Disaster spam, trolls and the stuff on the bottom of my shoe

During the night of the big storm, the Rutland Herald put up a live blog using a program called Cover It Live. We had several thousand posts, everything from questions about what was hit and did we know about this town or that road, to answers, from our reporters and photographers or from the general public, to messages from the power company and emergency providers about what to beware of and many, many well-wishers hoping we could all stay safe and dry.

That wasn’t an idle wish, either, as the power had by then gone out and we were putting out two live blogs and two print editions on laptops from conference room 4 of the hospital, trying our best to provide the state with up to date information. And for the record, we had it on our free server, so we didn’t charge people for the service. There was an ad that ran when you first logged on, but that comes with the software package and that revenue goes to Cover It Live.

It’s pertinent because I noticed an odd thing that evening. Once we hit a critical mass of postings — I can’t remember what we were up to — we started getting hit by advertising tweets for services that would recommend a contractor, for concrete companies, for flood recovery services and landscape gardeners.

They were vague and often just slightly misdirected in that telltale way of an automated product. Call it disaster spam. Somebody — probably lots of somebodys — has/have built programs to push advertising messages into online conversations on given topics. I’m sure had I been two thousand messages into a web stream on tanning that I would have been seeing ads pop in for Hawaiian Tropic and bronzing lotion. Maybe even melanoma clinics.

Somehow, even though it was the middle of a flood, it was hard to offense with the messages, even though when you walk the cat back through the process, somebody was paying somebody to get a commercial message directed at strangers whose lives might be at risk in a disaster, somewhere, to promote their pumps, their high-strength cleaner or their emergency roofing service.

OK, you say (this line, for those of you who might be parsing my rhetoric, is a straw man argument), but those are services people might need. So what’s wrong with advertising them?

But where do we draw the line? Would it be different if it was an undertaker? A local business, seeing what’s going on around them and immediately trying to turn a profit from it? At what point does it cease to become a value-neutral business offer and start to feel like creepy opportunism?

Because somewhere, when you start to take advantage of the people in your own community, it crosses that line.

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