Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bots on Astroturf with Synthetic Opinions

Ryan Harroff

"Astroturfing," or the process used primarily by corporations and government entities to create fake grass-roots campaigns, is on the rise in the modern era. With the ease of information dissemination that the internet provides, it is easier than ever to create the impression of groundswell support for a cause, even if in reality the public is against it.

This is not a new development or a surprising one, but one interesting player in this information game is not a free-thinking corporation or person. It is a few lines of source code, a bot.

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These days, any group looking to create an astroturf campaign does not have to advertise its movement, nor does it have to hire powerful speakers to rally more of the public to their side. There is no reason to do so when there is a limitless legion of online personas who can dominate discourse on internet forums, comment sections, and social media.

One recent example of this sort of robotic astroturfing came in early May of this year, when the FCC's website was flooded by false accounts all claiming to be people against net neutrality. The issue of net neutrality had gotten a surge in public discourse following a segment on the popular HBO show, "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver."

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According to a report by Business Insider, thousands of comments using real people's names were posted on the site, each with an exactly identical message against net neutrality. The people whose names were used often did not know about the comments and had not commented on the site themselves.

The interesting thing about this situation is that John Oliver was almost astroturfing himself, since he ended his segment by urging viewers to go to the site and comment in favor of net neutrality. The only thing stopping his action from qualifying as astroturfing was that he was upfront with his motives and resources, rather than attempting to have his movement seem like a movement within the general public.

Cases like this are sure to continue as we move further and further into the digital age. The interesting question is what steps can be taken to combat it, if any. Is this the sort of issue that legislation could curtail?

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