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.