CNN recently announced the recipients of its third annual iReport Awards, which honored outstanding iReporters for their contributions to CNN’s online citizen journalism arm in 2012. The clean, professional polish of the awards contrasted starkly with the controversy CNN found itself battling in the wake of the same awards last year, a controversy that threatened to undermine the credibility of the iReport Awards and, indeed, iReport itself.
Since its 2006 beginnings, CNN iReport has grown to include more than one million users as of 2011 – of which I was one – with the alluring possibility that iReporters’ stories could be featured on a real CNN broadcast, an incredibly appealing incentive for many of us.
In early May 2012, an iReporter identifying herself as Chris Morrow who had joined the site in July 2008 found phenomenal success – or so it seemed. Her personal profile page hit an astounding 850,000 page views. (This screen shot was taken prior to her highest page view count.) Page views, of course, held great importance as the easiest way to recognize the popularity of a story and the only way for an interested sponsor or PR firm to quantify the value of the iReporter.
Naturally, CNN began to celebrate Morrow’s success with her. Every time she hit a page view related milestone -- ﬁrst over 1 million, then 5 million and then 10 million – iReport would issue an official announcement and attach a shiny new badge to her profile. At one point, the station brought Morrow to Atlanta to announce her milestone in a TV broadcast. Her Twitter handle, @morrowchris, today shows more than 500,000 Twitter followers – more even than Vice President Joe Biden and more than all of CNN’s morning anchors combined. There was no stopping this super superstar. At the time the most popular iReporters were given the rather awkward title of "Superstar" with a special prominent location on or near the front page of CNN.com
Her popularity did not go unnoticed by PR ﬁrms, celebrities, businesses and even political ﬁgures. They all wanted a chance at being attached to CNN's number one iReport superstar, and they offered her not only boxes of schwag but free trips, premium press passes and access to some of the biggest names in politics and entertainment.
In a series of phone interviews, Morrow told me that she was a journalist who had worked at several TV stations and that she had made the decision to embrace a new form of "citizen journalism" at CNN iReport. When I asked her about her special access which brought about her fame and success, she simply said she had "major entertainment connections" near her home of San Diego.
By the spring of 2012, some four years after initially signing up, she won the second annual CNN iReport Community Choice Award, an award that was determined in a vote by the site’s iReporting community. The award recognized her interview with Michelle "Bombshell” McGee, the former lover of Jesse James by way of an online voting system by other iReporters.
Winning a cheesy little iReport award (I also won the 1st "Best in Original Reporting" award as voted by a team of professional journalists) was not the main attraction, though. It was all those tens of millions of page views that made her the undisputed "Queen of the iReport." Nobody came close to her page view counts, and if they did they didn't stay close for long. Obscure stories of hers would suddenly take off with unheard-of page views. She'd quickly leave anyone near her numbers in the dust. In her acceptance speech on CNN broadcast, she was brought to tears with the honor of having won an award based on how many iReporters had "voted" for her online. She explained how much it meant for her to be a CNN iReport "Citizen Journalist" and have the honor of being the most viewed iReporter in history (an honor that still stands to this day).
But there was something that just didn’t quite make sense. Nobody outside the iReport community seemed to know who this person with the millions of page views and hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers was. What was not in question was the phenomenal number of views she seems to garner with every story she posted, vetted or not. Page views on iReport are placed front and center in big bold letters as a popularity gauge. Many of the senior iReporters deferred their thoughts over her massive popularity to what appeared to be some very good connections she must have had at CNN Atlanta -- how else could anyone explain her overwhelming numbers? Others would just say, "Hey, maybe she's just real good at what she does." There was a sort of perpetuating popularity that went on because the more views she got, the more "special" access she received. Not many citizen journalists can scoop an interview with an "A" list celebrity or politician, but with millions of views, even their PR agents are inclined to fly out an obscure CNN iReporter.
CNN is very clear that iReporters enjoy no official status with CNN. That said, the CNN iReport staff go out of their way to make some iReporters feel as though they are like CNN staff by posting up regular "assignments" ftom the "new desk" as if to suggest they are working on a CNN story in order to create a newsreporter feel to the relationship. Even the word "assignment" is very typical of a real newsroom conversation. CNN iReport staff are always sure to include the possibility that your story may be vetted or even featured "on air," the Holy Grail of attention for iReporters and the PR firms that are looking for a free ride on broadcast TV. A coveted vett for an iReport simply means that an iReport has been seen and fact checked for accuracy by staff at CNN. This involves a phone call and answering a series of questions, including whether or not the submitter was paid or if they paid for a story, both of which are strictly forbidden.
In May 2012, everything changed for me at CNN iReport when I received an email from a man named Sasket in a place he identiﬁed as Abbottabad, Pakistan, the same village in which Osama bin Laden was found. He offered to provide me with hundreds of thousands of YouTube views for a mere $5. As a professional videographer, his offer fascinated me, and I imagined a warehouse of people happily clicking on my videos. I knew immediately that the solid connection between page views and monetization could be very profitable no matter where the views came from. I took him up on the offer just to see if it was real, and, sure enough, I had a video go “viral” within 24 hours. But not for long.
As it turns out, those “viral” views were all fake, generated through a technique called "botting" or "pinging," which interferes with the YouTube view counter and quickly and dramatically inflates it. Thankfully, just as others were caught, my video was taken down for violating YouTube’s terms very strict terms of service regarding botted views. An advertiser paying pay per click money on YouTube for those views would not be very happy, so YouTube’s terms of service clearly prohibit this activity with the risk of a permanent ban.
It wasn't long, though, before Sasket and many others had dozens of more offers for me, each better than the one before it -- 100,000, 200,000, a million page views for $5 for each batch of 100,000 views. He claimed that some of his methods were fool proof and beyond YouTube’s detection. It was all a giant and apparently quite common scam.
Finally in June 2012, I received another very intriguing email from Sasket. He had apparently seen one of my stories on CNN TV. This time he offered to "bot" my CNN iReports. I was stunned! The World’s News Leader was being scammed with fake page views? After all, this was CNN, a bastion of credibility in the news world, and it was ultimately the credibility of their brand behind iReport. Another person was offering the same thing on the Huffington Post claiming to have done this for dozens of their reporters as well.
I immediately called CNN iReport community manager David Williams to tell him that I believed it was possible to fake the page views on iReport. We decided that I would pick one of my CNN iReports and have it botted by Sasket for $5. Like magic, a fairly simple iReport of mine with fewer than 200 views had accumulated more than 20,000 page views within 72 hours. (since removed)
When I told Sasket that I wasn't interested anymore, he kept sending me more and more offers, culminating in one email in which he claimed he had been botting CNN iReports into the millions of page views for three years for one client and that "she" was very happy. I would be as well, he guaranteed it! Really?
He identiﬁed Chris Morrow as his client for hundreds of iReports over several years – instantly, it all made sense. Along with offering to bot my iReports, he also offered to provide hundreds of thousands of fake Twitter followers and Facebook page Likes - the works. All I had to do was fork over a few hundred dollars and I too could be the No. 1 most-viewed CNN iReporter, with all the perks that ﬂow from those kinds of page view numbers.
I immediately sent a message to Williams but was privately asked to "keep it quiet" while they ﬁgured out what to do about it. Williams conﬁrmed that unlike YouTube, iReport’s policies did not explicitly prohibit botting and pinging but that they would "attempt" to change that policy soon.
They said there was nothing they could do to Chris Morrow’s account except maybe remove a few token million views.
Several months later, Williams announced on a relatively obscure blog that CNN iReport had changed its "terms and conditions" and would take no further action. Although senior iReporters received regular CNN iReport news updates, assignments and story requests, we never received an explicit notice of this important change – it seemed as though it was up to us to find on our own that "botting" and "pinging" was no longer permitted. CNN iReport never clarified how they decided which views to remove, when or why, but Morrow's total page view count had been reduced to just under 10 million from a high of more than 15 million – a number that still seems wildly inflated.
In her one statement to a fellow iReporter, Chris Morrow claimed that she was a victim of fraud for more than three years and had no idea that many of her page views were botted.
The CNN iReport team’s position was, and still is, that other than removing a few million fake views, the matter is closed for discussion.
At one point, several senior iReporters even received a formal email from CNN iReport that informed us that if we continued to discuss the issue on any CNN iReport forum via comments on the site, our iReport accounts would be terminated, using the excuse that our comments could not be “disruptive.” The matter of Chris Morrow and her fake views was officially closed.
One iReporter, thevideoman, posted a story that garnered hundreds of furious comments weighing in with their anger. A few days later, after a follow-up story that clearly identified Morrow’s account as the center of the controversy, thevideoman was permanently banned from CNN iReport, and the follow-up story was deleted. His wife tried to sign up but found her account quickly deleted, as well.
CNN sent a form letter to the videoman simply stating that he was banned for life with no explanation. Top iReporters understood that continuing to raise the issue could result in the deletion of their accounts.
More users were deleted if they insisted that, at a minimum, all of Morrow’s page views be struck off and her status as the most popular and viewed iReporter be retracted. Some users terminated their accounts in protest, while many more just stopped submitting.
The CNN iReport team quietly tried to quell the anger among their top users. In a phone call, Williams claimed they had never noticed all of Morrow’s fake page views over the years before it had all, been brought it to their attention, despite the huge disparity between high view counts and the noticeably absent comments from readers. Apparently, no one at CNN noticed the enormous page view gap between Morrow’s stories and those of other users over three long years. Really? Other calls were met with a statement of no comment.
Certainly, high page views attract perks, access and privileges. PR firms are victims of these scams as much as the people and events that are the focus of an iReport that's been botted. There's pressure for a large audience size as the story sits right next to the shiny red CNN logo at CNN.com. The scam continues to this day in various forms even on CNN, with highly inflated Facebook recommend numbers that are also easily purchased. This can increase the page view numbers slightly but it also makes it look as though a story has garnered hundreds of Facebook Likes, all once again fake and designed to get your attention and clicks.
Since I began my investigation, I've found it's fairly easy to spot a fake, botted video on iReport or any other other sites. Simply match it's popularity with the number of comments or interactions. A video with 50,000 views or maybe 500 or so Facebook Recommends with not one comment would strongly suggest it's a "scam" designed to trick you, the potential viewer, into thinking you're looking at the next viral video.
Chris Morrow continues producing vetted and featured content for iReport, although with much lower page views for the most part. Her profile continues to state that her account has accumulated more than 7.4 million page views, more than anyone else on CNN iReport.
What would drive Morrow – who, like all iReporters, was unpaid – to pay for fake views? Perhaps it had something to do with the addictive feeling of being featured on CNN’s home page or in a broadcast. When you make the cut, the high is very high. When you don’t, the low is very low; I know because I’ve been there. Maybe popularity – even botted popularity – can make the sting go away, if only temporarily.
David Williams and the staff at CNN iReport declined to be interviewed for this story.
Percy von Lipinski is a former CNN iReport user and received the ﬁrst annual CNN iReport award for "Best in Original Reporting." He has appeared on broadcast and print at Time Warner, NBC, CBS, NTV, CCTV, CBC, BBC and many more. He is currently an Anchor at Allvoices.com, and his page views are all real.