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The Grass isn’t always Greener with Astroturfing

September 14, 2011

The phrase is rumoured to have been coined in 1985 by former US senator Lloyd Bentsen, when he used it to describe the “mountain of cards and letters” he received which promoted the interests of insurance companies. “A fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grassroots and astroturf,” Bentsen said.

If the practice of organised groups pretending to be the voice of grassroots supporters was widespread in 1985, what is the reach in 2011 with the proliferation of social media, public relations practitioners and increasingly sophisticated marketing campaigns around the world?

Astroturfing is not limited to well organised lobby groups, can be perpetrated by a single person. Take, for example, the case of Orlando Figes, an eminent professor whose specialism is Russian history. Figes posted anonymous reviews on Amazon that criticised the work of rival historians – and praised his own efforts. One of the people on the receiving end, Rachel Polonsky, worked out who was behind the criticism and called him out.

Figes threatened to sue for libel but when Polonsky stood her ground he was finally forced to come clean.

One of the most biggest (known) cases of astroturfing in Australia surrounded the Federal Government’s legislation to introduce plain packaging on cigarettes. A well-funded and outspoken lobby group, Alliance of Australian Retailers, started a concerted effort against plain cigarette packaging including traditional and new media advertising as well as a websites and a high level of engagement in social media. It was eventually exposed as one which was started and funded by the Australian arm of tobacco company Philip Morris International.

Twitter in particular is a platform traditional media use pay close attention to and with this scrutiny comes the potential for these discussions to reach a far larger audience than simply the social media users. The danger is that a rumour becomes so widespread that it is considered as ‘common knowledge’ within a community and hence, true.

Researchers at Cornell University set up a project called “Truthy” designed to help people understand how memes spread online and have written a paper to accompany it titled “Detecting and Tracking the Spread of Astroturf Memes in Microblog Streams”. They noted that Astroturfing must be caught in the early stages because “Once one of these attempts is successful at gaining the attention of the community, it will quickly become indistinguishable from an organic meme.”

While social media is an unprecedented window on the views of the people, it is also an unprecedented opportunity for shysters, snake oil salesmen and political operators to manipulate what we think we know. There is no doubt reviews that exist within online communities are powerful and they do influence purchasing or political decisions. This provides a huge temptation to skew those opinions.

This practice is specifically prohibited by the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), the national associations for members of the public-relations and communication profession in the United States, Australia and the UK respectively.

Admittedly the limit of their reach is to boot an offender which isn’t a particularly big stick compared to the benefits of a successful astrotrufing campaign.

A far greater disincentive for any PR operators tempted by this form of guerrilla campaign is the potential damage that can be caused to an organisation that is caught and that it is, according to Swaab, illegal under Australian law.

Companies or communications professionals considering engaging in astroturfing must keep in mind the risks posed by conduct that misleads or is likely to mislead consumers. It breaches both the Australian Consumer Law and the AANA Code of Ethics for advertising.

Before you follow in the footsteps of Orlando Figes or Philip Morris, it’s worth remembering that astroturfing carries a double risk. Not only could it expose the company to legal action for misleading consumers – the ruse could completely backfire and destroy a reputation that has taken years to be created.

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