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Uprooting fake online activism

  • 03 October 2011

Though 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