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A false or simulated "grass roots" movement that's really a Viral Marketing campaign. AstroTurfing is not limited to blogs, but the recent prominence of the medium has made them a prime target for exploitation by groups with an agenda and a willingness to fake greater support than they really have. This might be a company, a political party, a religion, or any other kind of organization with more energy than integrity.

The word AstroTurf® is a brand name for artificial grass used for sports fields (so named because it was first used by the Houston Astros Baseball team), thus it was "hijacked" to also mean an artificial "grass roots" movement. Note, however, that the trope is much older; it appears in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and probably predates it by some time.

AstroTurfing is usually managed by employing a large number of Sock Puppets to post messages supporting the group's position in various Fora, including blog comments and newsgroups, and by creating bogus blogs and websites that purport to be by "real people" but which are actually written by shills working for the group. Such people are called MeatPuppets to differentiate between the alternate identity of an interested person (Sock Puppet) and a third party induced to support them. Very often AstroTurfing extends out into the non-electronic world, with letters to newspapers from "concerned citizens", paid opinion pieces, and the formation of grass-roots lobbying groups that are actually funded by PR firms.

Astroturf efforts are often easily detectable, though, because such campaigns typically use a small number of templates for their messages and blogs, making them repetitive and eerily alike despite the geographic or social differences between alleged posters. (Sometimes the 'post this' instructions are thoughtlessly copy-pasted into the message as well.) It has been proposed that form letters should count as a single complaint in official statistics, regardless of the number of instances sent, to combat this.

The term has recently begun to gain wider usage in politics, and with it, a certain amount of subjectivity, resulting from of the varying interpretations of "grassroots" and what it means for an appearance of such to be "fake". For instance, a professionally-run organization may assist with the organization and publicity of a rally in support of an issue. On the one hand, those that attend the rally because of such efforts are likely sincere in their beliefs and, like most political involvement, go uncompensated. On the other hand, the rally and organization may attempt to present itself in such a way to downplay the professional involvement to appear more "grassroots" and thus, legitimate, when, at the same time, said involvement vastly contributed to its apparent success. This latter point may cause opponents of the rally to claim there is an insincerity on a level that qualifies as "astroturfing", and whether you agree or not may depend on your personal views and definitions on any of a dozen levels. (The confusion, of course, stems from how many individuals will gladly advertise and work to further their political views without pay, in ways that they wouldn't for a corporate product. Even the most fanboyish veterans of Console Wars don't volunteer at phone-banks to promote their system of choice.) For the purposes of this page (and the Rule of Cautious Editing Judgment), we shall place emphasis on specific incidents with confirmed little-to-no unpaid involvement.

Examples of Astroturf include:


Fictional

  • Older Than Steam example: In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Cassius has several letters sent to Brutus' house, each in different handwriting, expressing admiration for Brutus' nobility and obscurely attesting to Caesar's ambition. He hopes, of course, to get Brutus off the fence and join the conspiracy to murder Caesar.
  • Fictional example: In Rescue Me, the firefighting crew opens a bar, and after trying several themes, they finally hit on the idea of hiring people to "stand in on line" outside the entrance and therefore appear busier. It works like a charm.
  • In Durarara, most of the early online posts spreading rumors of the Dollars were made by Mikado and his online friends, who formed the group in the first place.
  • In Clifford Simak's Ring around the Sun a company sells improbably cheap and reliable (unbreakable if used properly, even) things of all kinds, such as houses, light bulbs, cars and razors. The fact that leads to the heroes correctly guessing there's some sort of a world conspiracy in action, though, is that despite not being able to make that much profit from their own products their advertisement fully relies on the word of mouth, and that's incredibly expensive.
  • In the lead-up to Civil War, before he became firmly pro-registration, Iron Man hired his old foe the Titanium Man to attack Washington, D.C., and monologue in public about how the likes of him are just waiting for the Superhuman Registration Act to bring down superheroes.
  • In the Web Comic Questionable Content, Angus is a professional Strawman Political. He is paid to participate in public debates for one particular side, and lose the argument as an astroturfing measure. No specific campaigns he has worked on are described, but he says that he only takes jobs arguing against positions he actually supports, thereby promoting them.
  • In the Excel Saga manga, Kabapu hires a bunch of shills to attend Il Palazzo's speeches and shout disparaging comments during his campaign for mayor.

Real Life

Advertising

  • Trope inversion by EA Games: they hired an advertising firm to position protesters outside E3 2009 calling for their product, "Dante's Inferno", to be banned. Then they owned up to it, creating even more publicity for their product (which, being about sin after all, is probably quite appropriate). It's an inversion because they likely never intended to have the protest itself drum up support; they've been doing similar sin-based viral marketing campaigns for this game and this was just part of the theme.
  • This practice occurs from time to time on entertainment message boards. For example, on a message board dedicated to a movie that is getting negative buzz, a newbie will show up claiming to have seen it in advance of its release saying that none of the bad buzz is to be believed, because the movie was just awesome. Often times, the poster is soon discovered to be a studio plant.
    • Film companies and producers are infamous for doing this on the web. For instance, ever see a comment on a movie trailer on YouTube that was highly in favor of the movie, even though everyone else was bashing it? That's probably Astroturfing. This happens on tons of various film websites.
  • In July 2009, New York State fined Lifestyle Lift, a firm specializing in facelifts, $300,000 for astroturfing in response to a growing number of negative reviews and consumer comments on various sites. According to this story in The Register, the company's president ordered his employees to pose as satisfied customers and flood message boards and websites with fraudulent testimonials -- on company time.
  • In late 2008 in Osaka, Japan, McDonald's acknowledged hiring almost one thousand temporary workers to artificially create long lines (and the appearance of instant popularity) for a new hamburger release.
  • Microsoft has infamously attempted to use AstroTurfing to sway and/or counterfeit public opinion in its favor numerous times over the past three decades, most notably in an attempt to forestall its antitrust prosecution in 1998, and during the worst of its anti-Linux hysteria.
  • Netflix's Canadian launch event was patrolled by actors posing as consumers who gushed about their excitement to the press... which had a field day when it got its hands on the actors' script.

  "Extras are to behave as members of the public, out and about enjoying their day-to-day life, who happen upon a street event for Netflix and stop by to check it out. [...] Extras are to look really excited, particularly if asked by media to do any interviews about the prospect of Netflix in Canada."

  • RIM hired actresses to cruise bars and flirt with guys... while working their BlackBerry phones into every interaction.

  "We'd say, 'Put your number in my phone and I'll totally call you. We'll go out on a date!' But we just wanted them to try the BlackBerry. I definitely didn't call anyone."

  • In December 2006, Sony attempted a so-called "viral" marketing campaign for the PlayStation Portable by faking blogs, user-created videos, and even graffiti concerning the theme "All I Want For Christmas is a PSP" -- and were caught at it within days. While, to their credit, they fessed up to it almost immediately and even poked a little fun at their failure, the Internet Backdraft lasted quite some time.
  • The Shadow God by Aaron Rayburn has twenty reviews on amazon.com as of this writing. The first four were five-star, and each talked about how the book was absolutely fabulous (in a very similar writing style) without giving many details. The next sixteen were all one-star reviews, in varying styles, proclaiming just how bad the book was (some provided excerpts, and it was definitely written with Delusions of Eloquence and arguably contained a significant quantity of Narm.) Slightly suspicious in and of itself, painfully so when one discovers that all four five-star reviews were from accounts that have never reviewed any other product on the site.
  • In October 2006, several blogs that appeared to be written by independent supporters of megastore chain Wal-Mart turned out to be the products of Wal-Mart's public relations firm, Edelman. "Working Families for Wal-mart" and "Paid Critics", both of which explicitly approved existing Wal-Mart employment and benefits policies, turned out to be complete fabrications created by Edelman employees. "Wal-Marting Across America," which told the story of a couple traveling across the country in an RV by staying overnight only in Wal-Mart parking lots, was only semi-fake - yes, the couple did travel around from city to city in an RV, but it was all paid for by the PR firm, which also retained final editorial control over the blog. (See this story on CNN.com and this story on Business Week.)
  • In the video game fandom, many people will accuse a person of working for a game company if the person defends a game or tries to show how good the game can be instead of just the bad. People will only make the accusation if the person is a little persistent, but then again, it's mostly a result of a Broken Base or Fan Dumb.

Music

  • Frank Sinatra shot to fame after a number of concerts and radio appearances were disrupted by hundreds of squealing, screaming, hysterical bobbysoxers. Newsreels of the pandemonium were shown in theaters all over the US and became so well-known that they were parodied by Warner Brothers cartoonists (most notably in "Long-Haired Hare"). Only after Sinatra's death was it revealed that the screaming bobbysoxers were actresses hired by Sinatra's publicist. He went from being a band singer of middling fame to a superstar almost overnight.
  • Some of the early rabid Beatles fans in the US were also hired actresses.
  • After Ashlee Simpson's infamously off-key Orange Bowl performance, over three hundred online forums saw identical spam posts in support of her.
  • Payola is the practice of being paid to play music on the radio, disguising it as regular airplay, used by many "request" shows. Although outlawed in the U.S. by the 1950s, record companies got around this by hiring "independent" promoters who acted as middlemen for the process.
  • And, after the first The Police single "Fall Out" was released, letters began appearing in some local London music magazines praising the band's drummer, Stewart Copeland. Later (much later), it was revealed that those lettters were written by one Stewart Copeland.
  • Urban radio stations has been accused of this. Including Music Video networks.
  • X Japan has engaged in this behavior, doing everything from paying foreign models and actresses to attend its Japanese gigs to show a "prettier" foreign audience than its average one to Yoshiki tweeting his location to make a Groupie Brigade show up... just in time for a few news interviews. The success of this strategy is still in doubt. That said there is a legitimate fandom (and, unlike in the Frank Sinatra example, had been a somewhat large one even before the Astroturf tactics were used), which makes their use of Astroturf tactics somewhat baffling.
    • May not be an example due to X Japan being a Visual Kei band. Aesthetic elements and fan participation are significantly more important than in most musical genres.
  • An unusual application of this is what made Justin Bieber so popular. Most of the people who know his name first heard of him from covert promoters telling everybody how bad he is and how much they hate him, all over the internet.

Politics

  • Older Than Television: Grigoriy Potemkin ordered peasants to put fresh coats of paint on their buildings and wear their best clothes and act happy when Catherine the Great was supposed to stop by. Hence the term "Potemkin village."
  • The "50 Cent Party", a group of pro-Communist/government sockpuppets who were hired by the Chinese government to counteract the number of people posting their dissatisfaction with the way the country is being run on the internet. The name comes from the fact that, when it first started, each person was paid .50 yuan for every post that they made.
    • For an apparent example of this, look up Songs for Tibet -- the Art of Peace on iTunes and skip to the most critical reviews. All of the 1-star reviews are either written in either Chinese or very broken English, and frequently call the Dalai Lama a slaveowner.
  • Much in the same way, 9/11 "truth" activists, who have a nasty habit of joining forums, posting a single six paragraph "expose" topic on the main board, and then proceeding to never post again. Almost certainly spammers.
  • A supposed amateur YouTube video spoofing An Inconvenient Truth was found to have been sponsored by the DCI Group, which at the time did PR for General Motors and ExxonMobil.
  • The "Brooks Brothers Riot" (so called for the expensive clothing worn by the participants). The "angry mobs" outside of the recounts of the 2000 Presidential Election in Florida were made up of Republican staffers, many of whom were flown in. Robert Parry detailed the facts in Bush's Conspiracy to Riot. Salon.com called it Miami's Rent-a-Riot.
  • The French government has been caught red handed more than once: since the infamous get out dumbass incident, there has been a lot of filtering to avoid the contact between the french president and people who do not like him and members of his government have done the same thing, like putting fake shoppers in a supermarket visited by a minister, or the French president making a speech in front of an attendance of genuine employees of the factory he visited, but making sure that everyone behind him was shorter
  • Workers for Parents Television Council has been accused of using AstroTurfing to bolster its pro-censorship campaigns against various television shows.
    • The webcomic Joe And Monkey had a character, Kvetchbot, specifically designed to write letters to networks and newspaper editorial pages for this purpose.
  • An offline example: protesters in Kiev, Ukraine are often claimed to be local students paid for participation. Since there is always someone protesting against somebody else in Kiev, it looks like a stable source of income.
  • In May of 2008, Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma (or Union of Myanmar). When citizens started clearing streets of debris, the ruling Junta ordered them to put it back, purely so the Junta could be filmed helping the people and show the world that they're not bastards.
  • Part of the underhanded activities associated with the 1972 U.S. Presidential election involved Richard Nixon's aides distributing faked opinion polls and letters-to-the-editors to news papers from "concerned citizens" that supported Nixon's plans.
  • 2008 US presidential candidate Ron Paul's (primarily Internet-based) campaign was accused of using astroturf tactics. At the very least, it is almost certain that some of his more vocal supporters and workers, who tended to flock to any mention of his name on forums, blogs, or YouTube comments, seemed to utilize the tactics of spammers or weren't averse to the use of spambots.
    • Likewise, the Tea Party movement[1] and its ideological mirror, the Occupy movement. Given that there are hundreds of Tea Party and Occupy groups, which often have little connection beyond basic ideology, it should come as no surprise that, while some of them are indeed grassroots, others are blatant astroturf. Whether the astroturfers are the driving force, or just corporate/union/special-interest groups trying to hijack the "brand" remains a source of bitter debate, and most people's opinions on that question seem to be determined by their own political beliefs.
  • The "Swift Boat Veterans For Truth," whose commercials helped sink John Kerry's presidential hopes in 2004, were alleged by some to be a Republican front group. Subsequent investigation showed that the group was sponsored by people who supported the Republican party, and that the veterans had indeed served in Vietnam, but not with John Kerry. Their statements were false, but ultimately effective.
  • Nearly every pro-North Korean statement on the Internet, including several accounts on YouTube and an incident on The Other Tropes Wiki involving a certain Troll, is believed to originate from a North Korean government Sock Puppet.

Sports

  • One look at the comments sections on articles at ProFootballTalk.com shows that the NFL isn't above this tactic regarding its 2011 labor dispute.

Notes

  1. Which got its start largely among Ron Paul's supporters, many of whom already used Boston Tea Party imagery during his campaign.
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