Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Astroturf: An Unfair Playing Field for the Public

Zulfa Rizqiya

The success of an online campaign can be measured by audience participation.  Surely, if a campaign is backed by hundreds of people, the company, organization, or government behind this campaign has a valid message shared among many people, right?  Wrong.

With sophisticated online software, more companies, organizations, and governments are "astroturfing," or building fake grassroots campaigns.  As described in The Guardian article, the process involves these groups posing as "real" people to drown out the public on web forums.  Through "astroturfing," the impression of mass support from the people is created, ultimately deluging the valid opinions of the public.

The Guardian article argues "the need to protect the Internet from 'astroturfing' grows ever more urgent," to which I would agree as both a regular consumer of the Internet and as an aspiring public relations professional.

It is frightening to know how much "astroturfing" has escalated--becoming more complicated, widespread, and automated.  Through "persona management software," astroturfers are not only able to multiply their efforts and therefore support, they are also able to make it increasingly difficult to detect robot personas created by astroturfers.

Image: Matrixpraxis.files.wordpress.com
Robot personas can possess all of the personal information a real person would have, such as name, email, web pages, and social media.  In order to appear authentic, these robot personas can have a backstory created on Twitter through the persona partaking in fake social media conferences and panels.  
HBGary, an IT security company, was recently exposed by the "hacktivist" group Anonymous for the employment of robot personas.  In an exchange of emails among HBGary employees, the use of "persona management" was discussed to "allow the human actor to open a virtual machine or thumb drive with an associated persona... configured with visual cues to remind the actor which persona he/she is using so as not to accidentally cross-contaminate personas during use."
The use of "astroturf" presents a great ethical conflict for strategic communications professionals.  While a professional may want to use "astroturf" as a way to gain initial outreach and exposure for a campaign, a false impression is being distributed to the public.
In other words, the public is not receiving the truth behind the campaign.  It is an obligation for journalists and strategic communications professionals to provide the public with the truth.
Along with truth, transparency and public trust are among the core values of journalism that come in conflict with "astroturfing."  By hiding behind robot personas, companies are not being accountable for their views.  In addition, when companies are ultimately exposed for "astroturfing," it can be easy for them to lose the public's trust, therefore losing support for future campaigns. 
Not only is "astroturfing" unethical, it can also harm the purpose of the Internet as a public service.  How can the Internet remain a forum for the public to have constructive, genuine debates when their comments are drowned out?  How can online democracy be achieved when real people lose their voices to robot personas?  In my opinion, the quality of online discussion is already at risk due to trolls, so why add fake personas?

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