AstroTurf.

The goal of such a campaign is to disguise the efforts of a political or commercial entity as an independent public reaction to some political entity—a politician, political group, product, service or event. Astroturfers attempt to orchestrate the actions of apparently diverse and geographically distributed individuals, by both overt (“outreach”, “awareness”, etc.) and covert (disinformation) means. Astroturfing may be undertaken by an individual pushing a personal agenda or highly organized professional groups with financial backing from large corporations, non-profits, or activist organizations. Very often the efforts are conducted by political consultants who also specialize in opposition research.

Yes, this really happens- people being paid to sway a conversation, even on your website, right under your nose.

How to spot it:

  • Often anonymous
  • The ip address is normally new to your site
  • The commentator is polite for the first few comments and then becomes aggressive
  • They often have little regard for etiquette and can use abusive language hiding behind anonymity
  • When you Google the email or name, you find no reference to it at all unless it’s the same subject matter
  • Randomly they seem curiously knowledgeable and aggressive on a subject average consumers are not often passionate about
  • There is a financial motive in your losing the argument

What to do about it?

You can do whatever you wish about it- at times it can be great fuel for great conversation, but it can get out of hand.  If your website is highly trafficked and highly monitored, then you’re probably fine, but if your blog is smaller, and is a dofollow blog, the comments can take on a life of their own through use of your SEO.

However, what you should not do is expose the commentator’s private information, rather watch blogs you’re linking to on the subject and compare- a pattern on the same subject on multiple sites online is a huge sign and can often lead you to who’s pushing the issue in an incredibly devious and possibly illegal way.

In any case, attempt to isolate and follow them, research, document, and expose- in most cases, this sort of activity could embarrass the entity or even violate the law depending on the circumstances, and should be reported to the proper authorities as we do.

Want to know more?

Benn Rosales is the Founder and CEO of The American Genius (AG), national news network for tech and entrepreneurs, proudly celebrating 10 years in publishing, recently ranked as the #5 startup in Austin. Before founding AG, he founded one of the first digital media strategy firms in the nation and also acquired several other firms. His resume prior includes roles at Apple and Kroger Foods, specializing in marketing, communications, and technology integration. He is a recipient of the Statesman Texas Social Media Award and is an Inman Innovator Award winner. He has consulted for numerous startups (both early- and late-stage), has built partnerships and bridges between tech recruiters and the best tech talent in the industry, and is well known for organizing the digital community through popular monthly networking events. Benn does not venture into the spotlight often, rather believes his biggest accomplishments are the talent he recruits, develops, and gives all credit to those he's empowered.

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10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Matthew Rathbun

    May 11, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Anonymous comments… sigh…

    If the author isn’t willing to put his/her reputation behind the comment; what’s the value of the comment?

    If you’re with a group or company that has potential gain from your opinion, that’s ok – unless you pretend that the gain doesn’t exist. That’ just insulting to everyone’s intelligence and not a great way to start a relationship.

    Get a backbone or turn in your man-card…. (or woman-card for that matter)

  2. David Curry

    May 11, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    Whatever happened to just deleting their comment and moving on with your day?

  3. Benn Rosales

    May 11, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Well, there again David, that’s up to the blog owner, but rarely is it that simple.

  4. Benn Rosales

    May 11, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Matt, if they’re anon, they can be as vicious as they need to be without it relating back to them professionally- it’s annoying really.

  5. Ken Brand

    May 11, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    Hmmmm….most anything anonymous except a gift or a donation is generally lame and weak. Astroturfing….now I know. thanks.

  6. Benn Rosales

    May 11, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    We weren’t prepared for the last go around in disruption, now we all know, Ken!

  7. Joe Loomer

    May 12, 2009 at 5:44 am

    Harkens back to the old “Wag the Dog” days when we didn’t have the technology and internet presence to provide another forum for these pond scummers.

  8. Craig Barrett

    May 12, 2009 at 8:17 am

    Now that you’ve written about it Benn, I think I’ve experienced this. Not on my RE blog, but on my Running Club blog. I had a question posed about Ipod’s and the explicit ban during my event. Initially the comments took a life on their own, as you pointed out in your article. But the tone of the “discussion” began to get ugly…quickly.

    Not that a “dogpile”=astroturfing, but just the tone and the sheer volume of the ridiculous comments, caused me to squelch the noise.

  9. Matt Stigliano

    May 12, 2009 at 9:52 am

    Benn – Thanks for defining this one for me. I saw Lani mention it on Twitter and I had no clue what it meant, then in an unrelated move, I came here and happened to read this before I had a chance to message Lani for an explanation (she’s ever so geek-speak).

    I actually think I am being effected by this right now on my own blog. I’m still doing a bit of research, but it looks like someone got the best of me. I’m fighting in my head what to do about it and it’s aggravating that I even have to think about it. Grrrrr. I’m off to buy a Hulk Hogan Grill…gotta run!

  10. Badger SEO

    August 13, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    No reason to not just delete the comment. Spam comment filters are not new either, and catch a lot of the crap.

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Ethics

The problem with a self-policing industry: you have to be a narc

Ethics violations in the real estate industry can make or break a Realtor’s career, depending on the severity, so it would stand to reason that all would be mindful of the rules, but there are always individuals in the field that act as if the Code of Ethics is irrelevant.

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An animated discussion on ethics training

“Does anyone else find it ironic that NAR – the trade association for Realtors – has to mandate that members take an ethics class every four years?” An agent who attended one of my company’s broker opens yesterday posed that question to the wine and cheese grazing attendees. Of course, that opened up an animated discussion on the value of etchics training and the lack of enforcement when the rules are violated.

One agent volunteered that the guy sitting next to her in her last ethics class played games on his cell phone and then cheated during the test at the end of the class. Seriously, dude? You cannot even pay attention long enough to pass what should be the easiest test you’ll ever have to take in your career? Perhaps he was just seeing how far he could push it by cheating during an ethics test, to see if anyone else around him caught the extreme irony there. None of the other agents around him – including the agent he cheated off – turned him in and the instructor didn’t notice.

This same agent later called one of my sellers and tried to convince him to break a listing contract with me, because he had a “guaranteed buyer” in the wings. The seller was an attorney, and this bozo tried to get me cut out of the deal, offering the seller a reduced fee to dump me. The seller held firm and directed the agent to call me, then the seller called to let me know about the conversation.

“But you know if you file something the other agent will know.”

It gets better. After the deal closed, I requested paperwork from our local Board of Realtors to file an ethics complaint. The person in charge said, “But you know if you file something the other agent will know.” Gee. Really? I asked her to send the paperwork over anyway.

I called the seller/attorney and asked him to repeat the conversation to me, because I was documenting it to file a complaint. He turned wishy washy on me at that point and his story changed from “The other agent tried to get me to dump you as the listing agent to cut you out” to “Well he really only asked a few questions and I told him to call you. He probably didn’t mean any harm by it.” So there goes my star witness, who doesn’t want to rock the boat.

I didn’t file the complaint. I resorted to the “turn the blind eye but never trust the sleazeball again” path. And that is what happens to almost all ethics issues I hear about / see in person.

That’s what happens when you have a self-policing group of “professionals” who would rather not “narc” on a fellow agent. After all you’re probably going to end up on the other side of a deal from this guy some day, right? The guy in my example has sold two of my houses since that run-in. Why tick him off by filing a complaint and going through all that hassle? If he stops bringing buyers to my properties then my sellers ultimately lose, right?

Boiling down the CoE

The NAR Code of Ethics takes up pages and pages of tiny print, and it runs each year in their trade magazine (I think it’s the January issue). Does anybody read that? Probably not many. I’d argue none of us ever should have to read it again. Simply follow this advice instead. The thousands of words in the Code boil down to one thing: Do unto other agents, and consumers, and clients, what you would have them do unto you. It’s the Golden Rule. Simple. Well, obviously not, for many agents and brokers.

The sad part is the agent in my example had no clue how close I was to filing that compaint, and if he did know he’d probably scratch his head and wonder why his actions were “wrong.” Making us take a one-day class every few years won’t “make” the unethical agents suddenly operate ethically. Most of them just don’t get it.

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Ethics

Ethics hearings in private a disservice to consumers?

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Fight Club and real estate

For those of you that saw the movie ‘Fight Club’ you’ll remember that Rule #1 is “You do not talk about fight club,” followed closely by Rule #2, “You DO NOT talk about fight club.” Which, believe it or not, brings me to today’s topic: The Real Estate Code of Ethics and Arbitration. Article 17 obligates Realtors to resolve fights disputes with another Realtor through arbitration (not litigation). Arbitration is conducted at the local board level, and I am not aware of a local board that doesn’t require arbitration to be confidential.

I respect that public internecine warfare amongst Realtors isn’t in the interest of our industry, and doesn’t belong in the public spotlight. I’m not here to advocate the collective airing of our dirty laundry. That said, I wonder if our collective agreement to keep our concerns confidential can inadvertently harm the consumer and ultimately makes all of us look a little shoddier?

To find the first arbitration guidelines created by NAR and distributed as a set of suggested rules for boards to follow, we have to travel all the way back in time to 1929. NAR’s first Code of Ethics & Arbitration Manual wasn’t created until 1973, and it credited a 1965 California Association of Realtors version as its model.

Appalling conduct

I can think of two instances in the past year where I was so appalled by the conduct of a fellow Realtor that I went to the trouble to inquire about how to lodge a Code of Ethics complaint with my local board. After weighing the time required to make a competent complaint and comparing it with the best case outcome (a closed-to-the-public hearing in which they were found to have violated the code of ethics), I decided not to pursue a complaint in both cases. My association’s bylaws (and probably yours) give it the power to discipline any member based on the results of a Code of Ethics hearing, “provided that the discipline imposed is consistent with the discipline authorized by the Professional Standards Committee of the National Association of REALTORS® as set forth in the Code of Ethics and Arbitration Manual of the National Association.”

“Sanctioning Guidelines” – (Appendix VII of Part 4 of the 2011 manual for the very curious), guides member boards to impose disciplinary consequences that are progressive and fair, taking all considerations into account. Sample first-time disciplinary actions include suggestions of a letter of warning, a fine (amounts range from $200 to $5,000 depending on the severity of the violation), and attendance at relevant education sessions. Not to sound defeatist, but a confidential letter of warning and a fine of around $200 doesn’t seem like an outcome worth investing much of my time in.

Practicing in the internet era

Given that we live and work in the internet era, and review sites like Yelp abound, it seems a bit odd to me that a local board might know of an agent with problem behavior that is documented yet choose to make that information unavailable to consumers. My understanding is that the results of a code of ethics hearing are confidential with disclosure authorized in a few situations, none of which deal with informing the public.

Many of my fellow colleagues feel that the best response to a bad agent is to be patient and give them enough time to work themselves out of business. I can respect and understand their hands-off approach. But what about the damage that individual does to our industry as a whole? While we whisper, warn in confidence and know amongst ourselves how awful they are, the public doesn’t get the benefit of our perspective. Deprived of it, they turn to consumer review sites like Yelp.

How do you think we, as an industry, can help consumers in their quest to find a trustworthy agent?

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Ethics

Realtors, we really need to get over ourselves already

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A letter from the child of a Realtor.

Real estate now vs. 1987

In Real Estate, some things are always changing, like financing, education, laws, rules and technology. The two that will always remain constant, as long as they are within the law, are following our clients’ directions, and working with their best interests in mind.  I’m not sure we always follow through with this, though.

Some of us knowingly take over priced listings.  Some of us take listings that are out of our area of expertise.  Some of us won’t show short sales or REOs.  Some of us won’t show homes with low co-op splits.  Some of us don’t have Supra/e-Keys, and miss out on those listings entirely.

Putting our interests first

When these things occur we are putting our own interests first, not our clients’.  We may think that by having as many listings as possible is a good thing, that’s what we’re taught after all, isn’t it?  It may not matter that some are overpriced, eventually, whether one month or four months down the line, the price will be reduced.  It’s just a matter of time and money, for our clients, after all.  The same can be said when we take listings outside our area of expertise, just to add on to our inventory.  If we don’t know what we’re doing, on a short sale listing, for example, it will only cost our clients a lot of time and money.  A lot.

By eliminating certain houses our clients see, that may already fit their criteria, we’re taking away their choices.  Distressed sales account for close to 40% of the market.  This is probably higher in some local markets.  There is no legitimate way to ignore roughly 1/3 of the homes being sold.  Co-op fees are often a touchy subject, especially when they are, not “enough.”  If everyone utilized a Buyer Broker Agreement that stipulated what their fee was, the issue would take care of itself.  Not being able to access listings with the use of Supra/e-Keys is a choice.   Choosing not purchase one will mean agents will not be able to access Fannie Mae (and eventually, probably additional Gov REO homes) along with the listings that are already using them.

Our priorities versus theirs

We totally need to get over ourselves already.  We are not bigger than our clients.  Our priorities are not more important than theirs when it comes to the actual listing and selling of homes.

Recently, my awesome parents dug through a few boxes and rounded up one of my first art projects. About 25 years ago I did the poster featured above about my Mom, and her Real Estate career.  It was for an Open House (no pun, honest!!!) for the elementary school where I attended first grade.  It was just, what she did according to me way back then.  Things are way more complicated now, than when I was six.  There’s a heck of a lot more paperwork for one.  But the same basic principle still applies.

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