Have you ever been researching something and you click on a website that looks like it has some real information and public feedback in it? You begin reading and something doesn’t seem quite right. Even though the website is supposed to have public input and comments, it seems more like a public service announcement for the company or organization you are researching. Before you leave the site, you say to yourself, “What’s up with this site?” Have you ever thought that it could be a site set up by people who are Astroturfing? Unless you are familiar with the word, you probably won’t be thinking in those terms.
So what is Astroturfing? Wikipedia defines it like this: “Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants.” In other words, it is an artificial site set up by the organization or company in order to promote their views. Think of it this way: You are looking up the efficacy of a certain drug. You don’t want to go to the manufacture’s site and so you click on another site that talks about the drug. It has testimonials promoting the drug and its efficacy. Because of the statements of the people, you are inclined to try the drug because so many people are talking about the positive results they had when they took it.
What you don’t know is that the site was set up by the manufacturer of the drug and that the testimonials were not written by real users of the drug. They were written by people hired by the company in order to promote the drug and get you to buy it! Does it really happen that way? Astroturfing happens every day of the week. As the definition stated: political parties, religions, companies, and people promoting certain issues will create a site in order to skew people in favor of what they are promoting. Sounds unethical doesn’t it? But is it illegal?
On the face of it, Astroturfing is not illegal. However, once it has come to light that the site is, in fact a false front for the company or organization, it can possibly be fined for illegal business practices. Has someone suffered irreparable harm because of the information on the site? There may be a cause for action there also.
Astroturfing, as disingenuous as it is, comes in other forms also. A company may send in their own people to a public hearing and take up all of the seats in the room so that there is no room for dissenters. It is used by organizations to stack the deck against the opposition and stifle dissent. If you look closely, you can find it in lots of arenas.
As writers and researchers, we can be incensed about sites and information that has been Astroturfed.But when it comes to reviews, we also have to be careful that we are not Astroturfing. Reviewtracker.com defines Astroturfing this way: “Astroturfing is the practice of preparing or disseminating a false or deceptive review that a reasonable consumer would believe to be a neutral third-party testimonial…On the surface, this practice is simply unethical but not necessarily damaging for those reading the review, and certainly not illegal.” In other words, if most of our reviews are written by our friends and family and are not written by unbiased consumers, people will not get an objective opinion about our product. We are, in fact, Astroturfing!
In the end, whether seeking truth or disseminating it, one has to ask oneself, “Is it real or is it Astroturf?