Brand and brand image are the most important things companies have to offer. Web 2.0, a world wide web that emphasizes user-generated content and sharing has provided a place where people can express their ideas about everything. People can share ideas about brands, products, advertisement campaigns, and other issues. More importantly, it has given a voice to the people.
The internet and social media have allowed for political, social issue, and other movements to take off and sway people's opinions within hours. Social media can also make it easy for impostors. An individual can easily create a fake personality on any website or social media channel and contribute ideas, so what is stopping companies and organizations from doing the same?
According to the article by George Monbiot "The Need to Protect the Internet from 'Astroturfing' Grows Ever More Urgent" there is nothing holding them back. According to him, "...technological armoury is being deployed to drown out the voices of real people."
Social media creates the perfect platform for these companies using fake grassroots campaigns. With a little bit of software and the right amount of engagers astroturfing becomes very beneficial by putting persuasive and hidden messages behind content "sponsored" by credible sources. As journalists and strategic communicators we are taught to always fact-check, regular media consumers are not necessarily taught to think this way.
These kinds of astroturf campaigns could be expected from large corporations such as Walmart (who made a failed attempt with Working Families for Walmart), but it becomes unethical when more serious issues are presented to completely alter public opinion.
It starts to hurt the people when political campaigns, government organizations, and pharmaceutical companies begin paying for content that is pushed and distributed through news channels. Video News Releases (VNRs) are one way in which corporations try to persuade people about a product, event, or service. Some broadcast and news outlets fail to disclose the source leading those to believe that it was produced by them.
Astroturfing and Twitter
Social media has become a main source of news for many. Companies and organizations will often promote campaigns and ideas through twitter. Consequently, some twitter channels have experienced astroturfing.
A way that companies accomplish this via Twitter is using bots. In an article posted by Steve Chaplin of Indiana University he explains how bots are used to create multiple social media personalities.
The number of contributors to the dissenting argument become so frequent that it eventually creates "Twitter Bombs" for the candidate or corporation.
Ultimately, Astroturfs and the use of DNRs are very harmful and deceptive to the public. News is not meant to persuade but simply tell truth as it comes from the source. Being transparent and always citing the source and intention of the story all relate back to one thing: honesty. Paying to push information and ideas is not being fair to the public, and it violates their right to know. Keeping deceptive material out of news and focusing on all sides of the story is one of the things journalists have to practice in this Internet age. If people are not careful the voice of the people expressed through the internet will be muted by fake personalities and influential content.