Fake armies: A field guide to astroturfing

astroturfing

“There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions.”
― Edward L. Bernays

It sounds so Orwellian; the world’s opinions shaped by vast armies of bots, or by paid groups of teenagers in Macedonia. But far from being a 1984 nightmare come to life, this scenario has become reality; and not just in authoritarian states. Technology is now used to drown out the voices of real people, creating an alternate reality where fake opinions rule and the zeitgeist is based on myths.

What is astroturfing exactly?

Astroturfing is where paid groups or automated technologies (‘bots’) fool the public into believing that certain opinions are more popular or widespread than in reality. It’s used in many arenas, from political campaigning to Amazon reviews. With the increasing influence of social media it’s difficult to tell fake from fact. Astroturfing is especially likely to happen whenever the interests of big business come into conflict with those of the public, for example climate change and big oil, or lung cancer and tobacco companies. To challenge scientifically proven fact should be an impossible endeavour, as surely nothing is more sacred than fact? But in a world led by fake news and paid opinion, the word of experts has been cheapened. In fact, many people no longer trust experts at all. This was demonstrated to devastating effect this year during the EU referendum in the UK, and the presidential elections in the United States.

When did astroturfing begin?

Astroturfing is not a phenomenon of the digital age. It’s been going on since before social media began. Back in the days of print newspapers, so-called ‘concerned residents’ would send a barrage of letters to the editor, especially around election times, to protest against certain policies or candidates. Now that newspapers have gone online the armies of astroturfers have headed to the nearest obvious outlet: the comment sections. From there, it’s an easy step to create multiple identities and start posting comments. Forums are another prime target for astroturfers, along with blogs and of course, social media. Have you ever felt a sense of despair when reading the comments under a newspaper article posted on Facebook? They seem to bring out the worst of human nature, but some of them could be astroturfers. In our low moments, when we feel the world is doomed to a constant cycle of bigotry, xenophobia and fear, perhaps we’d do well to remind ourselves that the rabid anti-Muslim or anti-foreigner comments online could simply be the work of some bot army.

What’s the role of technology in all this?

As technology advances further, astroturfing gets more sophisticated. Russia has a particular talent for harnessing the power of fake opinion on a massive scale, using something called ‘persona management software’. This software creates bot armies that use fake IP addresses to hide their location, along with generating authentic-looking ‘aged’ profiles. There’s almost no way to tell bot from human – and that’s where the real danger lies. Fake opinion en masse can have alarming results; shifting the social and political mood and whipping people up into hysteria over issues minor or even non-existent.

Thanks to the online echo chambers that we live in these days, fake opinion can spread with ease once sown. It becomes further reinforced and legitimised by ongoing social sharing and discussion. Most social media users get their news from within a bubble, as algorithms do their utmost to show only the updates that the user is most likely to engage with. This means there’s less chance of people being shown opinions that challenge their existing worldview. That’s a recipe for disaster – and it’s one that we’ve only just begun to understand the significance of.

What are the implications of astroturfing?

Politics in 2016 is fishy business. In particular, the Trump election campaign is extremely suspicious. There have been claims that Russia used its cyber warfare prowess to interfere in the US elections; in the end putting Trump in command of the country. Notably, Russia has been accused of using its hackers to access Wikileaks to produce a leak of thousands of incriminating emails supposedly sent by Hillary Clinton. This move eroded public trust in Clinton and narrowed the gap between candidates by double digits. Again, like astroturfing, this technique is not new. Orchestrating the right conditions to encourage people to act in a certain way has been used for decades. The father of propaganda, Edward Bernays, used it to great effect in the early 20th century, to sell pianos and bacon, and cause regime change in Guatemala.

Having Trump in power is very much in Russia’s interests. Trump is inexperienced in politics, especially foreign policy, making him very much open to manipulation from afar. He has a reputation for being greedy, meaning he can be easily bought. He has already said publicly that he favours anon-interventionist military policy abroad. For the Kremlin, a Trump presidency is Russia’s very own puppet in the White House. It’s the Cold War revisited, with Russia scoring a massive coup against the US. Only this time Russia has technology on its side, propelling its influence all the way into the corridors of American power. The Soviets couldn’t have hoped for anything like it.

Controlling the zeitgeist via propaganda and astroturfing has reached new heights in this fundamentally connected age where the concept of ‘post-truth’ is rapidly gaining currency. That’s a serious concern; it makes a mockery of democracy and free speech, destroying the validity of the internet as a forum for useful online debate. Soon we won’t know what’s bot and what’s not. In this post-truth, Trump-tainted era, one could well argue that is already the case.

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