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Uprooting fake online activism


'Astroturfing' by Chris JohnstonThough the fake grassroots activism known as astroturfing is featuring more prominently on our radar, it is not a new phenomenon. It has long been common practice to rent crowds, plant callers on talkback radio, or set the script for letter-writing campaigns.

It is a standard marketing strategy based on perception: massage people into thinking that a product, service or idea has merit because it is being wildly embraced by everyone else. In other words, astroturfing attempts to exploit herd mentality.

Such strategies may not be new, but digital tools have sharpened them. The threat lies in the fact that technology not only makes it easy and inexpensive to regularly broadcast propaganda, it makes it more challenging for ordinary consumers and voters to detect undisclosed affiliations and agendas.

Email and social media accounts do not cost anything and require little effort to set up. Fake identities are used to covertly promote products or, more often, to hijack conversations on websites, blogs, and Twitter streams, in order to malign rivals and cast doubt against prevailing views. These activities constitute what is called online astroturfing.

The issue is not anonymity, which enables many people to comment in safety. The issue is the well-funded deployment of any number of concocted personas to sell or sabotage.

What makes online astroturfing insidious is not that it deceives. Much of advertising and marketing tends to do so, anyway. The problem is that it misleads — it artificially inflates the numbers to provide a semblance of legitimacy where there is none. This is why it has become the strategy of choice for propagating fringe views, such as climate denialism.

It is more worrisome than its analog creations because it is more difficult for us to detect, the way media and marketing website, Mumbrella, was able to when it tracked a number of malicious comments to a single IP address. How many of us would know how to forensically examine digital traces left by sock-puppets and trolls, and by such means protect ourselves?

As British political activist George Monbiot remarked in a Guardian column: 'The internet is ... a bonanza for corporate lobbyists, viral marketers and government spin doctors, who can operate in cyberspace without regulation, accountability or fear of detection.'

Consider, for instance, the US Air Force soliciting tenders for 'persona management software' which generates multiple identities for each user (complete with detailed profiles and social media history), while also automatically changing their IP address daily. It seems that, yet again, those with the most resources are able to transmit their message the loudest.

What does it mean for us that such tactics are becoming so sophisticated? For one thing, it requires us to be far savvier. The truism that vigilance is the price for democracy rings ever more clearly at a time when internet penetration in Australia is around 80 per cent of the population. With information streaming unremittingly from our computers and smartphones, we become lazy at our peril.

In the onslaught of multimillion-dollar message machines, our ability to discern is the last and only stronghold. This involves watching out for patterns and incongruities — for instance, between the object of outrage and policy fact, or between protestors and what is actually at stake.

Of course, we can only hope that the sharp, critical thinking skills demanded by these conditions are being cultivated in our schools. There is a case to be made for online literacy; not only cultivating healthy scepticism toward online content, but encouraging a more vigorous search for truth.

For now, there are small protections in commerce. Astroturfing is considered a breach of Australian Consumer Law when it misleads or deceives consumers. Unfortunately, there are as yet no policies or laws that insulate voters from political astroturfing.

As for genuine grassroots causes, they thrive on the same real estate that astroturfers exploit. The very thing that makes social media vulnerable to moneyed interests — that it costs next to nothing to broadcast ideas — is what makes it possible for social justice advocates to be heard in ways that they haven't before. And people are responding.

The furore on the internet over live cattle export earlier this year demonstrated that, despite the funds being deployed to manipulate them, people have a tendency to take up only the causes that resonate with them or appeal to their better nature.

In this sense, the grass will always be green even when truth is in drought. 

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based writer, and tweeter

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, astroturfing, climate denialism



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Existing comments

I don't know the terms "sock pocket' and I now know what you mean by astro-turfing. But I think most people already have a point of view from years of past experience.

You seem to equate climate deniers with fringe dwellers when my experience from where I am, that it is the climate alarmists who are propagating the fringe view that all things are coming to an end because of 'Man-made Climate Change.'

"The furore on the internet over live cattle export earlier this year demonstrated that, despite the funds being deployed to manipulate them, people have a tendency to take up only the causes that resonate with them or appeal to their better nature."

Shouldn't the murder of innocent babies in the womb be of far more uproar than some cattle.

It is allright to kill a baby...when?....

Trent | 03 October 2011  

Well said, Fatima!
Well commented, Trent!
What did Paul Keating call his scared colleagues who were afraid to stand for principles? Nervous Nellies!
And why were they nervous? They might have to defend something they didn't understand e.g. floating the dollar, some of their electorate may not understand, or if they did understand, saw it as inimical to their selfish interests.
Politics is now mainly run by Ad Men - there some Women in PR, but it is mainly Men.
And what are their most potent weapons? Fear and Selfishness. And to coin a word - short-term-vision.
I agree with Trent that most (older)people already have a point of view from years of past experience but what of the generation just out of school and/or university and/or trying to get some perspective on life?
They are the specific target audience of TV channels, like Channel TEN. Astroturf from News to Commentary to Comedy. Who can tell the difference?

Uncle Pat | 03 October 2011  

Fatima, can you give us some lessons on how to detect astroturfing. Trent, ninety-whatever percent of relevant scientists believe climate change is worth urgent attention and action. hat percentage do you need to get them off the fringe?

Gavan | 03 October 2011  

A;though anonymity may not be the issue in "fake online activism", I would have thought that the likes of Trent fit into that category of people who hide behind pseudonym. I have always been taught that if you have something to say (or write) do it with courage and don't hide behind ridiculous false names. The letter pages of the Sun Herald, for instance, are full of pseudonymous letters written by it staff.

And I would hazard a guess that ES has its fair share of "fake online" activists.

AlexNoo | 03 October 2011  

In the end it the people who decide at the polls and most of them are not fooled by loony arguments on either side of politics. I found that most of the people understand very skilled media manipulation by minorities.

Beat Odermatt | 03 October 2011  

Some may guess that I was not baptised 'Aurelius', but have chosen it as a psuedonym. As Alex Noo says, fake online name may be due to a lack of courage - but in many cases it not due to any lack in conviction in a particular cause. Mainstream Christian teaching on homosexuality is a disordered moral teaching that causes hatred which destroys lives. I believe I am following God's will. My sexuality is not sinful. God made me this way. But I will not put my name ion a public forum to debate this issue because I do not have the courage to confront the hatred and feigned righteouness from so-called compassionate Christians. It's hard enough identifying with Catholicism at the best of times, let alone when one is tagged as a morally-depraved deviate even by members of one's one family.

AURELIUS | 04 October 2011  

Hi Gavan,
Indiana University researchers actually developed software to detect astoturfing on Twitter. This drew interest during the US midterm elections, and from what I understand, Twitter suspended some fake accounts. I expect online astroturfing to open a new subset of software development focusing on detection, but can't be sure it'll be available in the mainstream. If you're suspicious, most social media have a 'block' or 'unfollow' button which is effective to some extent.

But to partly answer your question, sock puppets and trolls are characteristically monotone in their views, that is, don't appear to engage with a range of other topics. If you know how to look up IP addresses, then you could detect patterms.

There is also a really good 'BS Detection for Journalists' lecture that includes tips on verifying info via social media (from slide 5): http://www.slideshare.net/mandyjenkins/bs-detection-for-journalists

Fatima Measham | 05 October 2011  

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