Health insurance industry trade groups opposed to President Obama's health care reform bill are paying Facebook users fake money -- called "virtual currency" -- to send letters to Congress protesting the bill.
Here's how it's happening:
Facebook users play a social game, like FarmVille or Friends For Sale. They get addicted to it. Eager to accelerate their progress inside the game, the gamers buy virtual goods, such as a machine gun for Mafia Wars. But these gamers don't buy these virtual goods with real money. They use virtual currency.
The gamers get virtual currency three ways:
- Winning it playing the games
- Paying for it with real money
- By accepting offers from third-parties -- usually companies like online movie rentals service Netflix -- who agree to give the gamer virtual currency so long as that gamer agrees to try a product or service. This is done through an "offers" provider -- a middleman that brings the companies like Netflix, the Facebook gamemakers, and the Facebook gamemaker's users together.
An anti-reform group called "Get Health Reform Right" is using this third method to pay gamers virtual currency for their support.
Instead of asking the gamers to try a product the way Netflix would, Get Health Reform Right requires gamers to take a survey, which, upon completion, automatically sends the following email to their Congressional Rep:
"I am concerned a new government plan could cause me to lose the employer coverage I have today. More government bureaucracy will only create more problems, not solve the ones we have."
OMGPOP CEO Dan Porter spotted the survey and took a screenshot for us. (Click on the image at the right to expand it.)
Paying people to act like political supporters is called "astroturfing," because it's fake grass-roots campaigning. So maybe this should be called "virtual astroturfing." Or virtual-turfing? Astroturfing 2.0?
Get Health Reform Right describes itself as a "project of organizations whose shared mission is to ensure consumers continue to have access to employer-sponsored healthcare plans."
Under the "Who We Are" tab on GetHealthReformRight.org, the following organizations are listed:
- Association of Health Insurance Advisors
- America's Health Insurance Plans
- American Benefits Council
- BlueCross BlueShield Association
- Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers
- Healthcare Leadership Council
- Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers
- National Association of Health Underwriters
- National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors
- National Retail Association
Women and teens
So who are the gamers filling out the survey and sending emails to Congress? Facebook gamers tend to fall into two groups: women in their 30s and 40s and teenagers of both sexes.
Is this legal? Astroturfing, which involves real money, is not illegal, and we can't imagine virtual curreny astroturfing would be illegal either. Whether or not it's ethical is a different question.
Who is profiting from this? According to OMGPOP CEO Dan Porter, the middleman facilitating this transaction in multiple Facebook games is called Gambit. Up until a few weeks ago, these games included big hits like Zynga's Mafia Wars and FarmVille. Zynga has since removed all offers from its games. On its Web site, Gambit says its clients include:
- #1 MySpace Developer
- 20%+ of top 10 Facebook applications
- School Vandals
- 2 Top 100 websites
- ...and over 150-plus more
Gambit is just the platform, bringing three parties together: gamers seeking currency, game-makers seeking monetization, and companies (and, apparently lobbying groups) looking for customers. OMGPOP CEO Dan Porter tells us it's most likely the case that Get Health Care Reform agreed to pay an ad agency for every letter-writer it recruited. Dan supposes it was this third-party that bundled the above survey with several others and submitted it into Gambit's offer network.
We reached out to Gambit CEO Noah Kagan for clarification. He said: "It's not that Dan is wrong. But we don't run hot political issues. You don't have any evidence that this is from Gambit. We don't condone this in our system. Sometimes stuff does happen, but we've been very proactive in making sure that there's not negative offers in our system."
We've also contacted Get Health Care Reform using an email address listed on its website. We received the following message back: "Google tried to deliver your message, but it was rejected by the recipient domain. We recommend contacting the other email provider for further information about the cause of this error. The error that the other server returned was: 553 553 sorry, that domain isn't in my list of allowed rcpthosts (#5.7.1) (state 14).
Nicholas Carlson is a senior editor at The Business Insider, where this post originally appeared.