Tactical Activism: Four characteristics of an Astroturfing campaign

Astroturfing is the strategy of using multiple, fabricated social media accounts to produce the appearance of grassroot support for an issue or movement. At its most basic, astroturfing involves ‘sockpuppets’ fake accounts designed to get around bans and blocks or make it seem like more people are participating in a conversation than actually are. At its most sinister, astroturfing enlists a massive industry that specializes in blanketing the internet with apparently unique content that is nevertheless the product of just a few, often paid participants. The New York Times recently ran an exposé on The Agency, a notorious Russian spamhouse that generates mountains of content designed specifically to sow discord across the internet. Somewhere lying between these extremes is Persona Management Software, tools specifically designed to allow institutions to operate multiple, apparently genuine, social media profiles. Many social media PR firms use persona management (or the more palatable “reputation management”) to boost their client’s online reputation. The federal government, incidentally, does, too.

Astroturfing tactics have only gotten more sophisticated in the past five years. Its nearly impossible to tell, at a glance, whether the person your interacting with is part of a sophisticated astroturfing campaign or a genuine human that simply disagrees with you. There are, unfortunately, no guaranteed tests to confirm whether someone is or is not an astroturfer, but there are general patterns that suggest you’re dealing with a managed-persona rather than a genuine person. Taking multiple lines of evidence into account can help you identify and excise astroturfing from your online experience.

Note: in the past five years, I have identified numerous campaigns of which I confidently identify as astroturfing (and in at least two cases have had my suspicions confirmed by directly contacting their PR departments), both in opposition to, and in agreement with environmental (and particularly ocean) issues. However, as this article is intended to be a resource for anyone looking to identify an astroturfing campaign and I am neither interested in dragging up old history nor unnecessarily politicizing this article by calling out bad actors (who may or may not have learned their lesson), I am not going to identify specific instances. Assume that both your favorite and least favorite ocean/environment/political groups have, at some point, attempted to astroturf an issue. 

It’s important to recognize that astroturfing is about volume. If you recognize some of these patterns in specific social media profiles, but they are not part of larger movement, you’re likely not dealing with astroturfing. At worst, you might have a run-of-the-mill troll. In order of least to most complicated, here are four patterns to look for when identifying an astroturfing campaign.

1. Chickens and Eggs.

The surest way to identify an astroturfing campaign is the sudden appearance of “eggs”–brand new twitter accounts that don’t even bother to upload a unique profile image. This is so easily recognized that many reputation management firms register and hold accounts, creating the appearance of age. Some will even be kept active, so that it’s not immediately apparent that the account is essentially nonexistent. Some will created profiles and upload images, but they will be generic and the same picture may be shared across many accounts. If you’re suspicious, run a google image search against their profile image, if it comes up from dozens of different sources, you’re probably dealing with a fake account. Finally, do they link to profiles on other platforms, their own webpage, or other sources that suggests their existence transcends a single social network? If not, proceed with skepticism.

2. Jerky Behavior.

Not just rude behavior, but inconsistent. Social media is all about people having conversations. People like to talk to their friends. People contain multitudes. A profile that only engages on a single topic may just be a true believer, but it is rare for someone to engage in nothing but a single issue. Check their replies. Do they actually have conversations with other people about unrelated topics? If not, that’s a strong indicator that they aren’t genuine. Do they post original content, or is it always links to something specific about the same issue? Do they have tens of thousands of tweets but almost no followers? Is everything they say a reply to different people about a solitary issue? If so, they might be…

3. Spawn Camping.

In video games, spawn camping is when you wait at spawn points for players to re-materialize after they die so that you can kill them again before they get a chance to grab better weapons. On social media, spawn camping involves monitoring specific links, hashtags, or keywords, and immediately engaging anyone who attempts to post a position contrary to your own views. For persona and reputation management firms, spawn camping is a critical tool, specifically when it comes to link sharing. You can identify spawn campers by their behavior; when you post a link to a contentious (or sometimes not so contentious) issue, if a profile that doesn’t follow you immediately responds with contradictory information before your original post has been retweeted or shared, you’re dealing with a spawn camper. At their most frustrating, you may end up facing off against a sea lion, who’s superficially polite approach leads to an unyieldingly obnoxious conversation.

Not all spawn campers are astroturfers, but most sophisticated astroturfing campaigns will utilize spawn campers.

4. Conversation shifts.

This is perhaps the most challenging pattern to identify, as it requires you to have in-depth knowledge of the subject matter. Often the goal of an astroturfing campaign is to change the conversation, shifting it away from issues that reflect negatively on their client and towards more positive activities. If, for example, in an ongoing conversation about marine mammal welfare, numerous social media profiles (that happen to fit the above three patterns) begin talking about an unrelated though thematically connected issue, say cleaning up crab traps (which so happens to be something the party facing criticism does well), than it’s extremely likely that someone has decided that they need to change the conversation en masse in order to deflect criticism. This is almost certainly the case if the secondary topic appears in the online conversation seemingly inexplicably, absent any major new content pushing it forward. If you are fluent in the topic being discussed, and all of a sudden a large portion of the participants appear to be talking about something only tangentially related, you can bet your Star Wars cards that a reputation management firm advised their client to change the subject.

These are, by no means, foolproof guidelines (though I generally assume that genuine social media profiles that somehow manage to line up perfectly with the behavior of managed personas tend to not be worth engaging with, anyway). Just because someone spawn camps, or has a brand new profile, or wants everyone to talk about something else, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are managed personas acting in concert for an astroturfing campaign. But when multiple behaviors occur in aggregate among multiple profiles, you can be pretty confident that your are caught in the midst of an astroturfing campaign.

What you chose to do in those situations, however, is an entirely different story.

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