‘Astroturfing’: A Manipulation Technique for Social Networks

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We live in an ultra digitalised society in which, in spite of the increased amount of communication channels, it’s becoming harder and harder to stay informed. ‘Astroturfing’ is a new manipulation technique for social networks and we will help you identify it.

The manipulation of information has always been there. Since the beginning, media outlets have been used to spread content for their own benefit. Newspapers, radio, television… Every media must carry out the orders of those “on top” or the institutional heavyweights, who make their decisions based on the editorial line of each media.

It’s true that, currently, we have more options when it comes to information. And we should be able to recognise whether a certain news is true or not. However, at times we struggle to unbiasedly assess a piece of news and we put our own interest before the much needed neutrality.

Those who work with information are aware of the impact that certain news can have on society. The best example is Orson Welles’ narration of George Wells’ novel, The War of the Worlds, on the radio. Welles unintentionally spreaded chaos as the audience believed they were being invaded by aliens, causing hundreds of thousands to go out on the streets in panic. That’s how much power lies in the hands of the Fourth Estate.

Political Propaganda — A Forerunner of Mass Manipulation

Politics and the practice of mass manipulation have always gone hand in hand. The first writings on propaganda came from Antiquity, between the 3rd and 4th century BCE., where they used to spread political and religious messages to influence the minds of the population. 

It wasn’t until the First World War that propaganda gained great relevance. The US didn’t want to fall into defeatism after the 1917 crisis so they carried out an aggressive graphic campaign supporting government actions regarding the war. They ended up censoring and controlling the media in order to prevent their population and the rest of the world from creating a negative image of the country.

Also Spain used propaganda. It was during the Civil War. But the most aggressive and clear example of these practices comes from the Second World War. Joseph Goebbels, forefather of nazi propaganda, centralised the control of the country’s cultural and intellectual life in order to turn Adolf Hitler’s political and military actions into something positive in the eyes of the public.

It’s the 21st century and propaganda is still being used. And, thanks to the rise of new media outlets and new ways to access information, new ways to manipulate public opinion have emerged.

‘Astroturfing’: What It Is, How It Works and How to Spot It. 

It’s known as ‘astroturfing’, the social-network advertising strategy based on promoting a vision parallel to reality in order to condition public opinion. It’s an unreal wave of public opinion created by a series of fake users in order to make others believe the information thread is real, hiding both their real purpose and the original source that created the false content.

The term originated from a US artificial lawn company called Astroturf. Artificial lawn tries to imitate real lawn but fails to do it 100%. Something similar happens with information: even if it looks real from a distance, when you examine it carefully, you realise it isn’t.

In 2008, during McDonald’s advertising campaign in Japan, it was revealed that the company had paid hundreds of people to go to their restaurants to make it look as if the launching of their new burger was a total success.

In 2013, Movistar had wrongfully dismissed one of its employees. People started giving their support to the employee on Twitter, making it a trending topic for several days. The response was immediate: other users started showing up, defending the company and attacking the employee. All those user accounts showed signs of being fake (created on similar dates, inconsistent personal information, tweets through apps and hashtags that only those accounts used, etc.) and the response came straight away, since various blogs took the job of publicly denouncing what had happened.

But… How does this technique unfold? It comes is several stages:

  • Stage 1 – Distribution: Companies or organisations hire people who manage social network accounts, pretending to be different people with different profiles with no apparent connection to each other and they start a thread of messages on one same topic in a short period of time.
  • Stage 2 – Amplification: The idea is to catch the attention of the media and reporters that will spread the proposed topic. In this way, the idea reaches many more people.
  • Stage 3 – Flooding: Depending on the success of the previous stage, other “new accounts” (hired and managed) will intervene in the threads, providing their opinion and creating that fake reality we mentioned previously.
  • Stage 4 – Impact: Once the debate is planted, the rest of the users will take part, resulting in a mix of real and fake profiles.

It’s hard to tell whether there’s an astroturfing campaign going on, since fake profiles tend to look real. However, there’s a common pattern followed by accounts using this strategy:

  1. They will never be influencers: participating profiles won’t have more than a couple of followers which, most certainly, will be bots generated by the same company that’s carrying out the astroturfing campaign.
  2. They look like real profiles but they almost always interact or create content on one same topic and always with the same opinions.
  3. They will want to follow your accounts and interact with you in order to find out about your interests, then classify them and use them in future campaigns on the subject.
  4. They don’t want to call attention. In other words, they aren’t controversial in their messages.
  5. They avoid being monitored by the algorithm.

Astroturfing as a Business / Lying as a Common Practice.

Astroturfing isn’t stopping any time soon. The number of companies that demand this type of services in order to benefit from them is only increasing. They may seek profit, to discredit the competition, to spark interest or something else, but not only big companies use this strategy.  

It is also common to see this technique in the world of politics. Political astroturfing can be considered silent propaganda, since users don’t directly perceive that they are being indoctrinated. They are simply witnessing a debate between two hypothetical citizens.

And, what’s worse is that this technique is being used more and more by fake companies or associations in order to make a profit. It has happened more than once that a profile on a social network asks its followers for money, making use of an emotional story, setting up the trap.

It’s becoming increasingly hard to identify when public opinion is being manipulated. The digital arena and the positioning of social networks as the main source of information has led to some new ways to misinform and manipulate. Luckily, efforts to avoid these practices have given rise to platforms and specialists that can fight back.

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