Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message (e.g. political, advertising, or public relations) to give the appearance of it coming from a disinterested, grassroots participant. Astroturfing is intended to give the statements the credibility of an independent entity by withholding information about the source's financial connection. The term astroturfing is a derivation of AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.
On the Internet, astroturfers use software to mask their identity. Sometimes one individual operates over many personas to give the impression of widespread support for their client's agenda. Some studies suggest astroturfing can alter public viewpoints and create enough doubt to inhibit action.
In the United States, The Federal Trade Commission publishes astroturfing regulations called "The Guide to Endorsements and Testimonials" which were published in 1975 and updated in 1980. In 2009 it was updated to address social media and word-of-mouth marketing. The FTC considers reviews endorsement when reviewers or bloggers receive payment or in-kind payment such as free products. Such endorsement must be disclosed.
In Australia astroturfing is regulated by the Competition and Consumer Act of 2010. There is also an International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN). Legal regulations are primarily targeted towards testimonials, endorsements and statements as to the performance or quality of a product. Employees of an organization may be considered acting as customers if their actions are not guided by authority within the company.
A study published in the Journal of Business Ethics examined the effects of websites operated by front groups on students. It found that astroturfing was effective at changing perceptions in favor of business interests. The New York Times reported that "consumer" reviews are more effective, because "they purport to be testimonials of real people, even though some are bought and sold just like everything else on the commercial Internet." Some organizations feel their business is threatened by negative comments, so they may engage in astroturfing to drown them out. Online comments from astroturfing employees can also sway the discussion through the influence of groupthink.
Some astroturfing operatives defend their practice. Regarding "movements that have organized aggressively to exaggerate their sway," author Ryan Sager said this "isn't cheating. Doing everything in your power to get your people to show up is basic politics." According to a Porter/Novelli executive, "There will be times when the position you advocate, no matter how well framed and supported, will not be accepted by the public simply because you are who you are."
Impact on society
Data mining expert Prof. Bing Liu (U. Illinois) estimated that one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. According to the New York Times, this has made it hard to tell the difference between "popular sentiment" and "manufactured public opinion." According to an article in the Journal of Business Ethics, astroturfing threatens the legitimacy of genuine grassroots movements. The authors argued that astroturfing that is "purposefully designed to fulfill corporate agendas, manipulate public opinion and harm scientific research represents a serious lapse in ethical conduct." A 2011 report found that often paid posters from competing companies are attacking each other in forums and overwhelming regular participants in the process. George Monbiot said persona management software that supports astroturfing, "could destroy the Internet as a forum for constructive debate."
Front groups is one astroturfing technique, which typically creates the appearance of being an organization that serves the public interest, while masking a corporate sponsor. Front groups may resist legislation and scientific consensus that is damaging to the sponsor's business by emphasizing minority viewpoints, instilling doubt and publishing counter-claims by corporate-sponsored experts. Fake blogs can also be created that appear to be written by consumers, while actually being operated by a commercial or political interest. Some political movements have provided incentives for members of the public to send a letter to the editor at their local paper, often using a copy and paste form letter that is published in dozens of newspapers verbatim.
Another technique is the use of sockpuppets, where a single person creates multiple identities online to give the appearance of grassroots support. Sockpuppets may post positive reviews about a product, attack participants that criticize the organization, or post negative reviews and comments about competitors, under fake identities. Astroturfing businesses may pay staff based on the number of posts they make that are not flagged by moderators. Persona management software may be used so that each paid poster can manage five to seventy convincing online personas without confusing them with one another.
Pharmaceutical companies may sponsor patient support groups and simultaneously push them to help market their products. Bloggers who receive free products, paid travel or other accommodations may also be considered astroturfing if those gifts are not disclosed to the reader. Analysts could be considered astroturfing, since they often cover their own clients without disclosing their financial connection. To avoid astroturfing, many organizations and press have policies about gifts, accommodations and disclosures.
Persona management software can pre-age accounts and simulate the activity of attending a conference automatically to make it more convincing that they are genuine. At HBGary, employees are given separate thumb drives that contain online accounts for individual identities and visual cues to remind the employee which identity they are using at the time.
Mass letters may be printed on personalized stationery using different typfaces, colors and words to make them appear personal.
According to an article in The New York Times, the Federal Trade Commission rarely enforces its astroturfing laws. However, astroturfing operations are frequently detected if their profile images are recognized or if they are identified through the usage patterns of their accounts. Indiana University developed software in 2010 that detects astroturfing on Twitter by recognizing behavioral patterns.
Business and adoption
According to Nancy Clark from Precision Communications, grass-roots specialists charge $25 to $75 for each constituent they convince to send a letter to a politician. Paid online commentators in China are paid fifty cents for each online post that is not removed by moderators, leading to the nickname of the "50-cent party." The New York Times reported that a business selling fake online book reviews charged $999 for 50 reviews and made $28,000 a month shortly after opening.
According to The Financial Times, astroturfing is "common place" in American politics, but was "revolutionary" in Europe, when it was exposed that the anti-privacy "think-tank" the European Privacy Association was actually sponsored by technology companies. In 2008, an expert on Chinese affairs, Rebecca MacKinnon, estimated the country employed 280,000 in a government-sponsored astroturfing operation to post pro-China propaganda and drown out voices of dissent.
Although the term "astroturfing" hadn't been coined yet, an early example of the practice is in Act 1, Scene 2 of Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar. In the play, Cassius writes fake letters from "the public" to convince Brutus to assassinate Caesar. In the early 1900s a disposable cup vendor convinced travelers to avoid public drinking cups found in trains and shops through a pamphlet called The Cup Campaigner. The pamphlet warned that public drinking cups could spread disease, without disclosing the commercial sponsor behind the publication.
The term "astroturfing" was first coined in 1985 by then-US Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D–Texas) when he said, "a fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grass roots and AstroTurf... this is generated mail". Bentsen was describing a "mountain of cards and letters" sent to his office to promote insurance industry interests.
As health advocates began winning legislation to raise taxes and increase regulation of smoking in the US, Philip Morris, Burson-Marsteller and other tobacco interests created the National Smokers Alliance (NSA) in 1993. The NSA and other tobacco interests initiated an aggressive public relations campaign from 1994 to 1999 in an effort to exaggerate the appearance of grassroots support for smoker's rights. According to an article in the Journal of Health Communication, the NSA had mixed success at defeating bills that were damaging revenues of tobacco interests.
Email, automated phone calls, form letters and the Internet made astroturfing more economical and prolific in the late 1990s. In 2001, as Microsoft was defending itself against an anti-trust lawsuit, Americans for Technology Leadership (ATL), a group heavily funded by Microsoft, initiated a letter-writing campaign. ATL contacted constituents under the guise of conducting a poll and sent pro-Microsoft consumers pre-written letters to send to involved lawmakers. The effort was designed to make it appear as though there was public support for a sympathetic ruling in the anti-trust lawsuit.
During the 2000 Presidential election as a recount of votes in Florida was taking place, a "spontaneous mob" arrived at the voting center called the Brooks Brothers riot, whereas the rioters had financial ties to the Republican party.
In 2006, two Edelman employees created a blog called "Wal-Marting Across America" about two people traveling to Wal-Marts across the country. The blog gave the appearance of being operated by spontaneous consumers, but was actually operated on behalf of Working Families for Walmart, a group funded by Wal-Mart.
In 2007, Ask.com deployed an anti-Google advertising campaign portraying Google as an "information monopoly" that was damaging the Internet. The ad was designed to give the appearance of a popular movement and didn't disclose it was funded by a competitor.
As President Barack Obama drew attention to the issue of global warming in 2009, research from the Pew Research Centre found that front groups like the Heartland Institute created hesitation among constituents about global warming by distributing materials that cast doubt on the consensus among the scientific community.
In June 2010, the United States Air Force solicited for persona management software that would "enable an operator to exercise a number of different online persons from the same workstation and without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries. Personas must be able to appear to originate in nearly any part of the world and can interact through conventional online services and social media platforms..." The $2.6 million contract was awarded to Ntrepid Corporation for astroturfing software the military would use to spread pro-American propaganda in the Middle East, and disrupt extremist propaganda and recruitment.
In September 2012, it was considered the first major identified case of astroturfing in Finland when criticisms about the cost of a €1.8 billion patient information system was defended by fake online identities operated by involved vendors.
In 2003, GOPTeamLeader.com offered the site's users "points" that could be redeemed for products if they signed a form letter promoting George Bush and got a local paper to publish it as a letter to the editor. More than 100 newspapers published an identical letter to the editor from the site with different signatures on it. A similar campaign was used by GeorgeWBush.com and by MoveOn.org to promote Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget's "Fix the Debt" campaign advocated to reduce government debt without disclosing that its members were lobbyists or high-ranking employees at corporations that aim to reduce federal spending. It also sent op-eds to various students that were published as-is.
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