I’ve had a fairly typical week of FaceBook. The usual requests to ‘like’ the page of an organisation or group and share posts (that will bring me “great wealth and world peace”). I usually ignore them all.
However I didn’t ignore one this week. I pressed ‘like’ because it was from my friend Mark who’s just put his Landscaping and Grounds Maintenance business on FaceBook. I know Mark, he does a good job, he is honest, reliable and helpful; of course I’ll recommend him. Mark works with real grass (and other things), he might do a little bit with Astroturf, but he certainly doesn’t do online Astroturfing.
Astroturfing is a big deal. A couple of questions:
- Are you are involved in trying to; create evidence based policy, evaluate the impact of services on the ‘lived experience’ of citizens, or just get a better understanding of public sentiment and opinions?
- Are you currently using (or thinking about using) digital methods to collect this information such as online surveys or engagement through social media?
If the answer is yes to these questions, there is the possibility that what you get back in responses is being influenced by Astroturfing. Basically, Astroturfing is the creation of false grass roots public opinion, for the purpose of influencing what people think and do. That can be influencing people who buy products and services, the people who make decisions about what products and services to provide, or even what type of laws and rules we need.
Thats a bit scary and conspiracy theorist. I agree, sorry if I’ve caused any anxiety. However, I do think it is worth pausing to think about the implications of Astroturfing for the people who work in public services. Particularly those people who are trying to engage with the public on a large scale, to gather public opinion and respond to the questions I asked at the start of this post.
Just to help with the thinking, here are a few things that relate to Astroturfing:
- It’s not new (not much is). In the 1590’s Shakespear Play, Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2 (yes I have checked this, it’s right at the end) Cassis plans to write false letters from the Citizens of Rome and send them to Brutus to get him to kill Caesar.
- As far back as the 1900’s there are examples of commercial organisations issuing pamphlets to promote public health but with a commercial interest in the alternatives.
- Readers’ letters to local newspapers from a ‘concerned local resident’ have for a long time been organised and supported by interests groups.
- Likewise ‘letters to your MP/Elected Representative’ have a history of being organised and incentivised, often with a, “thank you’ for your efforts”. You may have once received (this is a bit age dependent) a stamped addressed envelope and pro-forma letter to fill in with your details and send to the relevant decision maker?
- The rise of the internet now elevates this practice to an industrial scale:
- Lots of Governments have arrangements where online petitions are accepted.
- Groups such as 38 Degrees allow people to start petitions and campaigns with relative ease.
- ‘Persona Management’ software exists and is being used. This software allows a single person to operate multiple false accounts that appear to be credible, real individuals. Depending on what you read, a single person could operate over 75 separate personas.
- Some organisations are apparently employing significant numbers of people to operate online and build up a body of opinion that effectively looks like ‘grass roots’.
- You can read more in the Wikipedia article on Astroturfing.
This video by former CBS Investigative Journalist Sharyl Attkisson at the University of Nevada TEDx paints a quite scary picture of the potential influence of Astroturfing. Also worth reading this George Maonbiot article from 2011 (The need to protect the internet from astroturfing grows ever more urgent) where he says that astroturfing software….“has the potential to destroy the internet as a forum for constructive debate. It jeopardises the notion of online democracy”.
Back to my friend Mark and real grass roots. Taking a broader view I suspect we have always been under attack from Astroturfing – people trying to change what we think and do. Telling us that; ‘this is what everyone else thinks’ is a tried an tested method of affecting our behaviour. Shakespeare knew about it and so did the Ancient Romans (if Shakespeare is to be believed).
The good news is that along with the Personal Management software, there is also Anti-Persona Management software. So I guess it’s just a case of getting that updated, like your anti-virus software (I don’t want to sound sceptical, but aren’t there some computer coders somewhere making a lot of money out of all this?)
Failing this, we need to be vigilant, engage in a healthy dose of professional scepticism and be like my friend Mark. Mark doesn’t do Astroturf. Mark only sends ‘like my FaceBook page’ to his actual friends.
So, What’s the PONT?
- Understanding the lived experience of ‘grass roots’ people and what they think is important for many organisations.
- The growth of the internet has increased the ability to ‘find out’ and also ‘influence’ what people at the ‘grass roots’ potentially think and do.
- Care needs to be taken. Be aware of attempts to influence you (and your organisation) and likewise, how you might try to influence others.
Linked Posts: I have written about The Rise of Troll Farms before, a bit like Industrial Scale Astroturfing. Ian Shepherd left me a comment on the post about astroturf campaigns which prompted this post. Thanks Ian.