The internet has been a powerful organizing tool for political movements. It has been used to organize revolutions in the Middle East and protests around the world. Understandably, politicians have good reason to closely monitor sentiment online. However, powerful interests can use the the internet to support their agendas by creating the false impression of a popular social movement around an issue.

Illustration by Elizabeth Beier

Social movements that are actually pawns of vested interests are known as “astroturf campaigns” because while they resemble grassroots movements, they are artificial, just as an astroturf playing field mimics actual grass. Astroturf campaigns can be of two types. Some are conducted entirely by people who understand that what they are doing is deceptive. For example, in 2006 Sony launched the “viral” “All I Want for Christmas is a PSP” campaign, featuring people blogging and rapping about how much they wanted Sony’s gaming device. Of course, all of the supposedly authentic consumers were in fact hired by Sony to make deliberately bad videos. Other campaigns may have volunteers who are true believers and do not know that the campaign has powerful corporate influence behind it. The Tea Party has been accused by some on the left of being an astroturf campaign because of the financial and logistical support it has received from FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, two well-funded conservative political organizations.

Online tools have made it easier for people to astroturf than before. For example, the website GOPTeamLeader.com (now closed) offered a tool which sent a user’s letter to the editor to dozens of newspapers under different randomly generated names. Users got points depending on how many papers printed their letter. In 2003, extremely similar letters that were essentially lists of GOP talking points were printed nearly simultaneously in over 70 newspapers across the US, creating the impression of broad support for controversial GOP policies. Such tactics are not the exclusive property of the right: the liberal website MoveOn.org used the same tactic the very next year.

Fake letters to the editor are no longer effective at creating a false impression of public opinion. Instead, astroturf campaigns have moved online. For example, Twitter bots are automated Twitter accounts that retweet or link to information from other accounts. An astroturf campaigner could have dozens of bots that are duplicate accounts, manipulating trending topics and generating more views for a video or talking point. This sort of action violates Twitter’s terms of service, but it can be difficult to tell if a user is an actual human being. The “Truthy” project at the University of Indiana maps chains of mentions and retweets to examine suspicious patterns.

Astroturfing is an increasingly serious problem in the online age because people now have more access to social media tools that are easy to manipulate. People tend to trust product reviews from sites such as Amazon.com, even though some companies pay people to write favorable product reviews. The White House recently added a “We the People” section to its website, where voters can petition the government to take certain actions. Generating automated signatures for a petition is easy, and can make an extreme proposal seem as if it has widespread support. The easiest way to figure out whether or not a campaign is legitimate is to follow the money. Astroturf campaigns tend to have inexplicably large amounts of funds and press coverage. Detecting more modern online campaigns is harder, because minimal resources are needed to mount an online campaign. Check to see if the campaign has only one message or extremely similar messages. Organic social movements are more likely to have diversity of opinion among their members.

All of this is not meant to discount the internet’s power for good. Legitimate social movements have accomplished tremendous things by harnessing the internet’s power. It is unfortunate that illegitimate ones have been effective as well.

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Alex Tolkin

Web Editor at WUPR
Alex likes kicking ass and taking names.