Faking Interest OnlineThe New York Times had an interesting letter to its ethicist. Apparently the writer had interned at a magazine where the editor wanted him or her to post a comment on the publication's blog, but while pretending to have no affiliation. This would be considered a significant ethical lapse in any journalistic circle, as the BBC learned when it had to respond to staff calling in to programs, pretending to be audience members.
I have sympathy for the problem. I remember many years ago hosting a radio call-in show and having absolutely no one telephone. Eventually a friend of mine, the technical director, went to another room and called in to try and spark a conversation. So I understand the difficulty and discomfort of waiting for comments that don't come. However, we were young and foolish. Some might perceive faking an audience as a form of marketing, but it's dishonest.
There are situations and times at which you say, "No, I won't do that." The magazine could have disabled commenting for a while on its blog. Or it could have borne the terrible stigma of not having people care for its opinions - if anyone even noticed or cared. Instead, it choose to manipulate its audience, search engines, and anyone else who might pay attention. To me, that is on the same side of the line as peddling snake oil. I've found in my own blogs that I must insist on moderating comments because I've seen examples of interested people with clear agendas attempting to appear as though they were readers happening onto a topic. Too bad there isn't an equivalent function when you are in the audience and not running the forum.