The Apocalypse must be fast approaching, that's the only explanation that can help me wrap my mind around this. A health insurance lobbying group is reportedly paying Facebook users in virtual, "in-game" currency to send a letter opposing health-care reform legislation to their Congressional representative.
This according to the blog Business Insider today, in a report that's frustratingly short on details but remains plausible.
TechCrunch did an in-depth investigative series on the sleaziness of the in-game advertising industry this Fall. Market leader Zynga, maker of the home-wrecking game that turns Facebook users into zombified farmers of imaginary crops (Farmville), was the primary target of that report. Advertisers pay users in virtual goods, like fertilizer for their imaginary crops, for signing up for offers to purchase real goods for real cash (with a credit card). Other offers include market research surveys and apparently political action. The games are psychologically addictive, there's an art to making an effective one, and so payment with in-game currency is very compelling.
Zynga claimed that it was cleaning up its advertising market and that such virtual-goods-for-action offers never made up a substantial portion of its revenue, anyway. None the less, it's not hard to imagine this same industry being used for nefarious political purposes. Not hard at all.
Business Insider cites the CEO of casual gaming startup OMGPOP, who didn't name the game the health-care offers appeared in but blamed ad serving startup Gambit. Gambit says there's no evidence they served up the offer and says they prohibit advertising on "hot political topics." The report is an unusual bit of original investigation by Business Insider, which is a blog that does best at finding and excerpting at length from other peoples' reporting around the web.
Got that? An aggregation-heavy blog quotes a Flash game CEO blaming a casual game ad network (who denies it) for serving up in-game currency offers from a health-insurance front lobbying group to millions of people who spend their time doing things like watering crops that don't really exist on Facebook to instead send letters to politicians opposing government reform of the health care system. That long sentence went from vacuous to real serious, there at the very end.
We're talking to people in the casual gaming advertising field and they say that something like this is very possible, though no one else has seen these ads. This may be nothing but rumor and speculation right now, or it may really be happening, but it's not an implausible scenario at all. Update: We just heard from another casual gaming ad network that says it was approached with this ad and another calling people to oppose immigration reform late this Summer but declined to run the ads.
There's something very sci-fi about this though, isn't there? Apparently some people look at Facebook's 350 million users and see an army of minions that can be paid in other-worldly, ephemeral "cash" to do a benefactor's bidding.
Combine this with Facebook's radical redrawing of its social contract with users today, changing the default setting on status messages from being private to being exposed to everyone online, and Facebook looks a little more dangerous than it did before.
Facebook hasn't yet responded to our request for comment on this story.
Update: A Facebook spokesperson has responded to say: "We have not seen the ad in question or received any user complaints about the issue. We can't comment on ads we have not seen, but we will take action against those that exploit political agendas for commercial use or receive significant negative user sentiment.
We have clear policies (http://www.facebook.com/ad_guidelines.php) in place to protect all users from inappropriate advertising content. In addition to our own enforcement actions, it is the responsibility of both developers and ad networks to make sure the content running in third-party applications is appropriate."