Astroturfing – keep off the fake grass

Astroturfing has hit the headlines recently. It’s where people claim to be giving genuine grassroots opinion or support when they are actually fake.

It’s a shoddy practice, and while not a purely online phenomenon, is no doubt compounded by the explosion in user generated content and the option to remain anonymous or hide behind a pseudonym afforded to online commentary.

For some people and organisations, the temptation to use social media to pose as independent commentators to post positive opinions about themselves or their products (known as sockpuppetry)  - or post negative comments about competitors - appears to have proved too strong to resist.

Alex Wade wrote about astroturfing last month in The Guardian, citing an eminent history professor caught out posting critical reviews on Amazon about rival historian’s work. Wade also states that: “In the travel sector especially, the problem has grown to epidemic proportions. Allegations of dirty tricks abound on quality review websites as hotel and restaurants use the sites to attack rivals or boost their own ratings by posting fake reviews.”

Wade statement was prescient. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) adjudicated yesterday that the website TripAdvisor’s claims that it carried “Reviews you can trust” and “Reviews from real travellers” are misleading. The ASA has told TripAdvisor not to claim or imply that all the reviews that appeared on the website were from real travellers, or were honest, real or trusted.

Addressing astroturfing in Public Relations and the Social Web, Rob Brown states: “Apart from being unethical … it is likely that you will be found out. This will create significant damage for your brand or organisation.”

And if that wasn’t enough, exposed astroturfers may also find themselves prosecuted under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.

The message is clear: keep off the fake grass.

Photo: Day 100, 365, KEEP OFF THE GRASSby Andreas-Photography via Flickr

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5 comments

    1. Thanks Ben, and you’re absolutely right about the more serious and malignant side of how people and organisations can and do use social media. One of those issues that people don’t like to think about, but just cannot ignore, especially in the contexts you cite.

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