Happy New Year! Last time out, we were looking at politically-driven censorship on Facebook, and I promised to say something about “astroturf” (fake grassroots) as well.

Astroturf is to politics and social change what fake likes and profiles are to Facebook and fake product reviews are to Amazon. A surge of popularity or concern may in reality be manufactured at a few terminals for pay or promotion.

The Urban Dictionary tells us “astroturfing” means

Creating the impression of public support by paying people in the public to pretend to be supportive.

The false support can take the form of letters to the editor, postings on message boards in response to criticism, and writing to politicians in support of the cause.

As noted in earlier posts, the internet doesn’t give us the typical cues we get from our real life environment about what to believe.

Broadcast journalist Sharyl Atkisson offers a tip:

The language of astroturfers and propagandists includes trademark inflammatory terms such as: anti, nutty, quack, crank, pseudo-science, debunking, conspiracy theory, deniers and junk science. Sometimes astroturfers claim to “debunk myths” that aren’t myths at all. They declare debates over that aren’t over. They claim that “everybody agrees” when everyone doesn’t agree. They aim to make you think you’re an outlier when you’re not.

Many areas of science today, nutrition for example, are controversial because present study methods are not giving clear answers. So we should be suspicious if we hear one side of a controversy over salt, sugar, or dietary fat loudly denigrated online as “pseudo-science.” If only life were so simple…

Political journalist Adam Bienkov writes,

New forms of software enable any organisation with the funds and the know-how to conduct astroturfing on a far bigger scale than even the Kremlin could hope for. As reported by the Guardian, some big companies now use sophisticated “persona management software” to create armies of virtual astroturfers, complete with fake IP addresses, non-political interests and online histories. Authentic-looking profiles are generated automatically and developed for months or years before being brought into use for a political or corporate campaign. As the software improves, these astroturf armies will become increasingly difficult to spot, and the future of open debate online could become increasingly perilous. More.

In the long run, astroturfing does not force us to believe that masses of our neighbours support some dangerous, morally wrong, or ridiculous proposal. But it does challenge us to stay involved with our communities and listen carefully, ignoring the sheer public noise that threatens to drown them out.

See also: Fake news is coming to your town. And mine. Big time. And we are talking genuine fakes here.


Fake disaster from Russia’s troll house


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...