What is Astroturfing?
Sports fans know astroturf as any artificial grass product; however, astroturfing has a different meaning in the world of online communications. Astroturfing refers to what appears to be a grassroots campaign that involves manufactured public support for a viewpoint. Through different mechanisms, organizations create content using uninformed individuals to reflect their point-of-view. One example of this practice is the campaign to repeal net neutrality.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asked for public comment on repealing net neutrality that required internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all content equitably. The rule prohibited broadband companies from delivering content from high-paying organizations faster than from others.
During the 2017 comment period, ISPs hired lead generation firms to recruit individuals through lotteries and sweepstakes to provide their name and contact information. This information was later used without permission to send anti-net-neutrality comments to the FCC. As a result, of the millions of pro-repeal comments, less than a million were legitimate. The remainder were fabricated to pressure the FCC to repeal net neutrality.
According to the Washington Post, New York, among other states, uncovered the practice and fined the marketing firms that created the fraudulent comments $4.4 million. Unfortunately, their astroturf campaign worked, and the FCC repealed net neutrality rules in 2018.
The Environment, Taxes, and Tin Cups
Astroturfing is not new. Pro-coal groups in 2009 forged letters opposing new climate legislation using details from veterans, women, and other groups. Intuit used astroturfing to oppose an IRS pilot program to make it easier to file personal income taxes. Attempts to sway opinions are not a 20th-century trend.
As far back as the civil war, astroturfing was used to influence people to throw away the shared tin cup and replace it with the newly invented paper cup. Some argued that Moore, founder of the Dixie Cup Company, was practicing shrewd marketing, but Moore failed to mention his involvement in the paper cup company when he printed “horror stories” of what happened when people shared tin drinking cups.
Is It Astroturfing?
With the increase in social media platforms, astroturfing has taken on a life of its own. All it takes are a few well-placed posts or tweets, and the disinformation spreads unabated over the internet. To determine if a grassroots campaign is legitimate or astroturfing takes hours of technically astute individuals following links back to their source. For example, a 2020 campaign to Reopen America was traced back to a single individual who operated a consulting firm in Iowa. The so-called grassroots effort was manufactured by a single individual.
How does the average internet user determine if something is part of an astroturfing campaign? After all, most people do not have the time or the desire to go down the multiple rabbit holes it takes to determine if it is a manufactured campaign. Astroturfing posts and tweets are meant to evoke a response. If your initial reaction is emotional — either for or against — check the details before reposting or retweeting.
Social media users should check the source of information. Check out the website or look for the group online. Sometimes, the site is just a home page with little else to support its assertions. See what you can find about the writer. Are there links to outside sources to support any claims? Just because the same information is “everywhere” doesn’t mean it is a legitimate grassroots campaign.
If your organization is looking for ways to tighten security and reduce the potential of astroturfing emails or promotions getting through, talk to Alvarez Technologies. Whether you’re looking for cybersecurity or cloud services, we have solutions to help.