Astroturfing: Dark Art of Politics Turned Scourge of the Blogosphere

Guest blogger: Paull Young.

Paull is known for creating Australia’s first student PR blog, Young PR, and has been heavily involved at Forward — an online springboard for new and upcoming PR professionals. Paull started the Anti Astroturfing Campaign together with Trevor Cook of Corporate Engagement in July this year.

What is Astroturfing?

Astroturfing is the practice of creating fake entities that appear to be real grassroots organizations, when in fact they are the work of people or groups with hidden motives and identities.

Astroturfing is a deceptive and deceitful practice – and while it is often blamed on public relations, it is really only carried out by unethical individuals who lack the savvy and intelligence to persuade people with an honest argument.

Leading Australian PR blogger Trevor Cook and I started the anti-astroturfing campaign to tackle the issue. We aimed to lead a debate on the issue amongst PR bloggers and encourage PR practitioners, professional associations and big PR agencies to confront and oppose the practice. If you’re new to the topic - visit the anti-astroturfing campaign to view a huge collection of resources focusing on the topic.

How is astroturfing used in politics?

Astroturfing is used for political purposes more than any other. This is because a real grassroots organization is an extremely powerful political entity. If people care enough about an issue to organize around it, it will hold great political power.

It is incredibly difficult to create a real grassroots organization. A large number of people need to passionately care about an issue to organize around it, and even if there are large numbers of people who believe in a certain issue – this does not mean that they will necessarily organize around it.

As a result, unethical operators will (on occasion) try to create an illusion of real grassroots support in order to influence people through deception. It is much easier to create a fake organization and try to make it look real then to help nurture and give voice to real opinions from real people.

So while the building of grassroots support for an issue is a valuable communication tactic - helping give voice to real opinions held by real people. The creation of Astroturf groups – putting forward fake opinions or using fake people to promote a cause with hidden motives – is not.

Astroturfing and online communication

New online tools make astroturfing much easier to carry out, but they also make it much more difficult to get away with.

In an environment where anyone can create an authentic looking website, blog, podcast or vlog; it is extremely easy for astroturfing groups to create a seemingly authentic fake organization. It is easy to hide your identity or put forward your point of view with anonymity; and the ease of creating fake people or putting forward false viewpoints is attractive to unethical operators attempting to promote an unpopular cause.

However, the nature of the blogosphere means that astroturf operations are often gleefully uncovered – much to the chagrin of the scoundrels hiding behind them. Blogs are successful because of their authentic voice and passionate ideas held by real people. Anything that doesn’t ring true or appear authentic will be investigated and uncovered. There is an army of bloggers out there who understand that astroturfing undermines everything they believe in – and they won’t be backwards in attacking fakes in their neighbourhood.

An Example: The Infamous Al Gore YouTube video

My points above are demonstrated by the well known ‘March of the Penguin Army’ episode.

A video was posted on YouTube (apparently made by a real, concerned individual acting on his own beliefs) that was highly critical of Al Gore’s views on climate change. This eventually caught the attention of a Wall Street Journal reporter, who noticed that the video was advertised on Google. Why would a supposedly amateur video have advertisements?

The industrious Post reporter contacted the individual who posted the video. They claimed to be a college student and refused an interview. The reporter then dug a little deeper and found that the ‘college student’s’ email address stemmed from Washington PR firm DCI Group. And one of DCI Groups major clients? Exxon – who have a vested interest in opposing climate change.

This led to a blog storm and you can read all the coverage on this page at the anti-astroturfing campaign.

This example shows just how easy it is to kick off an astroturfing campaign online – but it also shows how easy it is to get caught, and the justifiable anger and disgust that results.

For more information on astroturfing, spend some time investigating the many resources available at the anti-astroturfing campaign page.