Sprint’s Bad Apples Astroturf Reviews, Slam Competition

I have a lot of respect for wireless carriers and most of their employees. They generally work tirelessly to make mobile magic happen, but as with most large populations, there are always some bad apples.  Unfortunately, some of those bad apples work for Sprint. And quite frankly, I’m fed up with them trying to muddy the waters of our comments sections here at GottaBeMobile without disclosing who they work for.

We have a solid working relationship with all four of the major U.S. wireless carriers, who provide us with access to products, launch events and spokespeople from time to time. All four have advertised on our site through our ad networks. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t call it as we see it in reviews.

We’ve written countless articles about Sprint’s services and devices over the years. I have fond memories of going mobile with my Sprint MiFi. It served as the most important gadget in my mobile arsenal for over a year. On the flip side of the Sprint coin, I had some pretty awful experiences with the Sprint Overdrive, a 4G mobile hotspot.

Astroturfing by Sprint Employees

Unfortunately, there are many comments on GottaBeMobile.com that are being left by Sprint employees who fail to mention that they work for the company. This isn’t just against  poor manners, it’s also against Sprint’s own social media policy. I don’t mind it when readers disagree with my opinions or provide their own, but it’s a different ballgame when you’re bashing the competition without disclosing which team you’re playing for.  It isn’t fair to the writers and it isn’t fair to our readers, who have their opinions and experiences shot down or overshadowed by Sprint employees who would rather spend their time astroturfing than serving customers.

We have better things to do than investigate the origins of all the comments on our articles. But below you’ll find just two examples of articles where Sprint employees jump in to the mix without identifying themselves. There are likely more examples of this practice here at GottaBeMobile and other mobile blogs, forums, review sites and communities. The practice isn’t fair to consumers or to all of the writers and webmasters who pour their efforts into reviewing mobile gadgets and networks. It’s not fair to Sprint’s competitors and it certainly isn’t fair to the thousands of Sprint employees who have respect for their consumers and the sites that guide them.

I hope that Sprint’s social media team can effectively communicate its policies to all of its employees and clamp down on astroturfing.

So what exactly’s going on?

I began noticing a while back that we were getting very strong comments on articles that criticized Sprint’s network and the devices it sells. I generally delete comments that contain foul language, racist remarks or personally attack readers or our writers. Some of the comments on these Sprint articles fell into these categories and were deleted. Some of these off-color comments were being posted anonymously commenters, who we were able to track back to Sprint offices. But comments remained that caught my eye for worse reasons. Sprint employees were arguing the validity of our reviews and bashing the competition without identifying themselves which company they worked for.

I’ve been writing about technology online for about six years and it’s pretty easy to spot the difference between an opinion and something that has an agenda behind it. Today we started seeing comments on our iPhone 4S comparison article that looked out of place. After checking IP addresses, it’s clear Sprint employees are at it again: bashing the competition and calling our own expertise into question without disclosing who they work for while trying to appear as if they are consumers.

We’re currently reviewing the wireless network performance of the AT&T, Sprint and Verizon versions of the iPhone 4S. So far, the AT&T iPhone 4S is outperforming Verizon and Sprint iPhone 4S phones  consistently in several San Francisco neighborhoods. We’re using the Speedtest.net app since consumers can easily replicate. We are also running apps that require a solid data connection, such as Netflix.

We’ve noted repeatedly that your results will vary from neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city. We have absolutely zero interest in promoting one network’s iPhone 4S over another. We’re simply trying to help our readers make informed buying decisions and demonstrate that choosing a network can be tricky business.

A comment on the aticle titled iPhone 4S 3G Speed Test: AT&T vs. Sprint vs. Verizon (part 1) was made by someone on Sprint’s network that caught my eye.

The comment was written by a Sprint employees who seemed a little offended that the Sprint iPhone 4S didn’t beat out the competition. He insinuates that publications, including ours,  aren’t testing the iPhone 4S fairly.

Apparently Speedtest isn’t a good enough indicator for him. Yet, above is what a Netflix movie stream looks like on Sprint’s network in the same neighborhood where we ran the tests he’s complaining about.

And here’s what the same movie looks like on the AT&T iPhone 4S at the same location. Perhaps the results would be reversed in your neighborhood, but these are the results in mine. We don’t wear lab coats here or pretend that our testing methods are flawless, but we do think it’s important for consumers to see real-world performance rather than overly generous coverage maps and theoretical download speed numbers.

The above comment from ESS_in_Midwest might not seem like a big deal to you, but unfortunately  this isn’t the first time we’ve run into Sprint employees masquerading as unbiased consumers…

Sprint employees Astroturfing on Overdrive 4G Hotspot Article

Below  is another example of what happened back in March when I wrote an article about taking a break from being a Sprint customer for the first time in several years due to some issues with the Overdrive Hotpsot  (Read: A Sprint Hotspot Customer No Longer…). A commenter calling himself “opinionsarelike” asked me how much Verizon was paying me to write the article about leaving Sprint.

The commenter was clearly trying to appear as an average consumer who preferred Sprint over Verizon. But he crossed the line by accusing me of taking money from Verizon to bash a rival network.

A quick click on the comment moderation options revealed that the comment came from a Sprint IP address that is just down the road from the wireless carriers’ Overland Park headquarters.

I thought that it was odd for someone accusing me of accepting cash for an opinion when he was the one receiving a paycheck from a wireless carrier. I asked him to tell us if he was a Sprint employee, but didn’t receive a response.

Next up was a commentator calling himself “jboy75” that bashed Sprint’s competition. Most of his second paragraph looks like it could’ve been pulled from Sprint marketing material, but he insisted that it was all based on his personal experience and referred to Sprint as a third party. I replied, telling him I missed the reliability of the 3G MiFi and that I might switch back to Sprint when the 4G MiFi landed.

After seeing one Sprint employee astroturfing on this post I decided to check joby75’s IP. Sure enough, he was commenting from the exact same IP address as opinionsarelike, the pseudonym of the first commenters.  Maybe they were both the same guy, maybe they worked down the hall from each other. It doesn’t really matter.

Then a third commenter with strong opinons popped up, calling himself ‘4G Truth’ and attacking Verizon. I replied to him by explaining I simply couldn’t get online with the Sprint Overdrive at CES, a Las Vegas trade show I attend annually. Mr. 4G truth happened to have the same IP address as the other two commenters.

I’d had enough with the astroturfing for the day and told Sprint employees that they were more than welcome to participate here at GottaBeMobile, but that they should at least have the courtesy to disclose who they work for.  Most public companies have social media policies that require employees to play by a set of rules when they comment on social networks or on articles such as the ones we publish here. Below is a conversation I had with jboy75 on the issue, but while we were going back and forth, a fourth person left a comment from the same Sprint IP address:

After taking a break from bashing competitors here on GottaBeMobile, jboy75 confirmed that he worked for Sprint and that they actually do have a social media policy covering issues like this:

We’re looking forward to hearing what Sprint’s communications team has to say about these rotten apples. I’m pretty sure  it’s just a few rogue employees rather than an organized effort. But whatever’s going on here isn’t kosher.

This is NOT the Sprint Way

Sprint’s communications team is very professional and has much better things to do than astroturf technology reviews. I had two good conversations with Sprint corporate communications employees. Both were apologetic and understood my frustrations. I asked for them to provide a comment to be posted alongside this article, which you can read below:

Sprint embraces social media and encourages its employees, as they feel comfortable, to contribute to online discussions about wireless phones and services. We agree that when they do, their status as a Sprint employee is relevant. We tell them that they should identify themselves up front as being with Sprint. Also, we urge our employees always to be courteous when they are interacting on a social networking site, a technology blog or other online forum.

We apologize for the actions of what appears to be a few individuals. We hope it doesn’t overshadow the vast majority of our Sprint employee advocates who follow these practices. We believe our customers and others benefit from and appreciate the willingness of our employees to answer questions, offer insight or provide assistance.