Astroturfing is a term derived for artificial grass. It is a practice of providing a designed support for a sponsor which conveys an impression that it originates from a disinterested party. The sponsors are people who are interested in creating false impressions about themselves or their clients, which would seem to appear to be spontaneous and in turn invoke natural and popular support about them. Astroturfing is an activity that creates a false opinion/impression. Astroturfing may also be carried out with the objective of maligning or disparaging the goodwill and/or reputation of a competitor in business. This is known as negative astroturfing. The internet provides abundant opportunities for persons indulging in astroturfing. Statistics suggest that around one third of the consumer reviews on the internet are estimated to be false. Such false opinions/reviews do have an impact on the mindset of potential consumers.
Types of Astroturfing
There are several known techniques of Astroturfing. One of them is front groups, which are organizations that mask a corporate sponsor and appear to serve public interest. Such organizations tend to counter-claim and instill doubts in order to resist legislation and other information that could damage a sponsor‘s business. They create fake blogs which appear to be written by consumers with a view to influencing reader‘s opinions and annul negative feedback/reviews, if any. Another technique is using sockpuppets, where multiple identities are created by a single person who fakes grassroots support. Sockpuppets under numerous fake identities may post positive reviews about a product or negative reviews about rival products. They may criticize rival organizations and attack other consumers by starting arguments based on the reviews. A restaurant may engage and pay an individual to visit a rival restaurant with a view to creating negative evidence of the services it renders and consequently write negative reviews/comments about it. Negative astroturfing through adverse reviews/comments can adversely affect and disparage a business.
There are organized businesses that assist companies to engage in astroturfing. These businesses pay their employees based on the number of comments posted on the websites without being flagged by site moderators. Various persona management software programs are also available that assist in creating numerous online personas which can be used to post convincing looking comments. Astroturfing also includes within its gamut, blogs by bloggers who are entitled to receive free gifts in consideration of reviews posted about products or services of an organization and provided this is not disclosed by them to the readers. Pharmaceutical companies engage in astroturfing when they sponsor patient support groups and in turn expect the support groups to market their products.
Reported instances of Astroturfing
Recently nineteen companies in the US "agreed to cease their practice of writing fake online reviews for businesses and to pay more than $350,000 in penalties" after being caught posing as real consumers on different sites. These companies posted reviews on various sites while pretending to be real consumers, violating laws against false advertising and deceptive business practices. The alleged astroturfers spoofed IP addresses to hide their locations and make the reviews appear to come from multiple users.
Posing as the owner of a yogurt shop, representatives called SEO companies in the U.S. to request assistance in combating negative reviews on consumer-review websites. During these calls, representatives from some of these companies offered to write fake reviews of the yogurt shop and post them on consumer-review websites as part of their reputation management services. The investigation revealed that SEO companies were using advanced IP spoofing techniques to hide their identities as well as setting up hundreds of bogus online profiles on consumer review websites to post the reviews.
In one case, a marketing company arranged for this review of a periodontist to be written: "Friendly and expert periodontist. Boy am I glad I discovered Dr. —— I had noticed that my gums had been pretty inflamed lately and they were a bit swollen. At first I thought it was a temporary thing and made sure to floss and listerine, but then it didn‘t go away. So I did some research on good gum doctors in the city and stumbled across the practice of Dr. _________... best discovery ever”. The investigation found that many consumer review websites have implemented filters to detect and filters or delete fake reviews. Companies used their own employees to write and post reviews and "hired freelance writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Eastern Europe for $1 to $10 per review." One solicitation from an SEO company read as follows:
"We need a person that can post multiple positive reviews on major REVIEW sites. Must be from different IP addresses… So you must be able to have multiple IPs. The reviews will be only few sentences long. Need to have some understanding on how filters work. Previous experience is a plus…just apply --) we are a marketing company."
In another case, a manager of a strip club orchestrated an astroturfing campaign with the help of a freelance writer that resulted in 175 fake reviews of entertainers at the adult club, most of which were posted online.
Astroturfing is unfortunately here to stay, making it difficult for consumers to distinguish real reviews from fake ones. It was predicted that "by 2014, between 10 percent and 15 percent of social media reviews will be fake."
In 2005, schools and political party organizations in the People‘s Republic of China started recruiting paid-per-comment bloggers to counter unfavorable information on websites, bulletin boards, and other internet-accessible sources; they are collectively known as the 50 Cent Party.
Organizations representing opposing schools of political thought have engaged in this activity worldwide. President Nixon had White House staffers write "letters to the editor" to various American newspapers, purporting to be from ordinary citizens who favored Nixon's policies.
Businesses and their trade associations sometimes use astroturfing to advance their interests. The National Smokers Alliance was an astroturfing group funded by the tobacco industry to oppose regulation of tobacco products.
In 2001, the Los Angeles Times accused Microsoft of astroturfing when hundreds of similar letters were sent to newspapers voicing disagreement with the United States Department of Justice and its antitrust suit against Microsoft. The letters, prepared by Americans for Technology Leadership, had in some cases been delivered via a mailing list to deceased people or incorrect addresses, where the recipients forwarded them without correction.
In 2002, The Guardian newspaper revealed the philosopher Roger Scruton had offered to place pro-tobacco opinion pieces in major newspapers and magazines in return for a £5500 fee paid by Japan Tobacco International.
Astroturfing regulations in India
In India, acts of negative Astroturfing (posting of online adverse, prejudicial, malicious, slanderous, disparaging material, comments or reviews) would constitute a criminal offence of defamation and is punishable with fine or imprisonment or both under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Sections 499‚ 500). The provisions of Section 469 and 503 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 may also be applicable depending on the facts and circumstances of the case. The provisions of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2008 provide for an offence of defamation committed through the medium of the internet and which is also punishable with fine or imprisonment or both. Cases of negative Astroturfing may also constitute an act of "unfair trade practice" (a trade practice, which, for the purpose of promoting any sale, use or supply of any goods or services, adopts unfair methods, or unfair or deceptive practices)under the applicable provisions of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. It is always open for an aggrieved party affected by negative Astroturfing to approach a competent Court to seek an injunction for preventing an act of negative astroturfing and seek relief in the form of monetary compensation or damages.
Astroturfing is by and large considered to be an unethical and illegal business/commercial practice as it does not portray the true and correct views & opinions of a consumer, and in fact tends to mislead the community into believing something that might not be accurate at all. Unfortunately it is a practice adopted by many large organizations and associations and in the absence of deterring legislations preventing its otherwise rampant recourse and use, astroturfing is here to stay.