[This was originally published on Hacker News Network (HNN) and mirrored on attrition.org.]
Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD). We all live with it, and we’re all accustomed to it at one level or another: “Do I have enough insurance?”; “Did I leave the coffee pot on when I left for work this morning?”; “Will my proposal be accepted by management?” FUD is simply a facet of life; something with which we all must contend to the best of our abilities.
FUD is yet another method often employed by a party (typically a vendor in our context) to help propagate their product or service. In short, this is achieved by attempting to instill a sense of fear, uncertainty or doubt in the minds of consumers regarding a competitor’s product. By instilling FUD in the minds of consumers, the vendor obliquely promises dire consequences if the intended target does not buy their goods.
The obvious fallacy with this approach is that a vendor’s product or service (P&S) is not sold on it’s own merit; rather it is sold as a “reasonable alternative”. FUD’s primary goal is to scare consumers away from using superior P&S in favor of inferior (yet often more recognized) P&S.
According to the New Hackers Dictionary (aka the Jargon file), FUD is defined as: FUD /fuhd/ n.:
Defined by Gene Amdahl after he left IBM to found his own company: “FUD is the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that IBM sales people instill in the minds of potential customers who might be considering [Amdahl] products.” The idea, of course, was to persuade them to go with safe IBM gear rather than with competitors’ equipment. This implicit coercion was traditionally accomplished by promising that Good Things would happen to people who stuck with IBM, but Dark Shadows loomed over the future of competitors’ equipment or software. See IBM. After 1990 the term FUD was associated increasingly frequently with Microsoft, and has become generalized to refer to any kind of disinformation used as a competitive weapon. (1)
The past few years have brought a dramatic increase in the FUD tactic. Not only are large companies using it to help stifle new and upcoming competition, in addition, uneducated journalists are wielding it like a four year old with a loaded gun: unaware of the danger, or of the consequences.
The use of FUD in a marketing campaign is often subtle and hard to spot. Well written FUD will blend in among facts and be difficult to discern. Worse, this underhanded tactic is often problematic in trying to counter. Rather than fighting against incorrect facts or misguided opinions, you find yourself battling vague assertions, self-serving maxims, and half-truths.
Worse yet is spotting the FUD campaign in the first place. Because it is an effective weapon based on half-truths, distinguishing it from legitimate opinion may be difficult. For an excellent paper and well documented examples of this, consult the paper titled ‘FUD 101’. (2) In this document, Mr. Green outlines several elements and examples of Microsoft using a FUD campaign against the Linux Community.
In today’s world of articles and press releases, we can identify several levels of FUD. This is important as it tells us how to respond to the ‘news’. The more FUD, the more skepticism that should be given to it. The less FUD, the better the chance it was just uneducated conclusions that lead to the text.
Twelve Elements of FUD
To help newcomers to the world of FUD, I have come up with a list of twelve elements that can and are used. In order to make this even easier for the consumer, I have devised a scale to help qualify the ‘FUD level’ used in a particular piece of writing. While this delineation is by no means an exact science, it can help put into perspective the subtle technique of disinformation.
1) Buy our product now to avoid headache tomorrow! While this may be appealing initially, this often comes at the sacrifice of features or performance. Yes, it may be easy to use, but odds are it does a third of what competitor’s products do.
2) Buy our product now because tomorrow our product will kick ass! The promise of future development (also known as ‘vaporware‘) encourages you to purchase the product now in order to receive future upgrades that will be better than what is on the market now. Obviously, this does nothing but hurt you in the here and now.
3) No quoted names. In this world of technology professionals, it is easy to find someone who is a) qualified, b) supportive of the product and c) willing to go on the record. Anytime an article comes out that claims a P&S is desired or supported, but lacks names to back those claims, should be questioned. Why couldn’t they find at least one person to go on record endorsing the product?
4) Quoting known frauds and charlatans. Worse than quoting no one is to quote frauds. Rather than not finding someone to endorse a P&S, they had to turn to someone that is well known for NOT knowing technology. These people will often go on the record endorsing anything if it propagates their name or company, or leads to them receiving some kind of incentive (read: cash).
5) Epiphany Nomenclature Significance Naught (3) The use of large or fancy words in place of readily understood technical terms. Obscuring features behind words that sound impressive is a common way of hiding the truth. This technique is often known as ‘buzzword compliance’.
6) Hyping up old or standard features in place of current or impressive technology. We all use and trade email, so a company drooling over themselves in light of their amazing use of the SMTP (4) protocol means very little.
7) Without our P&S, you’ll be hacked! New security and crypto based companies are fond of using this ploy. Without their products, you are a time bomb waiting to go off! Come tomorrow, evil and malicious hackers will intrude upon your network, deface your web page, read your corporate secrets and pour sand in your gas tank!
8) Without our P&S, you will not get future business! The trend of business is moving toward our product and what we deem standardizations! If you and your company don’t jump on our bandwagon, no other company will do business with you! As we all know, new technology and new standards are only adopted after long and rigorous testing. To move over to a new platform or protocol simply because some company says so is ludicrous.
9) Without our P&S, you will lose time and money! This varies slightly from #2 in that the FUD centers around your company losing time and money today, not tomorrow. As we all know, any enterprise outfit that could possibly lose money in a matter of days without a specific product not already implemented is doomed to begin with.
e) Spin Doctoring (2)
10) Hyping opponent’s weakness. No more than a form of mudslinging, the company doesn’t rely on its own merit to persuade you to use their products. Rather, they must display their opponents weaknesses and use them to convince you not to use theirs.
11) Creating weaknesses for the opponent. Sometimes an opponent has very few weaknesses. So, why not make some up? Clever wording and sometimes outright lies lead to one company creating supposed weaknesses in competitors P&S.
12) Attacking opponent’s strengths. Akin to #1, this relies on attacking the selling points of a competitor’s P&S. Often times, you will see this used in conjunction with #1 to attempt to completely belittle the opposing P&S.
For fun and amusement, you can use the twelve points above to rate articles. If an article or press release uses some of the methods above, attribute it one point per method. In the end, you can say that a given article has a “FUD Factor of 4” or rated “7 on the FUD scale”. Recent months have shown Microsoft to be repeat offenders, often rating between 5 and 10 on the FUD Scale. Their fear of the Linux operating system shows. No one should ever rate higher than a 10, unless the article is made up of nothing but FUD.
Response to FUD
As with all problems, it does little good to discuss them without proposed solutions. With FUD, it is much more manageable and easy to deal with.
The first thing is recognizing FUD in all its forms. Awareness for the average person is the tricky part. Consider the average person that has an interest in the ever changing world of technology and networking. They go day to day without the benefit of forums that readily challenge these huge companies oozing FUD at every crevice. Unfortunately, they are a bulk of the customers and supporters of these P&S. Educating them is the first step toward an honest profession.
Second, is the response. Even if you do recognize a company peddling FUD, how do you respond? Very simple.
1) Mail the author of the FUD as well as their editor. When doing so, be polite and present facts to back your mail. Site reference material, URLs or anything solid to back your argument and counter theirs.
2) Once mailed, give them a chance to correct their mistakes. Do not assume the FUD was intentional. The correction can come in the form of a retraction or follow-up article. As much as I hate to say it, the media machine may not allow for either. At that point, you must decided what to do.
3) Openly dispute the article in a public forum. Be it a mail list or web board, post the relevant parts of the article containing the FUD and refute them with your own facts. This causes a bit more strife but may be the only solution.
The use of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt in marketing campaigns — while certain to get the public’s attention — is plainly wrong. Armed with the above information, it’s our hope that the reader will now be able to spot it, refute it, and most importantly, not buy into it.
(2) Eric Green (eric[at]linux-hw.com) for his paper ‘FUD 101’. An excellent resource for real world examples and definitions: http://badtux.org/home/eric/editorial/fud101.php
(3) By using standard synonyms from www.dictionary.com, we can create an alternate phrase that sounds impressive, yet means nothing.
Fancy -> Epiphany, Words -> Nomenclature, Meaning -> Significance, Nothing -> Naught. “Fancy words meaning nothing”.
(4) SMTP stands for Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. The existing protocol that has been delivering your e-mail for over a decade.
Space Rogue (spacerog[at]l0pht.com) for the idea of this paper and harassment. ATTRITION Staff (staff[at]attrition.org) for peer review and harassment. Anna Henricks, Geekgrl, and especially Jay Dyson for proof reading and suggestions.