Digital Astroturfing as Corporate Propaganda

Source: photograph by author – klikauer@gmail.com

We might understand Astroturfing as a right-wing propaganda or a corporate public relation (PR) activity masking the true backers behind a seemingly innocent looking online message or organisation, pretending to be ordinary people engaged in a social activity or protest.

The hidden organization of Digital Astroturfing can be either political (the Republican party, Tea Party, MAGA, etc.); it can be corporate advertising (a corporation); it can be religious (pretending to support a ban on abortion, for example), or it can even be straight forward corporate public relations. The raison d’être of Astroturfing is to make such engagement, protest, and support appear as if it originates from grassroots participants.

Astroturfing also intends to give their statements credibility by withholding information about the true source and – perhaps more importantly – the financial connection into the corporate world. Astroturfing comes from Astroturf – a brand of synthetic carpet resembling natural grass. It is not real but should look real – just like Astroturfing. The implication is that instead of a true and natural grassroots effort, it is fake and artificial.

Astroturfing also seeks to mobilize a sympathetic public creating the image of public consensus where there is none. It is purely a propaganda tool and is often funded by corporations.

On online platforms, Astroturfers use sophisticated software to disguise their corporate identities. In worse cases, a single individual operates through many personalities. This should aid the notion of widespread public support. Yet, in terms of propaganda and public relation, Astroturfing can help to change public viewpoints.

Obviously, online platforms made it much simpler for corporate lobbyists to activate Astroturf groups that create an exaggerated importance in the public’s perception.

Worse, Astroturfing accounts on online platforms do not even require a real person to write online posts. Astroturfing can operate with human-looking bot accounts used to post political content. They can operate automatically for days while creating and sending numerous posts – often before being detected and suspended by an online provider.

In recent years, many instances of such fake grassroots activities on online platforms have been uncovered. A typology of Digital Astroturfing would include three aspects: the target audience, the hidden actor, and the corporate or right-wing goals of Astroturfing.

With the setting up of the World Wide Web, there were high hopes that it would provide a tool to enhance democracy. Moreover, the World Wide Web would allow everyone access to politically relevant information far easier than ever before. And it was seen as being ideal for participative or deliberative democracy.

Unfortunately, the relative ease of engaging via online platforms also makes it easy to undermine democratic discourse. And one version of propaganda that undermines democracy is indeed Astroturfing. Online users who are not what they pretend to be, do that in order to ruse real people into the opposite direction of what they hoped to achieve. Such fake online users are not interested in participating in rational political discourse. They are simply interested in propaganda. They seek to manipulate democracy according to the corporate goals they are pursuing.

Yet historically, this is not an entirely new tool. Online Astroturfing and fake grassroots campaigns have been created for right-wing political actors and businesses. Yet, Astroturfing on online platforms differs from traditional propaganda methods. Digital Astroturfing is way cheaper, it has a greater scope and can reach more people, and more effective than traditional Astroturfing.

Digital Astroturfing is an inherently deceptive and manipulative political activity that is detrimental to democracy and to democratic decision-making. So, what is online or Digital Astroturfing?

Digital Astroturfing is a pre-manufactured, deceptive, manipulative, and strategic top-down activity that takes place on the Internet. Digital Astroturfing is always initiated by a corporate-political actor that impersonates a bottom-up, democratic, and grassroot activity pretending to be created by autonomous individuals.

In other words, Digital Astroturfing needs five settings:

1) Digital Astroturfing always takes place on the Internet via an online platform;

2) it is initiated by a corporate or political actor or both: the corporate-political actor;

3) it is deliberately manufactured to achieve a political propaganda goal;

4) it is always deceptive, manipulative while hiding its true intentions; and finally,

5) Digital Astroturfing is always strategic, i.e. it does not occur spontaneously, but is deliberately planned – often involving two actors: a corporation and an external PR agency.

Furthermore, Digital Astroturfing is always manufactured, and therefore, is not an honest expression of autonomous individuals. It is created to pretend such an honest expression. Moreover, it tricks a target audience – usually the public into believing that the manufactured activity is real.

It is always strategic and planned because Astroturf actors, such as corporations, corporate PR agencies, right-wing political parties, etc. pursue certain corporate and political goals. In other words, Digital Astroturfing is always a top-down method. It is always designed at the top of an organisation like a corporate lobbying firm, a corporate PR firm, etc.

Simultaneously, Digital Astroturfing always pretends to be bottom-up, i.e. coming from a grassroots organisation, from citizen protests, etc. Consequently, the Astroturfing imposters are performing tasks on behalf of a corporate or political actor. In short, Digital Astroturfing is a means to an end.

A politician or a PR agency might create a number of fake Twitter accounts with which they would then follow their own, real accounts. This allows for the pretence that this account is highly popular. It is the simulation of popularity where no such recognition exists. Yet, even in such a scenario, the distinction between who initiates the Digital Astroturfing is obviously strictly separate from how the digital Astroturfing is actually performed.

In this, the origin of Digital Astroturfing rests with corporate or political actors that pursue certain goals by engaging in Digital Astroturfing. Yet, the technical means of actually carrying out Digital Astroturfing is separate from those corporate and political actors. In that way, a corporation like Exxon, for example, appears disconnected from Digital Astroturfing. Until someone can prove a link between Exxon and the external PR agency hired to set up the Digital Astroturfing act.

This means that Digital Astroturfing use paid agents to create – falsely – the impression of a popular sentiment. In any case, Astroturfing is Astroturfing – no matter where it takes place. Yet, Digital Astroturfing differs from regular Astroturfing. Digital Astroturfing only takes places on online platforms. By comparison, in regular Astroturfing we find real corporate and political actors. These are physically present as real actors and real corporations.

Often the term interest group is used to camouflage the most common forms of interest groups –corporations and employer interest groups. In this context, corporate interest groups are concerned with political goals while simultaneously pretending to be non-political and strictly commercial. In practice, such a faking of online consumer reviews is designed to make one’s products appear more popular than it actually is.

However, this type of deceptive online activity by commercial interest groups is “not” Digital Astroturfing because the goal of this is “not” political but commercial. Digital Astroturfing is about persuading a target audience, that is, the general public – not individual customers of a product.

There are, roughly speaking, two goals of Digital Astroturfing: a) support for or opposition to a public policy like, for example, measures to fight global warming; and b) support for or opposition to political or corporate actors.

Corporate and political actors engaged in Digital Astroturfing seek to influence public opinions or specific political actors regarding certain policy issues. The goal of Digital Astroturfing is to get other people to support their own position. In other case, the goal is to oppose the position of other political actors such as, for example, Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, etc.

When corporate actors pursue this goal, they do so in order to fake public support for themselves. In other cases, they will make other political actors – like Extinction Rebellion – appear unpopular. This can involve what is known as online trolling. Trolling is a malicious, disruptive and disinhibiting online activity initiated by individuals often working like propaganda. Trolling often also appears as a socially coordinated activity. Still, Astroturfing is completely separate from online. Digital Astroturfing is a deceptive effort aimed at the public and launched by corporate or political actors. Yet, there can still be a connection between trolling and Digital Astroturfing.

There are cases of Digital Astroturfing in which the deceptive act takes the form of online trolling. In these cases, online trolling takes place as an inauthentic but manufactured and strategically planned act.

In the end, one might like to remember that Digital Astroturfing is always a means to an end. All Digital Astroturfing is also always a clandestine activity. Ideally, and if conducted successfully, we will never know that it has been taking place. This is the true beauty of Digital Astroturfing.

Most importantly, the less sophisticated a Digital Astroturfing is constructed, the less probable it is that the effort will have the propaganda impact intended by the corporate actor lurking behind Digital Astroturfing. Worse for Digital Astroturfing, when people become aware of the manipulative attempt, they tend to reject such manipulations. People, in fact, react highly negative towards the corporations that initiated the Digital Astroturfing.

Therefore, it remains vital to uncover the Digital Astroturfing carried about by corporations. Today, most cases of un-masking Digital Astroturfing have in fact been done by investigative journalists. Their work is highly treasured. It is highly unlikely to expect corporations capable of destroying the planet through global warming to come up with an admission of guilt when billions of dollars of corporate profits are at stake.

After all, and just as the UN’s Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (almost) said at what Greta Thunberg calls the blah-blah-blah festival – also known as COP27 that took place in the luxury resort of Sharm El-Sheikh in November 2022 – they have put us on a highway to climate hell with their foot still on the accelerator.

These corporations have made it possible that the earth and humanity are moving towards what has been outlined by a New Yorker cartoon. It showed a man and three children sitting by a little fire in a cave. The caption reads,

yes, the planet got destroyed.
But for a beautiful moment in time,
we created a lot of value for shareholders.

Until some – and actually very few – of us will sit in that cave, beautiful shareholder value will be made and – perhaps even worse – Digital Astroturfing will continue to be with us.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (Palgrave, 2013).