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The Jewish Ethicist: Chat Room Charades

The Jewish Ethicist: Chat Room Charades

Is it ethical to assume a false identity online in order to promote your product?

by

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project with the JCT Center for Business Ethics.

Q. Companies sometimes advertise their products by paying someone to enter an internet chat room under a false name and praise the product as if they were an ordinary customer. Or they send out e-mails to newsgroups recommending the product, again using assumed identities. The representatives sincerely believe in the information they're sending out and view it as a service to the consumer. Is this an acceptable practice?

A. It may seem as if no one is lying here. Yet the bottom line is that the company is telling people that satisfied customers all over cyberspace are buzzing about their product. If the salespeople were to say this outright, they would certainly be lying; "telling" people the same thing through an elaborate charade only adds insult to injury by wasting people's time -- and bandwidth -- with bogus endorsements.

The Torah forbids us to "put a stumbling block before the blind." (Leviticus 19:14.) This includes misleading anyone who is blind to what is really happening. The sages give an example almost identical to the situation you describe: Don't advise someone that it is in his interest to sell his field in order to buy a donkey, when your real intention is to buy the field from him. (Rashi's commentary.) Here also the person is giving advice, perhaps even sincere advice, but his counsel is misleading since he hides his own interest in the outcome.

In addition to being unethical, this practice is also unprofessional. The code of ethics of the American Marketing Association, to take just one example, requires "avoidance of sales promotions that use deception or manipulation."

Commerce is a positive area of human endeavor. Not only does it provide us with goods and services, it also stimulates human relations since we need to reach out to others to meet our needs. The market place is also a meeting place, and in cyberspace as well people enjoy the fellowship of chat rooms and newsgroups. Jewish tradition explains that our material desires have an important role to play in encouraging us to form human connections. But we should never put the cart before the horse, and make profits the ends and human relationships only a means.

It's wonderful to exploit selling in order to generate friendships, but it's shameful to exploit friendships in order to generate sales.

SOURCES: Leviticus 19:14 and Rashi's commentary; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 228; Medrash Rabba on Genesis 1:331.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to jewishethicist@aish.com

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of Aish.com and the Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at www.besr.org.

JCT Center For Business Ethics

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.

Published: May 5, 2001


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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Zachary Kessin, May 7, 2001 12:00 AM

One term for this is "Astroturfing"

Since it is trying to look like grass roots support for something, and is fake, hense "Astroturf".

And it is sleazy.

(2) Anonymous, May 7, 2001 12:00 AM

Fantastic new section

Thank you, Aish, for introducing this Work section to your website. I haven't seen any other site (Jewish or otherwise) that deals in-depth with the religious and spiritual concerns of the workplace. As most of us spend 50% of our waking hours at work, it's very important! Thank you for reminding us that we are Jews at work too.

(1) Joanne Millstone, May 6, 2001 12:00 AM

Excellent Article

Thank you for reminding us that there is such a concept as "Business Ethics" and that it is not an oxymoron. I had no idea that such a practice was occurring, but now that I know I shall be very careful to take lightly any information I get via chatrooms.

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