A few years ago the terms “astroturfing” and “sockpuppeting” were quirky social media names, although the concept of astroturfing actually pre-dates today’s social media. These tactics (definition below) have long been a mainstay of American political party tactics and sometimes in other democratic nations. For the most part these political weapons were used to shape perceptions in mass media and then social media so it would seem a large number of people supported an issue or at least to attempt to re-frame an issue in the target audiences mind. As we at MediaBadger conduct a fair bit of public policy and stakeholder issues analysis in social media, we’ve been tracking the use of these tactics for the past four years.
An Increase in Sockpuppeting & Astroturfing
Reviewing 30 reports from the past three years (2010 to 2013) where we provided analysis of the use of these tactics, we have seen a 47% increase in the use of sockpuppeting and astroturfing in social media and news media websites where we have a 85% or higher confidence level in their use. We have a set of criteria we apply under review by human analysts to determine if these tactics are in play.
Business Has Picked Up These Political Tools
No longer are these tactics the domain of just political parties either. We’ve noted increased use of these tactics by large corporations and sometimes smaller businesses. When it comes to businesses using these tactics it is usually to drive down search engine and social media results/content of competitors or as a tactic to promote a specific product. Some larger corporations, such as those in the extractive resources sector may also be using them (or their hired PR firms) to attempt to sway citizen opinions on matters of public policy that impact mega projects.
Non-Profits, Unions Are Engaging
NGO’s and NPO’s too seem to have picked up on this tactic. Usually it seems to be when they are involved in a campaign where they are attempting to sway citizen opinion regarding an issue of interest. Especially when it may involve legislation impacting them.
Shaping The Narrative
As we’ve indicated before in our blog posts and research findings, once a “myth” that starts online spreads and gets picked up by mass news media, it can become the narrative. Using sockpuppeting and astroturfing can be an effective way to attempt to change that narrative, or to create an alternate myth that may become reality.
Can You Monitor Social Media for These Tactics?
If a social media monitoring term claims it can, we would strongly recommend taking a very close look at their analytics software. We’re working on this problem within our own software team, providing three years of data to train the system. So far, accuracy is proving difficult and right now it takes a combination of technology and humans.
But at the end of the day, these tactics seem to be on the increase. Being aware of them is key and ensuring your organisation is considering them in analysing social media is becoming increasingly important to develop strategies of engagement.
Definitions of Sockpuppeting & Astroturfing
As promised we provide a definition, naturally from a crowdsource tool, Wikipedia;