Astroturfing refers to political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are designed to mask the sponsors of the message to give the appearance of 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 is a derivation of AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.
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.
Astroturfing laws are implemented by government agencies that regulate deceptive practices in commerce.
United States 
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.
Some astroturfing operatives defend their practice. Regarding "movements that have organized aggressively to exaggerate their sway," 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."
Organizations may astroturf through the use of front groups that pretend to serve the public's interests, while actually being operated by a discreet sponsor. Front groups may emphasize voices of dissent and instill doubt about the credibility of expert consensus in order to create uncertainty on an issue that threatens the sponsor's business. Fake blogs are sometimes used to give the appearance of providing genuine testimony, while being funded or operated by a commercial or political interest.
Some astroturfers deploy sockpuppeting techniques, where a single person creates multiple identities 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 pay staff based on the number of posts they make that stay up without being flagged by moderators. Persona management software may be used so that each paid poster can manage five to seventy convincing online personas without mixing them up.
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 stationary 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.
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 a post for each post that remains without being flagged by moderators. 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.
History of astroturfing 
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. Although the term was coined relatively recently, the practice has a very long history. For instance, in Act 1, Scene 2 of Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, Cassius wrote 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, urging readers to avoid the spread of disease. The publisher was included on the back of the pamphlet, but most readers didn't know it was published by a commercial interest.
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.
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.
A 2008 report estimated China employed 280,000 people to drown out dissent and post pro-China propaganda for fifty cents a post. Another report in 2011 said that astroturfing operations in China were "flooding" the Internet.
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.
See also 
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