Since the dawn of the 21st century, technology has shaped our lives. Not only has it brought us closer but also has made it nearly impossible to imagine a life without it. But, is being over-dependent on technology misguiding us from the truth?
The Brexit, the 2016 US Presidential elections and your recent Flipkart order have one thing in common. That commonality is the practice of ‘Astroturfing’ or the deceptive practise of presenting an orchestrated marketing or public relations campaign in the guise of unsolicited comments from members of the public. Many corporate companies and political parties use fake comments or reactions to create a positive brand image (shout-out to BJP IT cell).
Be it politics, advertising or corporate campaigning, this practice is so common that we often ignore it altogether. Those earphones that you purchased from Amazon had some amazingly positive views but in reality, weren’t that good after all. Or that YouTube video for a mobile phone which proved that it was the best in its segment but in reality that wasn’t the case. According to Bing Liu, a data mining expert, as many as 1/3rd of all the reviews online are fake.
Even big companies like Oppo, Xiaomi, etc. are accused of practising astroturfing. Countries like Russia and China are the stalwarts of Astroturfing. They use fake comments and posts to support the ruling party’s propaganda, inside and outside their nation. Be it meddling with the US elections or Brexit, astroturfing played a major role.
Digital marketing companies use methods like fake IP addresses and Persona Management Software (PMS) to make fake accounts and use them for this purpose. The other method is using actual people to do so. And in this sphere, I have done this numerous times without even knowing the gravity of the same.
Just after my boards, I joined a digital marketing internship. My senior told me that I’d have to write comments on YouTube videos, post (fake) reviews on Google and stories on Instagram. Mind you that I only had to write ‘positive’ comments and reviews. Mostly the content of the comments was sent by them. The videos on YouTube included music videos of hugely popular pop stars also. Unknowingly I was doing something which is not only unethical but also illegal.
The greater problem is that nearly every student who would have done such an internship can tell you the numerous times he or she may have done an activity like this. The one time that you commented something rational on a Twitter post and then suddenly several users started trolling you without any rational argument, that is the work of such astroturfers. With a few computers and a handful of operatives, whole legions of supporters can be created out of the blue, and that too at a nominal cost. How widespread these practices are is anyone’s guess, but as the size and influence of online debate increases, the demand for such astroturf services will only increase, too.
Even if we leave aside the business part aside, the political sphere of astroturfing is even more disturbing. When suddenly a hashtag gets popular on Twitter out of thin air, regular users also take part in it. New forms of software enable any organisation with the funds and the know-how to conduct astroturfing on a far bigger scale than even the Kremlin could hope for. As reported by the Guardian, some big companies now use sophisticated “persona management software” to create armies of virtual astroturfers, complete with fake IP addresses, non-political interests and online histories. Authentic-looking profiles are generated automatically and developed for months or years before being brought into use for a political or corporate campaign. As the software improves, these astroturf armies will become increasingly difficult to spot, and the future of open debate online could become increasingly perilous.
The IPC articles 499 and 500, The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 and IT Act article 66A prohibit this practice. But these laws are so seldom enforced that people have nearly forgotten them.
The end goal of astroturfing is always to create a fallacious opinion about a topic among people. So the next time you search for a product or a video, remember to be sane about astroturfing and not follow whatever looks to be popular.
Feature Image Credits: Andrii Yalanskyi
Aniket Singh Chauhan