Internet Astroturfing: Faking support for a product or cause

In the last couple of years, corporations have ended up being powerhouses of influence. Likewise, citizen groups continue to play a significant role in influencing other citizens and society as a whole. Citizen groups continue to play a  significant duty in influencing various other people and society as a whole. The distinction between both kinds of group influence is that companies frequently encounter problems in advancing their interests due to a credibility barrier. It follows that corporations have an interest in replicating the power present in citizen groups to represent their very own interests and also to influence other citizens. This has actually resulted in a modern-day form of corporate advocacy, generally referred to as “Astroturfing”.


What is Astroturfing?

Astroturfing is the effort to create a perception of widespread grassroots support for a policy, individual, or product where little such support/assistance exists. AstroTurf refers to the bright green, artificial grass used in some sports arenas, so “astroturfing” refers to mimicking or fabricating popular grassroots opinion or behavior.

 Former Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen was among the early adopters of the term, “who used it to explain the ‘mountain of cards and letters’ he received, promoting what he viewed as the interests of insurance companies”. Senator Bentsen went on to state: “A fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grassroots and Astroturf… this is generated mail.” 

The key distinction between astroturfing and grassroots movements is the use of deception as a device. Instead of engaging groups, the corporation can mimic the appearance of support in an effort to develop more support for its position. Numerous online identities and phony pressure groups are utilised to deceive the public into thinking that the position of the astroturfer is the commonly held view. Astroturfing might be undertaken by an individual pressing a personal agenda, or extremely organised specialist groups with financial backing from large corporations, non-profits, or lobbyist organisations.  

 Most astroturfing currently happens on the online forums and comment sections of blogs and newspaper websites. Here individual astroturfers can leave comments under various identities with little fear of discovery.

 An example; business X has an item they wish to sell. They pay a group of individuals to go online and post things in favor of their item: excellent reviews, comments that name-drop it, images, and memes that paint it in a good light. They’ll also tell them to enhance the visibility of comparable posts that will undoubtedly be created by members of the general public who, because of the astroturfing effort, see that it’s popular to endorse that item online. If effective, it can grow out of control and end up being free marketing – however, if it’s done wrong it can have severe effects since in many parts of the world astroturfing is technically prohibited.

 Astroturfing can vary from a couple of online forum posts or a remark praising a business to something closer to harassment, and from true dispute and independent troublemakers to organized “trolls”, all the way to the totally phony campaigner. News organisations are increasingly finding themselves pawns in this game. While political tit-for-tat prevails in web online forums and on websites, the proliferation of particular comments around specific subjects typically causes the suspicion that someone else might be pulling the strings.


Why is this occurring?

Although the history of astroturfing is political – along with numerous modern examples of it – its use in marketing has actually picked up dramatically, particularly since it’s so efficient. Why? The viewpoint of an individual appears far more credible than that of a brand. Individuals do not have the ulterior motive of offering you a service or product as a brand does. Unless, naturally, they were paid to do so.

 The advancement of these brand-new astroturf tools is both an action and an outcome of the openness of the internet. Facebook/Twitter and blogging have actually offered a voice to millions and permitted authentic opposition motions to take their case to the masses. With a couple of computer systems and a handful of supporters, entire legions of supporters can be magicked out of thin air, and at a possibly lower expense than the allegedly spent “hundreds of thousands”.


Baby Yoda

Recent Astroturfing patterns

There are estimates that as much as one-third of online customer reviews on the internet are phony. It’s common knowledge that a considerable part of Amazon evaluations are false, and the same is likely true for Google, the Apple app store, and other platforms with similar rating systems. However, customer reviews are simply the tip of the iceberg. The truth of business astroturfing goes much deeper, to the point whereby the nature of it ends up being impossible to find out whether there was ever an astroturfing effort, to begin with.

Maybe you’ve become aware of Reddit, the self-styled “front page” of the Internet. It’s a social network platform that includes a network of user-created news, material, and conversation through online forums called “subreddits”, the users of which are called “Redditors”. It works by aggregating material that is both produced by, and after that voted on by, users, the most popular material of which is then shown at the top of the subreddit it was published in. If a post becomes popular enough it can reach the “front page”, which displays the most popular posts across the whole website within a given timeframe.

Reddit is different from other “connection-based platforms” such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, because users are linked through the communities they’re active in rather than through a process of “friending” or “following” other profiles. With approximately 330 million users, Reddit is a comparable size to Twitter and ranks as the 18th most checked-out site worldwide. And, like any social network platform of its caliber, it has a serious astroturfing issue.

Some big businesses now utilise advanced “persona management software applications” to develop armies of virtual astroturfers, total with phony IP addresses, non-political interests, and online histories. Authentic-looking profiles are generated automatically and developed for months or years before being brought into use for a political or corporate campaign. As the software applications enhance, these astroturf armies will end up being significantly tough to detect, and the future of open debate online might end up being increasingly perilous.

The weeks around the release of Disney+ saw an increase of Disney-related content appearing on the internet, especially on Reddit. A few of them appeared so suspicious that it was called out instantly as advertising. Other pieces of material including Disney+ branding made it as far as the front page.

Then there was the Baby Yoda saga. With the release of The Mandalorian came the introduction of The Child, an adorable, wide-eyed, baby-faced look-alike of one of pop-culture’s most unforgettable characters. Unsurprisingly, the internet fell in love with it, and in no time at all of the web was awash with gifs and memes celebrating this cute brand-new addition to the Star Wars universe. Then Disney went and did an unusual thing: they attempted to serve take-down notifications to all Baby Yoda gifs in an effort to monetise them. It failed, due to the fact that gifs are considered part of a “fair usage” exception in copyright law – a fact which is pretty basic knowledge to the average internet user, let alone in the case of the army of lawyers employed by a sprawling multinational like Disney. This point led some commentators to question whether the takedown notices were part of a marketing strategy to boost the hype around The Mandalorian, and by association, Disney+.

Netflix launched its big Christmas film called Bird Box. The weird thing that occurred was that almost instantly, social networks appeared to end up being flooded with Bird Box memes. It occurred so quickly, in fact, that people suspected that Netflix had a legion of astroturfing accounts with next-to-no fans publishing memes. Soon after the Bird Box meme storm struck Twitter, a video emerged revealing a user clicking through personal accounts of those who published the now-widely distributed Bird Box memes, revealing a lot of them had a low number of tweets and followers. The implication of the video, which itself has since gone viral, is that Netflix was buying bots, or fake Twitter accounts, to promote its movie. Bird Box is the negative inverse of your normal pop-culture meme. Though it has all the required visual components that assist a motion picture spread online, audiences appear more connected to the memes it has actually produced than the motion picture itself.


(The writer is the Director at Isobar. He’s the highest globally and locally awarded digital planner in Sri Lanka. During the past five years, he has bagged 80-plus global and local awards in the same field. His lecturing efforts have helped over 4,000 students and business owners embrace digital marketing)