One of the most convenient and maddening developments that came about with web 2.0 was the comment section. Moving forums out from behind the curtain and directly into the spotlight has helped further connect people around the content we absorb. That is; all people. Everyone, all thrown into one big pot and left to stew. On one hand, it allows discussion to develop in a contextualized environment, and on the other hand, it means that individuals who only seek to cause harm are handed a microphone and set on even footing with people who just want to discuss how cute the cats in the videos they’re watching are.
Some people don’t know what damage their words can do – perhaps they are too young and inexperienced to understand or simply lack the empathy to think about it – but others know exactly what they’re doing. I’m not simply referring to internet trolls – those individuals who crave the excitement of stirring the pot and watching it bubble – I’m specifically talking about individuals paid to stalk the comment sections to try and colour the opinions of other commenters using their corporate or state sponsored messages.
This may sound like paranoia – a way to dismiss the opinionated voice of the internet – but the practice of paying commenters to support your message is a proven one known as astroturfing.
PLANTING THE SEEDS
The term astroturfing refers to mimicking of a grassroots organization to achieve some sort of advocacy goal. It’s a tale as old as time, pre-dating the internet by untold ages. Even in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, the character of Cassius attempts to convince Brutus to assassinate Caesar by generating fake letters from the public. In the early 1900’s, it was common practice for political parties to finance newspapers within cities to help slant public opinion.
With the rise of social media and user generated content, corporations have a new, anonymous, and unregulated format to spread their message and promote or protect their products. In 2006, a spoof of Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, was released on Youtube by a user claiming to be a 29-year old when, in fact, it was backed by Exxon Mobile. A blog called Working Families for Wal-mart and a pair of associated websites were exposed to be the work of Wal-mart itself.
Some PR firms have actually adopted astroturfing as a standard practice. Publishing anything on a popular digital storefront, such as Google Play or the Apple App Store, invites solicitations from firms that offer to heighten the software’s profile by jamming its product page full of positive reviews. Some firms even extend this service to online forums and social media sites. Anything that can help create the illusion of a positive buzz.
STATE SPONSORED TROLLS
It isn’t just the corporations that use astroturfing to sway the public to their side. Entire countries use hired commenters to spread propaganda throughout their own country and the world. The highest profile examples of this are Russia’s Web Brigades, China’s Internet Water Army, and the U.S.’s Operation Earnest Voice.
These groups consist of paid individuals whose job consists of generating comments and spreading them throughout various social networking sites. Their aim can be boiled down to two goals; the first is the obvious dissemination of propaganda to audiences all over the internet. The second is to nullify dissenting opinions by creating an echo chamber that prevents unwanted discussion about the topic. The prevalence of this practice make even the most well-informed reader question valid sources of information with the justification that if one side of the discussion is stacked with paid trolls, surely that must mean that all sides are equally as untrustworthy.
The most recent high profile case of this was during the most recent U.S. election. Many within both the public and the government believe that Russia intervened to skew the results by using astroturf tactics to spread misinformation. It was a massively effective campaign that many attribute to the rise of fake news, a stark division in the American political spectrum, and, of course, the outcome of the election. There’s no need to tamper with a ballot box when you can instead control the narrative.
MOWING THE ASTROTURF
The practice of using comment sections to try and manipulate the public is a repulsive one that sounds like it’s torn from the pages of a pulpy cyberpunk novel about a corporate controlled future. Unfortunately, the only real way to combat this is through legislation that outlaws sponsored comments, which is a whole bag of issues on its own given the global and nebulous nature of the internet.
The only thing that we as consumers can do is be aware. User reviews on Amazon and the App Store can be helpful, but it’s been estimated that approximately one-third of all user reviews have been paid for by corporate backers. When the comments on news sites always seem to tilt in a certain direction (often sympathetic to a country or political party blamed for some event), it may be the result of that entity’s private army of trolls. Maybe the best thing to do is to abide by the old internet mantra “don’t look at the comments,” because nothing good can come from it.