Astroturfing

astroturfIf you’ve ever seen a book on Amazon with a lot of vaguely positive reviews, or a hotel review on trip advisor with glowing reviews that don’t really match the photos, or a new restaurant with a suspiciously high number of reviews in its first week after opening, you may have stumbled across a case of astroturfing.

Astroturf is that fake grass seen in public sports parks, and astroturfing is, according to the Guardian;

the attempt to create an impression of widespread grassroots support for a policy, individual, or product, where little such support exists. Multiple online identities and fake pressure groups are used to mislead the public into believing that the position of the astroturfer is the commonly held view.

We know that people trust reviews and recommendations from family and friends, but we’ll also trust consumer reviews – even when we don’t know the reviewer – ahead of any form of company communication or advertising. So it’s not surprising that some companies and organisations try to co-opt the review process for their own purposes.

It might not seem to matter much, but reviews, recommendations and star rankings affect sales, Astroturfing puts that at risk. This has become such an issue for the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon, that they’re now building a technical solution to stop fake reviews.

There’s a more important potential issue at stake when this scales up, when Astroturfing is used by special interest groups it starts to influence public opinion, discredit dissenting voices,  and influence public policy as Sharyl Attkisson explains in this TEDx talk.

The signs she suggests to watch out for;

  • use of inflammatory language, for example;  crank quack nutty pseudo conspiracy
  • claiming to debug myths that aren’t myths
  • attacking the people and organisations surrounding an issue rather than addressing the facts

I’d add blocking or deleting comments from dissenters in online discussions.

As the video makes clear this is a tactic used by marketers and lobbyists, and it’s one we, as consumers need to be aware of as we read reviews and follow online discussions. And online retailers need to follow Amazon’s example and build engines to reduce the impact of astroturfers.

Image; Test Shot  |  Francois W Nel  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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