Adam Bienkov, writer for The Guardian, defines astroturfing in his article Astroturfing: what is it and why does it matter? as "the attempt to create an impression of widespread grassroots support for a policy, individual, or product, where little such support exists." Before the internet, astroturfing was ever-present in our newspapers and on radio shows. Letters from "concerned"citizens populated pages and radio airways during election time, lamenting the damage the passing of such-and-such policy would bring.
Today, astroturfing is much more hi-tech and lucrative - insidiously so. With access to the internet and social media, it's became extremely easy to create fake profiles and them rally for a cause in comment sections and forum spaces. What George Monbiot refers to as "the anonymity of the web," affords companies and government agencies we know and trust to invest in software that tactfully creates fake personas to troll comments sections and forums.
Learning that the US Air Force is in on this scheme was extremely disturbing to me. These antics go beyond the fake profiles we laugh about when watching shows like Catfish. As the internet continues to be and will only become more of our main source of information, how can we form valid, well-informed and safe opinions about products, services, companies and individuals when we never truly know who is behind the screen?
Investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson delves into the danger of the this growing phenomenon and the impact of manipulated media messages.
It goes without saying that astroturfing and the fabrication of online personas to push an agenda is unethical PR. But as we continue to learn and figure out the internet and legality of all of this mess, how can journalists and strategic communicators do their part in combatting these unsavory and dishonest tactics? It is our duty to deliver the truth to the public, journalists are writers but most importantly - researchers. We have to call out these false narratives and testimonials and pay attention to the information we are ingesting. We have to refuse companies and/or individuals who request favorable reviews of scathing ones of a competitor for monetary gain.
When you are unaware that you are being advertised to, your opinions about products, services and services are more easily swayed. The best form of promotion in most cases is word of mouth and testimonial. Whether positive or negative, claims from fake sources will certainly influence how and what people consume if they're uneducated about astroturfing and "advertising without telling anyone."
According to Attkisson, wikipedia is a favorite platform for astroturfers, reminding us that anyone with access to the internet can post seemingly legitimate information. It goes beyond a paid endorsement, astroturfing should be illegal. We owe it to ourselves to make it so, as the internet will only expand and become more integrated into our lives, it will also become increasingly difficult to determine what information to trust.
It misleads the public in an unethical manner - presenting fake sources, fake campaigns and fake causes.