Not too long ago, my good friend Ed stumbled upon something peculiar. He found that McDonald’s had a Canadian website that allowed customers to ask questions to be answered by the corporate offices. That’s not the strange part; in fact, I commend them for attempting a transparency initiative. So what was strange? The questions.
Ed noticed that there were a number of questions that were phrased in a way that didn’t seem quite right. Here is an example:
Strange, but not unheard of. After all, although the site was restricted to Canadian users, our population is certainly linguistically and grammatically diverse. For anyone unfamiliar, the question is in reference to a popular myth that McDonald’s used the registered name of a company named “100% Pure Beef” (or some variant) to deceptively hide the fact that they aren’t serving pure beef (they are). Naturally, McDonald’s answers this question in many forms on the Your Questions website. Actually, it answers the exact same question many times:
Well that’s certainly strange now, isn’t it? Why do so many people want to know precisely “Is 100% pure beef a fact or a company?”
Going through the question asking process is a multi-step endeavor. First, you pose your question. Next, McDonald’s will search for related questions and direct you to those queries instead so that you don’t have to ask a question that has already been answered. Should you choose to proceed, you must then link the McDonald’s Facebook or Twitter API to ask your question so that they may take your location, your name, your profile picture, and who knows what else. They include these details in your post (which I’ve censored in the images), but they abbreviate last names. Even so, I thought that this phenomenon was odd enough to warrant an investigation.
Pulling up Burp, I performed a quick spidering of the site to try and get an idea of all the duplicate questions:
If we go based on their naming convention, then the question in question has been asked 42 times along with an extra “compony” edition. From a cursory look at the architecture of their site, I could also tell that they were using Facebook’s Graph API, so my theory was that they were using participants’ current Facebook pictures. I confirmed this when I began to look up users.
Facebook makes it difficult to contact strangers and for good reason. Nonetheless, I was able to identify a total of 6 individuals who had asked a suspicious looking question (not all were of the above form). I only heard back from two.
The first woman – who I will refer to as Sam – accepted my friend request. Sadly, she didn’t respond to my messages, but I was able to learn the following from her profile.
Well that’s strange. Why would a McDonald’s employee go online to ask their employer a question about an easily debunked myth? Why would Sam phrase it the precise way that several others had? Couldn’t she just read the other answers? In fact, her question was one of the most recent of the form asked.
Of course, this could all just be a string of coincidences. So to increase our sample size, let’s see what’s behind door number 2.
The second individual to get back to me was actually kind enough to respond to my messages. This gentleman – who I will identify as Sammy – asked the following question:
My conversation with Sammy was in stark contrast to the phrasing of the question; contrary to what you might think, Sammy is quite literate and paid due respect to grammar in our conversation. So that was strange, but I can give you something stranger than that:
Exactly. Sammy is not only a McDonald’s employee, but he operates a branch. In my conversation with Sammy, he had this to say:
So how did Sammy end up asking such an ill-phrased question? Why is it tied to his Facebook account? Did a customer hijack his Facebook in order to post that question? That seems far-fetched.
So what is plausible? It’s plausible that McDonald’s employees paired their Facebook accounts with the McDonald’s app. It’s plausible that McDonald’s then submitted fake questions in order to boost the visibility of common concerns that they wanted to address. Posing as independent 3rd parties on corporate sites isn’t unheard of, but it could very well be illegal. That doesn’t answer the mystery of why the obtuse phrasing was chosen for the questions.
I contend that it’s not hard to imagine a committee of executives sitting in a room and pondering how us commoners think only to come up with gibberish, but could this really be the case? I think it’s usually the case that the answer to conspiracy theories is just an explanation that evades proponents on its sheer simplicity. For example, it’s also plausible that some humans really just exist as some sort of hive-mind and all simultaneously asked similar ill-phrased questions. After all:
“is there paint group?”
“is there paint group?“
Then again, maybe I’m just wasting my time:
Thanks for clearing that up, Sammy. I think everyone can rest easy tonight.