The Brits are doing it. The Americans want to do it. Everyone says the Russians are doing it. The real question is, who isn’t attempting to shape the online information environment? The rate of online manipulation is fast turning the internet into a virtual labyrinth of distorting mirrors.
Beyond governments, companies are posting fake reviews to push their products – and slam those of their competitors. Organisations besieged by unfavourable reputations, such as Fox News, attempt to bolster support through bogus accounts saying nice things about themselves online. Law enforcement agents are using false social media identities to befriend targets and gather intelligence on them. Some journalists have adopted alternate online personalities to engage and investigate ISIS recruiters.
Even individuals are using digital illusions for personal gain. One couple set up a ghost website to collect U.S. army recruit names so they could collect the bonuses associated with referring new people to join. The scam – which was apparently legal – netted the couple $4 million before it was shut down.
While these efforts are limited in scope, the potential exists to create an illusion of groundswell support – a tempting tactic for politicians and governments alike.
What is Astroturfing?
To astroturf online is to create the illusion of grassroots support for an idea, person, product or even a country. This can be achieved through the use of fake accounts, but also by paying people to espouse the sponsor’s point of view from legitimate online profiles. Usually sponsored by a large organization (ostensibly at arm’s length from the real beneficiary of such fake grassroots backing), astroturfing aims to support any arguments or claims in the donor’s favour, or to challenge and deny those against them.
In a liberal democracy where popular support is supposed to be the basis for important decision-making, astroturfing has been used to shape opinions and outcomes. The Tea Party movement in the U.S., it is alleged, was created via astroturfing. More recently, Donald Trump was accused of hiring actors to create the illusion of crowd support (despite this and many other issues, at the time of writing he leads slightly in some polls). Climate change deniers have effectively used astroturfing to sway public sentiment to at least spark significant doubt.
At an international level, astroturfing is used in conflicts as warring sides seek domestic and external support. (Dis)information is spread through social media, into more traditional media, as competing narratives attempt to gain sympathy for their cause or perspective. The 2014 Gaza War is an often-cited example of how online narratives were used to shape opinions. And while a country might ban astroturfing at home in a bid to protect democratic values, the internet makes it possible for any foe with means to create the illusion of popular support abroad. Thus, astroturfing is more likely to become a pillar of information warfare rather than a prohibited tactic.
And for those rare movements that do indeed emerge from grassroots support, a simple accusation from detractors that such efforts are driven by astroturfing will be enough to make people wary.
As participants in this manipulated information space we can become more sceptical of information presented, making an effort to understand how our thought processes make us susceptible to disinformation.
Our Minds are a Battleground
So long as popular support is required to legitimize leadership and decision-making, our minds will remain a battleground where our opinions and beliefs are fought over. Casually consuming information, such as scanning news in the morning, and accepting what we view as fact without any further thought or analysis puts us at risk of manipulation. Below are a few suggestions for how you might discourage the external shaping of your mind and beliefs:
- Deliberately expose yourself to opposing points of view. We tend to seek out information that confirms our existing (mis)perceptions through the selective exposure bias. While it might be comforting to have our viewpoints confirmed by others, this need to belong makes it easy for opinion-shapers to sway our perspectives. So long as messaging is positioned by how we already see the world, we are more likely to accept it without question. Vary your information sources to expose yourself to more than one side of a story.
- Avoid disregarding information simply because it goes against what you already believe. The selective acceptance bias leads us to automatically disregard anything that contradicts what we currently perceive to be true. Thus, if we have at first accepted disinformation as fact, we are increasingly unlikely to change our minds later – especially if the only source for an alternative narrative is the opposing side of a conflict. When confronted with contradicting information, be conscious of the fact that your innate response is likely to refute it simply because it opposes what you already believe to be true. In such situations it can help to question how you came to believe something as fact – was it through your own personal experience or just what you learned through media or other distant sources?
- Cross-reference online content with your physical reality. If a movement truly has grassroots support, surely it can be found offline as well. Ask those you know what they think about the issue. Visit rallies that purport to support the cause and engage with protestors, asking how they became involved or what they think.
Everything is not as it seems online. Anyone with the means and motivation can distort our perspective through the illusion of online support. In an astroturfing war a comment is never just a comment – everyone can (and likely does) have an agenda. Resist accepting simple arguments presented in newspapers, blogs or social media – in modern society most issues are complex and influenced by many factors. If the explanation provided by an issue proponent calls for a Yay or Nay option only, someone is likely trying to manipulate your views.