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Internet shill

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

An Internet shill is someone who promotes something or someone online for pay without divulging that they are associated with the entity they shill for.

A shill might create a Facebook or Twitter account, set up a blog or simply comment through these and other channels, such as discussion forums.  The purpose is to artificially improve the social perception of the entity shilled for.  Shills promote companies, products, public figures and viewpoints for profit, while pretending to have no motivation for doing so other than personal belief. Alternatively, they sometimes denigrate someone or something, such as a political viewpoint or a competitor’s product, that is in conflict with the entity they serve.  

It can be difficult to detect when inflated metrics are the result of cyber shilling.  Often, the people doing the actual work are not hired directly by the people they shill for.  Someone seeking an enhanced reputation might contract with a domestic firm that performs some less questionable service, such as social media consulting. The consulting firm, in turn, might contract with a cyber shill company based somewhere with very low labor costs. At those premises, low-paid workers perform the actual work. 

More complex Internet shill jobs, such as spreading disinformation, are more demanding and may be well-paid. Such jobs may be telecommute positions or conducted from temporary offices which are frequently moved to avoid detection. 

Shill derives from shillaber, a word used in the early 20th century for the accomplice of a carnival worker employed to excite interest in the games and sideshows while pretending to be a member of the general audience. Internet shills are sometimes referred to as cyber shills or meat puppets; the fake identities they create are sometimes called sock puppets. The practice of using fake identities to promote a product or service is known as sock puppet marketing.

The practice of artificially creating buzz for someone or something is sometimes called astroturfing. The name is word play on grassroots, which refers to authentic movements and trends that develop as a result of the real attitudes and behaviors of people.

See also: reputation management, social media influence, content marketing, gaming the system

This was last updated in October 2013

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