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‘Astroturfing’ and the rise of misinformation campaigns

Posted at 3:18 PM, Jan 28, 2021

CHICAGO — Despite the natural urge to gravitate toward information that reinforces our own views, most agree that people genuinely want to be well-informed. But in recent years, campaigns by corporations, lobbyists and political operatives sowing division and suspicion have become a common problem.

Soon after the coronavirus pandemic began, small anti-stay-at-home protests erupted in dozens of states around the country.

“When things appear to be spontaneous and exciting, and especially, they're happening all over the country, that tends to gain a lot of media attention,” said Edward Walker, a UCLA sociology professor and author of Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy.

But many of these protests that appeared to be generated spontaneously were in fact manufactured by well-funded organizations. The practice is known as “astroturfing.”

“Astroturfing is an effort to mobilize the mass public in a way that distances that mobilization from the person who is sponsoring it or the organization that's sponsoring it,” explained Walker.

While fake grassroots campaigns have been utilized for decades, some experts trace the first documented case of astroturfing on social media to South Korea in 2012.

“A lot of astroturfing campaigns have been all over the Internet,” said JungHwan Yang, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose research focuses on data science and political communication. “It's not just on Twitter or Facebook. It's on Wikipedia. It's on a forum and everywhere.”

A study from Princeton University found that “there were at least 53 such influence efforts targeting 24 countries around the world from 2013 to 2018.”

“These campaigns really do try to cover their tracks,” said Walker. “They can often do so very effectively. Even the website domains that they use can be registered privately such that you can't tell who's behind it.”

Multiple cybersecurity firms investigated the “Reopen America” movement, finding that domains were being batch registered within seconds of each other.

They were subsequently traced back to state-based firearms coalitions, and ultimately, to a pro-gun Iowa family.

“Once a couple of accounts become really popular, they can gather thousands of followers, and then, they can use that platform to spread disinformation,” said Yang.

Experts say it’s difficult to identify astroturfing campaigns without deep cyber forensics.

“We're essentially pointing a fire hose of information at people all the time and expecting them to do a lot of heavy lifting and sifting,” said Stephanie Craft, head of the Department of Journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “That seems to be a lot to ask.”

One way to do that, she says, is to watch for messaging that strikes a nerve or sparks an immediate visceral response.

“The fact that you're having that emotional reaction means it's time to stop and think about what that message is trying to do,” said Craft.

Experts say it’s important to vet sources as much as possible. Look at account history, language and messaging. Just because an issue appears to have an organic groundswell of support doesn’t mean the strings aren’t being by pulled by a concealed group.

This week is News Literacy Week, and the E.W. Scripps Company has teamed up with the News Literacy Foundation to help you battle misinformation.