Astroturfing and propaganda in the age of social networks

In the age of the Internet, strategies for manipulating public opinion have gained momentum, especially on social networks. One of the tools of influence often used by industrialists and certain political circles is theastroturfing. This practice consists of organize protest movements that seem to come from “ordinary” citizens, but which are in fact stimulated and piloted in the shadows by public relations agencies to defend the interests of their sponsors (destabilize a specific target or attract the attention of the media , for example).

There is no consensus among scholars on an exact definition ofastroturfing. But it is possible to describe this practice as a communication strategy whose particularity “lies in the fact that its source is concealed and that it wrongly claims to be of citizen origin” or to defend the interests of the general public, explains the researcher Quebecer Sophie Boulay. The latter even speaks of “usurpation of citizen identity so that the messages sent benefit from greater credibility”.

Astroturfingorigin and operation

The term astroturfing was first used in 1986 by US Senator Lloyd Bentsen. It refers to the company AstroTurf, which manufactures artificial turf renowned for its resemblance to real grass. “Through this play on words, the senator then distinguishes the efforts of citizens, of the type grassrootsthe efforts of private companies claiming to come from citizens”, underlines Sophie Boulay.

The origin of this method of “false and misleading communication” dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. According to sociologist Caroline Lee, one of the first campaigns ofastroturfing was to push Americans to abandon the common use of pewter ladles, traditionally used for scooping water, in favor of waxed paper cups. The company that marketed the latter launched a communication campaign ensuring that pewter ladles were particularly conducive to the spread of disease, and mounted a whole grassroots campaign supporting the sanitary qualities of its products.

Bernays, the inventor of “public relations”

After the First World War, Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, was the first to theorize and generalize the use of such strategies. Drawing on the work of his uncle, but also of Gustave Le Bon and Walter Lippmann in mass psychology, he asserted in 1928: “The conscious, intelligent manipulation of the organized opinions and habits of the masses plays an important role in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this imperceptible social mechanism form an invisible government that truly rules the country”.

He adds: “It is now possible to mold the opinion of the masses to convince them to engage their newly acquired strength in the desired direction. (…) Nowadays, propaganda necessarily intervenes in everything that has a little social importance, whether in the field of politics or finance, industry, agriculture, charity or teaching. Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.” For him, “modern” propaganda, which he calls “public relations”, designates: “a coherent and long-term effort to provoke or influence events with the aim of influencing the general public’s relationship with a company, an idea or a group.

A “boost” thanks to the Web

If theastroturfing was not invented yesterday, its capacities of influence have been increased tenfold thanks to the advent of the Web and new information and communication technologies (ICT). Thus, the end of the 1990s saw an upsurge in expenditure linked to theastroturfing, estimated at some $800 million per year in the United States. ICTs have indeed made it possible to quickly implement influence strategies at lower cost, and above all to multiply the channels for doing so (blogs, remuneration of influencers on Youtube, social networks, emails, etc.). Without hesitating, sometimes, to use particularly elaborate stratagems.

As the French historian of propaganda and persuasion techniques David Colon explains in a recent book on the subject: “Most often, theastroturfing involves the massive creation by algorithms of fake accounts (bots) on social networks or the usurpation of existing accounts. These computer programs automatically generating content are very present on Twitter, where they influence trends: this “computational propaganda” for example greatly benefited Donald Trump during the American presidential campaign.

“Cyberturfing”, challenges and purposes

Mark Leiser, assistant professor at the Center for Law and Digital Technologies at Leiden University, even uses the term cyberturfing with reference to actions undertaken via internet platforms. According to him, the cyberturfing shares two characteristics with its classic counterpart, theastroturfing: the viral dissemination of information (which is further amplified by the Web) and the misleading and manipulative nature of it.

In 2012, Sophie Boulay analyzed 99 cases ofastroturfing denounced in more than 500 documents collected on Google. Its results show that in more than 42% of cases, the means of communication chosen to implement the strategies ofastroturfing use the potential of ICT. According to her, these influence strategies have three purposes: to influence the development or implementation of a bill, regulation or vote (legal issue); influencing citizens (opinion leader) who form public opinion; and promote a product or service (market issue).

Often, she notes, “the initiators are not the ones orchestrating and/or executing the strategies. They delegate these tasks to intermediaries. These are often consultants, public relations, lobbying or marketing communication firms. (…) On other occasions, certain individuals are remunerated for taking actions astroturfs, without necessarily being linked to a company specializing in this type of service. The most recurrent scheme in this situation is when individuals are paid by organizations to participate in social media or blogs. They promote the organization which pays them (…)”.

Monsanto, Microsoft and Samsung

As part of a campaign to restore its image, for example, the Monsanto firm commissioned a consulting agency to fabricate emails and create the “Center for Food and Agricultural Research”, a fake institute whose raison d’être was to attack Monsanto’s critics. The “Monsanto Papers” also revealed how the American firm had manipulated science to hide the toxicity of glyphosate, used in one of its flagship products.

Some companies may also use this technique to write fake reviews on online shopping sites, in order to damage the reputation of a competing product or brand. A major challenge, when we learn that in the United Kingdom, the Competition and Markets Authority has estimated at 23 billion pounds per year the income influenced by online customer reviews.

For the French author Fabrice Epelboin, interviewed by The Inrocks in 2017: “Perhaps the most famous case to date is Samsung, which, when HTC entered the smartphone market, implemented a massive campaign to trick consumers into believing that the HTC One had many technical faults. Samsung has hired Taiwanese students to post their imaginary problems with the HTC One in a whole bunch of discussion forums.

Political propaganda

But’astroturfing can be used as much by companies as by political groups or States. In 2011, for example, the British newspaper The Guardian revealed that the United States military was developing a program to secretly manipulate social networks using fake profiles. The aim: to influence conversations on the internet and spread pro-American propaganda abroad (in the Middle East in particular). We also know that China (with its Water Army than 280,000 civil servants active on social networks), Russia or South Korea use such methods.

By deliberately using lies, manipulating digital platforms and playing with the cognitive biases of human beings, theastroturfing helps to spread fake news and to undermine the foundations of the social and democratic pact. It also undermines the legitimacy of genuine citizen movements. It therefore seems urgent to act to limit its use. However, the chosen solution(s) can only truly achieve the intended goal if a better understanding of the way in which digital platforms are manipulated for the purposes of political or commercial propaganda develops. However, research in this area is still lacking. It is also made more difficult because of the deliberately hidden nature of the influence strategies used.

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