aka: Astro Turfing
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 Meat Puppets 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. Astro Turf 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.) Another occasional use of increased public attendance that might be viewed as astroturfing is at an event which is originally billed as some type of entertainment, and a Bait and Switch is pulled on the audience. These people are later described as grassroots supporters. In the 1970's one would sometimes find easily available tickets to free concerts, only to find that not only were they church group meetings or political rallies, but in news coverage, any PR people interviewed would show an obsessive need to repeatedly comment on the large attendance. Astro Turf has been around for a long time, but became more popular as the Internet did, as it's easier to retain anonymity and still be widely read, and comments on news articles can be posted instantly (and repeatedly) with little to no moderation. 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.
- The Zeroth Law of Trope Examples of William Shakespeare:
- 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.
- Used by Ratcliffe in Richard III to stir up support for the eponymous Richard's bid for the crown after he imprisons the boys in the Tower.
- Diff'rent Strokes: In the Season 7 episode "Arnold's Strike," Arnold — protesting the school's dress code — attempts to gather signatures on a petition to at least force a discussion. When he has trouble gathering support, he resorts to forging names (getting one from the bottom of his shoe); Mr. Drummond happens to be walking by and immediately puts a stop to it.
- 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
inon 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 webcomic 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.
- Elvis Presley's first big movie as a star, "Loving You," is a near-biopic about him. In it his character's agent hires a few girls to scream at a concert his character is giving, and pretty soon all the girls are screaming.
- Wag The Dog has the main characters faking a grassroots campaign in support of fake war hero William Schumann. They invent the nickname "Old Shoe," go around throwing old shoes into trees and get a phony old folk song called "Good Ole Shoe" playing on radio stations. Within a day, the public is in complete support of "Old Shoe."
Real Life: Politics
- There is the myth (spread by his political enemies, and long since debunked) that 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 "5 Mao 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, or 5 mao, for every post that they made.
- And the complementary "5 U.S. Cent Party", which is allegedly sockpuppets hired by anti-communist organizations to combat pro-communist claims. Expect racism slurs when these two group clashes on fora.
- 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.
- During Nicolas Sarkozy's presidential term, 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.
- 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.
- The "Swift Boat Veterans For Truth," whose commercials opposed John Kerry's presidential hopes in 2004, were alleged by Kerry's supporters to be a Republican front group. The group was indeed lead by Vietnam veterans, many of whom served on swift boats, and most of Kerry's superior officers; however, none actually served on Kerry's swift boat. The group was mostly funded by Republican donors and political groups, leading to charges of astroturfing.
- Nearly every pro- North Korea statement on the Internet, including several accounts on YouTube and an incident on This Very Wiki involving a certain troll, is believed to originate from a North Korean government Sock Puppet.
- Two anti-GOP pages on Facebook, "Americans Against The Tea Party" and "The Bad, the Ugly, and the Irrelevant: The 2012 GOP pretenders" were actually started by Obama campaigners. On Twitter, Mitt Romney's campaign ran a fake Bill Clinton account, while Obama's campaign started a fake Mitt Romney Twitter.
- Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2015 campaign started with a trip across several midwest states, including multiple stops to talk to voters. Several of these were later discovered to be staged, with the supposed voters having been briefed and given specific questions to ask Clinton.
- The Tea Party in general — supporters and opponents — frequently attracts claims of astroturfing.
- The Tea Party itself formed in response to CNBC commentator Rick Santelli's famous rant against bailouts. There are many groups calling themselves "Tea Parties", and still no specific leaders or groups that they unite under, however, many Tea Party-affiliated groups receive funding or support from, or are allied with, mainstream GOP organizations like Freedom Works. One accusation from October of 2012, found in a National Institutes of Health study abstracted here, that the Tea Party, in fact, is in large part the creation of an alliance between the Koch Brothers and major tobacco companies looking for a new way to fight government efforts to place restrictions on smoking and marketing of tobacco products.
- Several attempts have been made to create an anti-Tea Party. The Coffee Party failed to attract many supporters and underwent frequent face-lifts, going from liberal activist group to non-partisan issue advocacy center, but gradually coming to endorse the entire democratic platform anyway. It was founded by Annabel Park, a former member of the Obama campaign, and heavily supported by left-wing donors and groups.
- The Occupy Wall Street movement was far more successful, but attracted accusations similar to those leveled at the Tea Party. As with the Tea Party, it appears that liberal organizations and money appeared after the group formed, to harness the movement's energy, rather than being faked enthusiasm from professional agitators.
- Likewise, there must be an awful lot of UKIP supporters who think alike, given that nearly all online comments in support of them (no matter the subject of the article they're commenting on) look exactly the same (look out for "Lib Lab Con" cropping up a lot and "Vote UKIP!" on a separate line, always in the imperative).
- Several years ago, Wikipedia suffered a tempest in a teapot when it was discovered that the biographies of several members of Congress had been written or re-written by their own staffers. The staffers argued that they were doing it in their capacity as private citizens, and that the changes just happened to be very complimentary to their bosses.
- Several American labor unions have been caught hiring people to stand in picket lines in place of striking workers, often at or near minimum wage. Labor unions also frequently do send their members to protest in favor of unrelated left-wing causes such as gun control or abortion rights, which might be considered astroturfing.
- Unions mutually supporting each other's strikes and pickets has a long and honourable tradition, especially in Great Britain, where a government legislated to make it illegal. Here it is called secondary picketing.
- In states such as California where ballot measures are an important part of the legislative process, look for campaign ads funded by organizations like "Citizens United for a Better X" or "Concerned Citizens against Y". The named groups — on both ends of the political spectrum — have no existence except as a means to camouflage the ads' primary funding.
- In the current Gaza crisis, it has been remarked upon that the Israeli state can call upon boiler-houses full of meat puppets to flood news and current affairs boards worldwide with pro-Israeli comment. Similar allegations have been levelled at the Palestinian side, although Israel appears to have made this a formal industry.
"The whole point of such efforts is to look like they are unofficial, just everyday people chatting online,” Dena Shunra, a Hebrew-English translator, told The Electronic Intifada, an online news site.
- There have been accusations that Donald Trump paid actors $50 to show up and cheer at his presidential campaign announcement.
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.
- Straighter example: After a parents' group launched a protest against the existence of a Gay Option in Mass Effect 3, AllOut.org created a "petition" showing support for this practice. Fair enough. But then the petition was hit with a barrage of signatures very blatantly generated by spambots, and AllOut took it down. Not long afterwards, images began circulating showing alleged screenshots of traffic towards the website originating from Origin, EA's digital distribution/Copy Protection app.
- 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 forge public opinion in its favor numerous times over the past two decades, most notably in an attempt to forestall its antitrust prosecution in 1998, and during the worst of its anti-Linux hysteria.
- They also made the website "Internet Explorer: The Browser you loved to hate" which tried its best to look like a site made by fans of the newer versions of IE, complete with Forced Memes such as an image comparing different browsers to different kinds of girlfriends (all of which are needy, high-maintenance, etc except for IE). It also has an unusually high number of likes on StumbleUpon for this kind of site.
- 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 (now Black Berry Ltd.) 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 several five-star reviews on Amazon, but none of the unironic ones are posted by people who've written more than one review. And considering that all the other reviews give it one star, except a two-star review whose writer admits he kept cringing and skipping pages, well...
- 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.
- After being criticized for homophobia, Chick-Fil-A created fake facebook accounts to defend itself. It did not work.
- For a while there were people posting comments on blogs and YouTube singing the praises of some NBC programs, primarily game and reality shows. The big cover-blowing giveaway was the way these "fans" appeared to have a Super OCD obsession with mentioning the shows' time slots in multiple time zones at least once per paragraph. One such account on YouTube even wrote like a teenage girl, then suddenly switched into perfect professional grammar to respond to a user asking about how to audition for the show. Supposedly, at least one blog's admin also saw a user register using an @nbc.com e-mail address to post such comments. (Note that this may not have actually been orchestrated by all of NBC — when they fired producer Craig Plestis, these alleged fans turned to singing his praises. Combined with the fact that he produced all the shows that were being promoted by those user accounts, plus he had been caught editing his own Wikipedia page for Shameless Self-Promotion, he might have been the sole person responsible.)
- A Vanity Publisher called Author Solutions tried to do what Chick-Fil-A did and also created a fake individual to defend their business. It also didn't work.
- There's also the currently unknown but blatant fake writer advocacy site called the Write Agenda, which seems to have been set up to discredit certain writers and critics. No one knows exactly who runs it, but it's been proven to use sockpuppet accounts, stock photo avatars and poorly written hate articles to try and turn people against certain writers.
- In October 2013, Samsung was fined for hiring people to post comments online singing the praises of Samsung's cell phones while lambasting their competitor HTC.
Real Life: 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.
- X Japan has done a variant of this - while not specifically hiring audience aside from paying models and stunningly physically attractive individuals to be front row for various recorded shows, it has given out free tickets to fans and others, and opened video shoots/events to the public - which often provides for a fairly large crowd. Subverted in that the band was/is popular in Japan and elsewhere without the need to use such, and that when known, this tends to upset the existing legitimate fanbase.
- 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 have been accused of this, as have Music Video networks.
- 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. According SourceFed, over half on his Twitter followers are sock puppets.
- According to Christopher Andersen's book Michael Jackson Unauthorized, when Jackson made his first U.S. public appearance following the child molestation allegations of 1993 at the Jackson Family Honors awards show in Las Vegas, tickets for the event sold so poorly that not only were 3,500 freebees given out, but the organizers rounded up young people at the venue and surrounding environs to serve as seat-fillers and hold premade pro-Jackson placards for the benefit of the videocameras taping the show for broadcast on NBC a few nights later.
- It can be argued that any winner of Britain's Got Talent, X-Factor, Pop Idol etc, are beneficiaries of this tactic, what with the multi-million pound promotions that the artists get, swamping the smaller publicity machines of independent record labels (and even sometimes manufactured pop bands if there's a Christmas No.1 at stake).
- Organisers of awards ceremonies will often hire 'seat-fillers' to make sure the event looks as well-attended as possible. If an attendee leaves their seat to go to the bathroom or whatever someone (usually young and good-looking) will slide into their seat to make sure no gaps in the 'celebrity' audience are apparent if the cameras pan over to them.
Real Life: 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.