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A shill, also called a plant or a stooge, is a person who publicly helps or gives credibility to a person or organization without disclosing that they have a close relationship with the person or organization. Shills can carry out their operations in the areas of media, journalism, marketing, confidence games, or other business areas. A shill may also act to discredit opponents or critics of the person or organization in which they have a vested interest through character assassination or other means.
In most uses, shill refers to someone who purposely gives onlookers, participants or "marks" the impression of an enthusiastic customer independent of the seller, marketer or con artist, for whom they are secretly working. The person or group in league with the shill relies on crowd psychology to encourage other onlookers or audience members to do business with the seller or accept the ideas they are promoting. Shills may be employed by salespeople and professional marketing campaigns. Plant and stooge more commonly refer to a person who is secretly in league with another person or outside organization while pretending to be neutral or a part of the organization in which they are planted, such as a magician's audience, a political party, or an intelligence organization (see double agent).
Shilling is illegal in many circumstances and in many jurisdictions because of the potential for fraud and damage; however, if a shill does not place uninformed parties at a risk of loss, but merely generates "buzz", the shill's actions may be legal. For example, a person planted in an audience to laugh and applaud when desired (see claque), or to participate in on-stage activities as a "random member of the audience", is a type of legal shill. Shill can also be used pejoratively to describe a critic who appears either all-too-eager to heap glowing praise upon mediocre offerings, or who acts as an apologist for glaring flaws.
The origin of the term "shill" is uncertain; it may be an abbreviation of "shillaber". The word originally denoted a carnival worker who pretended to be a member of the audience in an attempt to elicit interest in an attraction. Some sources trace the usage back to 1914.
In online discussion media, satisfied consumers or "innocent" parties may express specific opinions in order to further the interests of an organization in which they have an interest, such as a commercial vendor or special interest group. In academia, this is called opinion spamming. Web sites can also be set up for the same purpose. For example, an employee of a company that produces a specific product might praise the product anonymously in a discussion forum or group in order to generate interest in that product, service, or group. In addition, some shills use "sock puppetry", where they sign on as one user soliciting recommendations for a specific product or service. They then sign on as a different user pretending to be a satisfied customer of a specific company.
In some jurisdictions and circumstances, this type of activity is illegal. The plastic surgery company Lifestyle Lift ordered their employees to post fake positive reviews on websites. As a result, they were sued, and ordered to pay $300,000 in damages by the New York Attorney General's office.
Reputable organizations may prohibit their employees and other interested parties (contractors, agents, etc.) from participating in public forums or discussion groups in which a conflict of interest might arise, or will at least insist that their employees and agents refrain from participating in any way that might create a conflict of interest.
Both the illegal and legal gambling industries often use shills to make winning at games appear more likely than it actually is. For example, illegal three-card monte and shell-game peddlers are notorious employers of shills. These shills also often aid in cheating, disrupting the game if the mark is likely to win. In a legal casino, however, a shill is sometimes a gambler who plays using the casino's money in order to keep games (especially poker) going when there are not enough players. The title of one of Erle Stanley Gardner's mystery novels, Shills Can't Cash Chips, is derived from this type of shill. This is different from "proposition players" who are paid a salary by the casino for the same purpose, but bet with their own money.
In marketing, shills are often employed to assume the air of satisfied customers and give testimonials to the merits of a given product. This type of shilling is illegal in some jurisdictions, but almost impossible to detect. It may be considered a form of unjust enrichment or unfair competition, as in California's Business & Professions Code § 17200, which prohibits any "unfair or fraudulent business act or practice and unfair, deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising".
Shills, or "potted plants", are sometimes employed in auctions. Driving prices up with phony bids, they seek to provoke a bidding war among other participants. Often they are told by the seller precisely how high to bid, as the seller actually pays the price (to himself, of course) if the item does not sell, losing only the auction fees. Shilling has a substantially higher rate of occurrence in online auctions, where any user with multiple accounts can bid on their own items. One detailed example of this has been documented in online auctions for used cars. Many online auction sites employ sophisticated (and usually secret) methods to detect collusion. The online auction site eBay forbids shilling; its rules do not allow friends or employees of a person selling an item to bid on the item, even though eBay has no means to detect if a bidder is related to a seller or is in fact the seller.
In his book Fake: Forgery, Lies, & eBay, Kenneth Walton describes how he and his cohorts placed shill bids on hundreds of eBay auctions over the course of a year. Walton and his associates were charged and convicted of fraud by the United States Attorney for their eBay shill bidding.
With the proliferation of live online auctions in recent years, shill bidding has become commonplace. Some websites allow shill bidding by participating auctioneers. These auctioneers are able to see bids placed in real time and can then place counter bids to increase the amount. One Proxibid auctioneers' website states, "At the request of the auction company, this auction permits bids to be placed by the seller or on the seller's behalf, even if such bids are placed solely for the purpose of increasing the bid."
The term can apply to journalists, commentators, and media outlets, who have vested interests in or associations with parties, and report in a way favorable to those interests. The term is often used by antiestablishment figures to denounce the media.
Research and experiments
A shill in a psychology experiment, or the like, is called a "confederate". In Stanley Milgram's experiment, in which the subjects witnessed people getting electric shocks, a confederate would pretend to be one of the experimental subjects who would receive the fake shocks, so that the real experimental subject would think that a draw of names from a hat was random. The confederate would always play the role of the learner, and the subject would be the teacher, and the subject would think that this was a random draw from a hat containing papers that say "learner" and "teacher".
In performance art, such as DECONference (Decontamination Conference), the confederates were called "deconfederates". When a large group of DECONference attendees were asked to remove all clothing prior to entry to the event, the deconfederates, planted among the attendees, would comply immediately with the request, causing all of the others to follow the orders and disrobe as well.
Police or military interrogators sometimes use undercover agents (called "plants") to assist with the interrogation of an individual or suspect. The plant can pose as a fellow inmate or internee, build a rapport and earn the confidence of the interviewee. The plant may subtly suggest that telling the interrogators what they want to know is the sensible or right thing to do. Even if no outright confessions are obtained, minor details and discrepancies that come out in supposedly innocent conversation can be used to chip away at the interviewee. Some plants are in reality inmates or prisoners of war who have been promised better treatment and conditions in return for helping with the interrogation; the character played by William Hurt in the film Kiss of the Spider Woman is an example of this. One notorious UK case is that of Colin Stagg, a man who was falsely accused of the murder of Rachel Nickell, in which a female police officer posed as a potential love interest to try to tempt Stagg to implicate himself.
Puppet, vassal, quisling, or satellite states have been routinely used in exercises of foreign policy to give weight to the arguments of the country that controls them. Examples of this include the USSR's use of its satellites in the United Nations during the Cold War. There is also belief that modern Ukraine is controlled by the United States in exactly the same manner. These states are used to give the impression of legitimacy to domestic policies that are ultimately harmful to the population they control, while beneficial to the government that controls them.
Even outside the spectrum of sovereign powers many multiparty democratic systems give foreign powers the capacity to influence political discourse through shills and pseudo sock-puppets. Thanks to the reliance of many political parties on external sources of revenue for campaigns it can be easy for a government or business to either choose which party it funds or to outright create one. This way they can either choose to support existing minority voices that echo their views or form their own, using their funds and usually semi-covert influence to make them a more prominent voice.
Another concept in foreign policy is seen in sovereign alliances. In these instances, an allied country acts on behalf of another's interests so that it appears that the original power does not want to get involved. This is useful in situations where there is little public support in the original country for the actions. This type of collusion is typically practiced between countries that share common goals and are capable of returning favours. An example of this may be Cuba's role during the Cold War, in sending active combat troops to wars in Africa when it was unpalatable for the USSR to do so.
During covert operations or police investigations agents may routinely claim to be of political views or a part of an organization in order to gain the confidence of the people they wish to surveil. Sometimes this goes further with the agents participating in acts on behalf of the organizations they infiltrate or falsely represent as was the case during the Operations like Gladio and Chaos. Often the end goal is not just to gain information about the organization but to discredit them in the eyes of the public. However, these kinds of actions are more similar to false flag operations than typical undercover operations. In other examples, operatives may act in a manner they deem positive to assist an organization to which they cannot have overt ties.
- FTC v. Greeting Cards of America, Inc. et al – USA (S.D. Fla. 2004). Text
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