A coalition of insurance industry groups called "Get Health Reform Right," led by Blue Cross Blue Shield and including America's Health Insurance Plans, the American Benefits Council and others, has been caught tricking Facebook users into sending electronic letters opposing health care reform to their Congressional representatives by paying them with "virtual currency."
Here is how it works: Facebook users often play habit-forming, online social games with names like "Friends For Sale," "FarmVille" and "MafiaWars." The games utilize virtual currency which allows players buy objects within the game and advance their progress in the game. Ads appear during the games offering Facebook users more virtual currency if they agree to take an online survey which, when filled out, automatically sends an anti-health care reform email message to their Congressional Representative.
Players get the virtual currency through an "offers provider," in this case, a middleman for the anti-reform group Get Health Reform Right, which facilitated bringing three interested parties together: gamers seeking currency, game-makers seeking business and lobby groups looking for people to manipulate. Dan Porter, the CEO of a game site called OMGPOP.com, says that most likely Get Health Reform Right agreed to pay an ad agency for every letter-writer it recruited.
The Business Insider, one of several outlets to expose this arrangement, proposed naming the scheme "virtual astroturfing." After the electronic PR maneuver was exposed, the game company Zynga, which runs the games "MafiaWars" and "FarmVille," removed all offers from its games. Get Health Reform Right suspended its Web page and posted a statement that said, "Because of unauthorized use of the Get Health Reform Right name and logo, we have temporarily suspended the Get Health Reform Right website."