January 4, 2008
Astroturfing: Always Bad; Usually Obvious
“Astroturfing is a neologism for formal public relations campaigns in politics and advertising that seek to create the impression of being spontaneous, grassroots behavior.”
For example, say you founded a non-profit dedicated to vetting charity organizations and grading them on their effectiveness. Your org is attracting some high-profile attention, but you’re hankering for more. So you create accounts on a few well-trafficked websites. First, you pose as a naïf, adrift in a galaxy of charities, desperately seeking guidance. Then, under different accounts, you guide your little sockpuppet and any other interested parties right to your org. Step three, profit. Right?
Right, unless you attempt your ruse at the wrong site, where the users are savvy enough to see right through your act and call you on the mat. Now, your follies are on Digg and everywhere for all the world to see, and no amount of groveling will make amends. For shame.
I have to deal with minor astroturfing all the time on vita.mn (and pretty ridiculous astroturfing occasionally), and it’s always a forehead-slapper. It’s generally easy to spot, no matter how clever the offending party seems to think s/he is, and it cultivates a heaping mess of ill will. If you ever have the urge to misrepresent yourself online in a manner you think will advantage your company, don’t do it. You will be found out, and it will be very unpleasant. Your exploits may even be exposed in New York Magazine. Just remember this mantra — “Astroturfing makes an ass out of — never mind, just don’t do it.