Tuesday, October 17, 2017

If Astroturfers Only Had A Brain

Emily O'Flynn

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" should have been a line left in The Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately, we face imposters every day in the media world, and it's not going to be as easy as walking down the yellow brick road to figure out how to put an end to astroturfing.

Astroturfing is defined as the use of sophisticated software to drown out real people on web forums. It is becoming a common practice, especially among the tobacco industry and the US Air Force. This results in an ethical issue because the public is mislead, believing something is significantly more popular than it actually is.

According to an article in The Guardian, "The anonymity of the web gives companies and governments golden opportunities to run astroturf operations: fake grassroots campaigns that create the impression that large numbers of people are demanding or opposing particular policies."

image via ethicshotline.wordpress.com
Much like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, astroturfers who actively contribute to the problem do not have a brain. It would be in their best interest not to mislead the public, because if the public were to discover that their brand was not being loyal, then they would no longer trust it.

Astroturfing contributes to slandering the reputation of media in today's society. In our earlier course sections, we discussed how the trust in our media is at an all-time low. It's no wonder that it's reached such a low level at this point because companies are going against codes of ethics to seem more beneficial to consumers. 

In reference to an AdAge article, social media users are deceived by Instagram "micro-influencers." The public is lead to believe that celebrities are encouraging them to purchase products because they genuinely care about their audience's needs. In reality, these influencers are getting paid to promote said products. So, they are receiving compensation for practically lying to large fan bases. The article depicts several companies including Influenster and BzzAgent that "specialize in connecting brands with regular consumers on social media to get them to post on their behalf." These companies serve as a middle-man between the consumers and the brands.

It is pertinent that these companies adhere to the laws and regulations of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC.) The FTC states, "According to our campaign rules and terms, failure to abide by these rules may result in suspension from Influenster. We have suspended members who did not abide by the rules in the past."

Overall, astroturfing will inevitably be something we will not be able to ignore because it is so common. The dilemma is that we are not completely sure when we are trying to be deceived by a product that is being marketed to us. It is so simple to buy into the idea that some of our favorite influencers are looking out for our best interests, when in reality they are just trying to make a paycheck.

Understanding we cannot always believe what we view on the internet is crucial to digital literacy in general and should be considered when viewing different social media platforms. Everything is not what it seems, and comprehending that will help us combat astroturfers in the future.

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