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What is this astroturfing of which you speak?
Wednesday, March 15 2006 @ 04:55 AM EST

I got an email from a reader asking me what the meaning of astroturf is. So, for those new to the word, here you go.

Here's the definition of astroturfing, from Wikipedia, and they should know:
A form of propaganda, industry astroturfing attempts to selectively affect the emotions of the public. Whether trying to win a campaign, be the top music record seller, the top book seller, or gain political support, the industries are constantly in search of new means of accomplishing these goals. The most frequently identified cases of astroturfing are found in recent political history. Public interest in politics is decreasing in America, as is support for political parties. In order to keep public involvement in advocating issues high, the organizations need new and creative ways to spark interest. The most successful political movements involve the exercise of existing power to achieve widespread public consent, so observers may disagree on the line between acceptable support of grassroots activism and astroturfing.

Astroturfing techniques usually consist of a few people discreetly posing as mass numbers of activists advocating a specific cause. Supporters or employees will manipulate the degree of interest through letters to the editor, e-mails, blog posts, crossposts, trackbacks, etc. They are instructed on what to say, how to say it, where to send it, and how to make it appear that their indignation, appreciation, joy, or hate is entirely spontaneous and independent; thus being "real" emotions and concerns rather than the product of an orchestrated campaign. Local newspapers are often victims of astroturfing, by publishing letters that are identical to letters other newspapers have received.

It has become easier to structure an astroturfing campaign because the cost and effort to email (especially a pre-written, sign-your-name-at-the-bottom email) is so low. Companies may use a boiler room, full of telephones and computers, where hired activists locate people and groups that create enthusiasm for the specified cause. Also, the use of psychographics allows hired supporters to persuade their targeted audience. This correlates with the merge-purge technique that combines information about an individual from multiple databases. Companies can then turn hypothetical supporters into activists for the cause. This leads to misuse of the Internet, for one person is able to play the role of a whole group of like-minded people (see also Internet sock puppet).

News consolidation services, such as Google News, as well as PR Watch and Sourcewatch, have made it easier to spot such campaigns through the search of specific key phrases that bring up results showing identical letters, articles, blogs, websites, etc.

Wikipedia and Wikinews have been the vehicle of astroturfing campaigns. In this strategy, press releases and product information is written by an employee of a company and made to look as though some people have a genuine interest in the forthcoming product and are willing to write professional quality articles within minutes of the product announcement. . . .

Recent examples

In 2001, the software company Microsoft was linked to an astroturfing scandal when hundreds of similar letters were sent to newspapers voicing disagreement with the United States Department of Justice and its antitrust suit against Microsoft. Many of the letters were revealed to have been "written" by deceased citizens or residents of nonexistent towns. . . .

In 2005, PalmSource reportedly instructed its employees to make posts to various PDA sites around the world in an effort to counteract the growing negative sentiment surrounding both PalmSource and PalmOS.

SourceWatch by the Center for Media & Democracy defines it similarly: Astroturf refers to apparently grassroots groups or coalitions which are actually fake, often created by corporations or public relations firms.

Campaigns & Elections magazine defines astroturf as a "grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them." Journalist William Greider has coined his own term to describe corporate grassroots organizing. He calls it "democracy for hire." ...

Unlike genuine grassroots activism which tends to be money-poor but people-rich, astroturf campaigns are typically people-poor but cash-rich. Funded heavily by corporate largesse, they use sophisticated computer databases, telephone banks and hired organizers to rope less-informed activists into sending letters to their elected officials or engaging in other actions that create the appearance of grassroots support for their client's cause. . . .

Astroturf techniques have been used to: . . .

* generate a dossier of newsclips orchestrated by Edelman to assist Microsoft lobbyists persuade U.S. state attorney generals not to join a class action against the company.

As you can see, whenever astroturf comes up for a definition, Microsoft's name appears. Here's why, from the Jargon File's definition:

astroturfing: n.

1. The use of paid shills to create the impression of a popular movement, through means like letters to newspapers from soi-disant ‘concerned citizens’, paid opinion pieces, and the formation of grass-roots lobbying groups that are actually funded by a PR group (AstroTurf is fake grass; hence the term). See also sock puppet, tentacle....

This term became common among hackers after it came to light in early 1998 that Microsoft had attempted to use such tactics to forestall the U.S. Department of Justice's antitrust action against the company. The maneuver backfired horribly, angering a number of state attorneys-general enough to induce them to go public with plans to join the Federal suit. It also set anybody defending Microsoft on the net for the accusation “You're just astroturfing!”.

Say, aren't they starting a campaign to involve "the public" in the EU antitrust matter? When I first heard about that plan, I asked a friend what they could be thinking. Surely, I said, they must know that no one likes their business practices. I forgot astroturfing, where you don't have to be sincere. What's love got to do with it?

By 1997, astroturfing was a lot harder to pull off, because people are not eternally naive, and once burnt, they start sniffing the air for smoke signals so they aren't tricked again. Here's a modern example of the lengths corporations have to go to now to be effective. Or not. A person leaving leaflets for Verizon (and I'm sure we don't need proof that wasn't just from the heart with no silver crossing palms to get him to do it) reported to the police in Woburn, Massachusetts that he was being shadowed by "a man in a black car" who was picking up all the pamphlets he was trying to leave. A police investigation revealed that the man worked for RCN, a cable company. In broad daylight. Here's the report:

3 p.m., a Pierce Promotions employee working on behalf of Verizon reported someone stole literature he was leaving on doorsteps in the Fulton Street neighborhood. While leaving the pamphlets, the Verizon employee reported a man in a black car approached him and asked for one of the pamphlets. The Verizon employee noticed a stack of the pamphlets already in the man's back seat. He returned to Fulton Street and discovered all the pamphlets he had left were taken. When he approached a house, he was told that the man in the black car was an RCN employee.

Is that not hilarious? Trying to outastroturf each other. So dirty tricks are alive and well. Not to worry. And of course the Internet was born for astroturf, because no one knows your a low down snake if you pretend you are a kitten.

Or Linux person.

No! You mean that might happen? Someone would actually pretend to be a member of the FOSS community and then subtly attack everything that the FOSS community stands for? You think? Hey, titles alone: LinuxInsider. LinuxGram. OSNews. OpenXML. I know they don't fool anyone in the FOSS world, but they are meant to, I suppose. You can spot Microsoft shills on Slashdot, or I think I can, because they always seem to open up with, "This will get me modded down but..." after which they say how not-so-terrible Microsoft is after all, or how much more user-friendly it is than Linux, blah blah. It reaches a kind of art form there, because with sufficient numbers and consistent effort you can just take over, becoming moderators, and then you can mod up such drivel as "insightful". As The Wisdom of Crowds points out, when folks begin to feel like the majority is against their view, they start to toss their view overboard to join the majority. Whew. Peer pressure.

Sometimes, folks take it one more level of effectivenes, or smarminess, or so I've heard. What could be better for, say, Microsoft, than to hire a member of the FOSS community to secretly become the Community Rat?

I know. Microsoft would never stoop so low. Well. Maybe to conquer. Here's someone who claims Microsoft asked him to do that very thing, although he claimed he turned the munificent offer down.


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