Online manipulation practices: astroturfing

What is astroturfing?

To understand astroturfing, let’s take a look the original meaning of the word. ‘AstroTurf’ is a brand of artificial turf that has become a generic trademark. Astroturf is any type of synthetic surface replicating the look and feel of natural grass. Over the past two decades, the term has increasingly been used as a verb — not in the context of sports surfaces, but politics. ‘Astroturfing’ is the attempt to replicate the look and feel not of natural grass, but ‘grassroots’ social movements. This way, bad-faith actors can create the illusion of popular support for any political agenda. This phenomenon is not exclusive to the internet. Yet, the logic of virality on most social media platforms have allowed bad-faith actors to radically expand their reach — at a low cost and low risk of detection.

Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

What is the goal of astroturfing?

Astroturfing can be a means to a variety of different ends. A well-known example is the efforts by the American tobacco industry to overturn consumer protection regulation. By founding the National Smokers Alliance in the 1990s, the industry sought to replicate the grassroots mobilisation strategies of their civil society adversaries. These analog efforts have inspired more sophisticated campaigns — supercharged by the internet.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

What can be done about astroturfing?

While most big online platforms have some kind of detection mechanisms in place to detect coordinated inauthentic activity, Twitter has acknowledged it cannot tackle the problem by itself. On the other hand, some have suggested that Facebook might have a commercial interest in maintaining fake accounts on its platform — as a larger user base means greater advertising revenue.

Photo by Stephen Dawson on Unsplash

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Christian Schwieter

Christian Schwieter

MSc student @ Oxford Internet Institute. All things digital politics, disinformation & online social movements. More at christianschwieter.com