Claims that a pro-Kremlin group funded a vast network of online activists to create the illusion of widespread support for Vladimir Putin may seem like a bizarre tale restricted to an authoritarian state. However the use of so-called “astroturf” groups is widespread across all nations and walks of life, from China to Britain, from book reviews to online surveys, and from big business to local politics.
What is astroturfing?
Astroturfing is the attempt to create an impression of widespread grassroots support for a policy, individual, or product, where little such support exists. Multiple online identities and fake pressure groups are used to mislead the public into believing that the position of the astroturfer is the commonly held view.
Although usually associated with the internet, the practice has been widespread ever since newspaper editors first invented the letters page. Pick up any local paper around the time of an election and you will find multiple letters from “concerned residents of X” objecting to the disastrous policies of Y. Similarly, concerned residents often turn up on talk radio shows and even in campaign literature, although the latter can prove more dangerous, as Labour party activists posing as residents in Greenwich discovered a few years back.
To overcome these dangers, most astroturfing now takes place on the forums and comment sections of blogs and newspaper websites. Here, individual astroturfers can leave comments under numerous identities with little fear of discovery. Discovery does occur, however, and in 2008 one member of Boris Johnson’s campaign team was caught posting comments on blogs critical of his boss without sufficiently concealing their identity. A few years later, another member of Johnson’s campaign was found posing as a concerned Labour supporter trying to prevent Ken Livingstone from being the party’s candidate for mayor.
What are the latest astroturfing trends?
None of these British examples comes close to the sort of operation seen in Russia. 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.
Why is this happening?
The development of these new astroturf tools is both a response and a result of the openness inherent online. Twitter and blogging have given a voice to millions and allowed genuine opposition movements to take their case to the masses. Censorship of these movements has not always proved effective, with only authoritarian governments possessing the means and the will to implement it. For big business and less repressive governments, the alternative of simply crowding out your opposition online must seem a far more attractive prospect.
With a few computers and a handful of operatives, whole legions of supporters can be magicked out of thin air, and at a potentially lower cost than the “hundreds of thousands” allegedly spent in Russia. How widespread these practices are is anyone’s guess, but as the size and influence of online debate increases, the demand for such astroturf services will only increase, too.