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Originally published Friday, May 20, 2011 at 5:19 PM

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Man outed as paper commenter, suspended from job

An executive at an Arizona traffic-camera company has been suspended after a newspaper in Washington state discovered he misrepresented himself as a local resident on its website and made comments to promote business in the area, a company spokesman said Friday.

Associated Press

quotes See? Sometimes attention is paid where none is expected. Read more
quotes Certainly these on-line trolls can be maddening, but I hardly think that this man... Read more
quotes The executive deserves to lose his job. This sort of fraud for a scamera company... Read more

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SEATTLE —

An executive at an Arizona traffic-camera company has been suspended after a newspaper in Washington state discovered he misrepresented himself as a local resident on its website and made comments to promote business in the area, a company spokesman said Friday.

Bill Kroske is the vice president of business development at American Traffic Solutions Inc., based in Scottsdale, Ariz. The Herald newspaper of Everett, Wash., reported that it electronically tracked posts made by Kroske to the company in Arizona, and that he had signed up for the Herald's website using his real name and company's email.

A reporter covering a popular debate over red-light traffic cameras noticed that one person with the screen name "W Howard" had been commenting frequently, and discovered the account was linked to a company that appeared to be using the comments to promote its business, Herald editor Neal Pattison said. The user never identified himself as an employee of American Traffic Solutions.

Company spokesman Charles Territo called Kroske someone who cares very passionately about the industry and was trying to counter misinformation about their product.

"Unfortunately, he did it the wrong way," Territo said. "We believe that you should be authentic and honest when engaging."

This has been a learning experience for American Traffic Solutions, Territo said.

"Employees need to understand that as companies we are held to a higher standard and that posts, tweets, and blogs not only reflect on the individual but also the company that they work for," he said.

Pattison said he was not surprised by the misuse of the Herald's comments systems. It was almost common knowledge that the companies marketing red-light cameras were active in drumming up grass-roots support, Pattison said, but the newspaper staff was surprised Kroske registered using his company email.

Pattison said newspapers have been dealing with sometimes vile anonymous comments for hundreds of years - from Benjamin Franklin who was famed for his fake personas to Abraham Lincoln, who wrote anonymous letters to newspapers trashing his opponents.

"This is a wrinkle in something I think has been going on for a while," he said.

The paper's comments policy bans commercial use and misrepresentation by posters, but Pattison said he doubts they catch everyone who breaks the policy, even though his staff monitors the comments. Posts breaking the rules are especially common during political campaigns.

"Every paper is dealing with this," Pattison said. "What you want to do is foster a broader discussion about things that really matter. It's getting harder and harder to do so."

Steve Jones, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago, agreed that grass-roots marketing has become common online - from fans promoting music groups to companies asking people to talk about their products.

He said the latest incident represented a trickier ethical question because of the poster's vested interest. He said it was a big step beyond the kid who promotes a band's new album on his Facebook page in exchange for a free T-shirt, Jones said.

"You don't have to do this deceptively," Jones said. "My guess is he presumed if he did that, he wouldn't have been published."

Pattison said that if Kroske had been entirely transparent and made one or two comments, the paper probably would have allowed it. For example, they allowed a comment from a bank officer made in response to citizen comments on the bank closing.

"It's a news judgment; it's not a legality," Pattison said.

Pattison said the newspaper recently removed a comment on a story about a police officer's death because the post called for more police deaths. He said that when the person was told why his comment was removed, he "went nuts."

The poster went on to email everyone associated with the company and posted an anonymous diatribe blasting the paper on Craigslist.

Jones said the broader problem was that the social discourse on the Internet - on newspaper comments pages, across social media outlets - has become so polarized and mean that people are becoming cynical about everything they see online.

"It's hard to engage in debate and argument when your first interpretation is, `I need to be suspicious,'" Jones said.

It's also impossible to know how many companies engage in deceptive practices online, Jones added.

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