At least 180 workers were paid by an anonymous employer to promote positive stories about WE Charity in 2018 and 2019 and manipulate Google’s search algorithm. The campaign attempted to surface positive visibility and drown any negative coverage.
Microwork is a series of small tasks, considered the smallest unit of labor in a virtual assembly line, that comprises a unified project. Individuals are paid pocket money to fulfill a simple duty under a few minutes over the internet.
Based on the website's listings, both WE jobs were completed.
The first posting appeared under an anonymous account “Member_757096." Workers were asked to Google “Craig Kielburger," the co-founder of WE Charity, and then click on a Toronto Star article about WE's $30-million investment to build a high-tech facility that grooms "socially conscious young entrepreneurs.”
The second posting by the same account had workers Google “Craig Kielburger + CNN” and then click on a link to an open letter by Kielburger on CNN, titled “How young people can help to end child labor."
Workers were expected to spend a minute on the promoted page, following explicit instructions that ordered them to redirect to WE's website via the "WE Movement" link "right under 'A global network.'"
"Then play on Video top right Corner at landed URL," the demand was enumerated.
Thorburn-Winsor explained that the goal was to rank the content higher in future search results, tricking Google's algorithm into thinking WE's public relations pieces were of interest to users.
Other links were then pushed lower down on the Google results page.
“By doing that, you’re hiding it to like 90 per cent to 95 per cent of people who search for a given term and are not going to go past the first page,” he pointed out.
Thorburn-Winsor stated that the campaigns also served to bury a particular negative story about WE: an October 2018 report by CANADALAND connecting WE to at least three companies known to use child and slave labour in their supply chains.
"WE has been transparent with you. WE has not misled you or the public," the Kielburgers' lawyer wrote, claiming that CANADALAND's accusations "erode the public's trust" and cause "serious measurable damages" to the organization.
In an emailed statement to the National Post, WE Charity did not admit to the micro-job postings nor their knowledge of their existence, let alone who orchestrated them.
WE acknowledged that it will now investigate practices used by digital marketing companies they had previously hired for any ties to Microworkers.
“Similar to many organizations where much of their audience is reached online, for several years WE Charity has engaged firms to assist with general promotions including Search Engine Optimisation (SEO),” WE Charity stated in the email.
However, WE does have have a notorious history of sculpting its public image on social media.
During Tuesday's parliamentary committee hearing, the Kielburgers reportedly bragged about how WE has the “largest Facebook and social media presence engaging youth from coast to coast to coast.”
While Wikipedia editors questioned if paid marketing was involved, WE Charity responded to the suspicion in a statement to the National Post.
“Although it is not a formal role of any individual and done very infrequently," WE confessed to some employees editing the pages with "minor updates" to "ensure factual accuracy."