Employees’ rally or a cynical marketing ploy? Astroturfing — faking support for a product or cause — is on the rise on and offline.
What do healthcare reform, climate change and financial regulation have in common? The answer is that they are all issues covered by astroturf, the practice of creating fake grassroots movements, usually by lobbyists and PR experts. These attempts to manipulate the media and public opinion seem to be on the rise — spurred on in part by the political mood and the reach of the internet.
“Astroturf front groups have been everywhere this summer, spreading misinformation about healthcare reform, carbon emission caps and financial regulation,” says Timothy Karr, the campaign director for the U.S. website freepress.net. “A healthy 21st-century democracy doesn’t need phoney front groups. We need openness, accountability and real debate.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, Greenpeace uncovered a campaign in which American oil industry workers paraded as part of a supposedly spontaneous movement opposed to climate change regulations being considered by U.S. legislators.
Thanks to a leaked memo from the American Petroleum Institute, Greenpeace learned that the “Energy Citizens” protest group was founded by the oil industry trade association and therefore indirectly funded by ExxonMobil, Shell and others. At the same time, a congressional inquiry found that letters to lawmakers attacking the proposed legislation — letters purporting to be from concerned members of the public — were also backed by energy groups.
The API responded to the accusations by saying that the Energy Citizens meetings were an attempt to lift the morale of oil industry workers, not to influence politicians. “There’s a lot of folks out there that would like to suggest that anybody that doesn’t agree with their views somehow doesn’t play by the rules,” the API president and author of the memo, Jack Gerard, said. “We disagree strongly with that.”
The Energy Citizens example is not a one-off, however. While the term astroturfing goes back to the mid-1980s, the practice began many more years ago. Unscrupulous marketers and lobbyists have long found ways to advance their paymasters’ agendas — including manufactured mail campaigns, fake crowd protests and, increasingly, use of the web.
A “sock puppet” is a fake online identity created to support an argument - and, in many cases, they are untraceable. Richard Levangie, who writes about climate change astroturfing at the One Blue Marble website, says he first came across it in the mid-1990s. “I was passionate about slowing the rise of teenage smoking in my home province, and thought about starting an advocacy group that would work with teenagers ... that’s where I first came up against astroturfing, in the form of smokers’ rights groups who were ignoring the science about secondhand smoke, and who were trying to reframe the issue as freedom of choice.” Astroturfing can range from a few forum posts or a comment praising a company to something closer to harassment, and from genuine disagreement and independent troublemakers to organised “trolls”, all the way to the entirely fake campaigner.
News organisations are increasingly finding themselves pawns in this game. While political tit-for-tat is common in web forums and on sites, the proliferation of certain comments around certain topics often leads to the suspicion that somebody else may be pulling the strings. “It’s frustrating. They should have zero credibility, but they’re still around, still peddling misinformation,” says Levangie.
That is not to say that all dissenters are puppets, of course. Climate change is just one area where strong feelings are common and run deep enough to encourage a hard core of protesters to spread views that exist at the fringe of scientific thinking. Just last week, one comment on the Guardian website said: “There is no concrete evidence that man is responsible for climate change.” In some cases, however, commenters offer fake credentials or pose as disinterested parties when the opposite is the case - and from time to time they are caught red-handed.
Several authors have been found leaving glowing reviews of their own books on Amazon, while a bizarre case emerged in 2007 involving John Mackey, the chief executive of high-end U.S. supermarket chain Whole Foods, who used a pseudonym to disparage competitors on message boards. More recently, a US PR company was found to have been writing fake positive reviews of a client’s iPhone software.
The question of astroturfing comes up regularly in the world of public relations, says Jon Silk, the creative director of Lewis PR in London. “Clients new to online PR will often ask the question: ’Can’t we just anonymously post positive comments?’,” he says. “It takes time to explain how influence works — that it should start with a good product or service, and have a clear message that must be communicated to the right people in the right way.”
Ann Bartow, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, believes the most straightforward way to combat astroturfing is to force commenters to use real names. “The obvious solution is to require some transparency and not accept anonymous comments - but there’s also this idea that anonymity is important - that you can get certain information if people’s identities aren’t tied to it,” she says.
At the very least, this would allow publishers to trace suspected astroturfers. However, it can be difficult to expose those who cover their tracks — and may only be possible by comparing personal details across a number of websites to spot patterns of behaviour.
This opens up privacy concerns - though, as Bartow points out, few outlets that publish comments would run letters from readers they suspected of being mouthpieces for an organised smear campaign.
Fortunately, while the web lets astroturfers spread their message, it can also be used as a means of trapping them. Last month (AUG), the New York attorney-general, Andrew Cuomo, sued a cosmetic surgery chain that had been caught leaving fake testimonials online.
The company, Lifestyle Lift, had been encouraging employees to post fictional reviews, and after emails emerged in which managers told staff “I need you to devote the day to doing more postings on the web as a satisfied client”, their days were numbered. The outcome was a $300,000 fine for the firm.
Silk says that while the rise of social media means a planted message on Facebook can reach people very quickly, it can also backfire when the truth is discovered. “The one thing that many companies don’t understand is that the desire for a quick hit often ends in failure,” he says. “Positive sentiment takes time to build. You wouldn’t try to make friends at a party by going up to strangers and telling them how great you are.”
However, whatever checks and balances are put in place, some people remain concerned that the power remains firmly with the astroturfers: as soon as they convince somebody to buy the wrong product, drown out other voices or torpedo important policy debates, the damage is done. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009