Autumn 2017 / Leading Edge
Astroturfing

The practice of faking a grassroots movement gets an update in the age of social media


Illustration of an astroturf.

Illustration: Vanda Marasan.

In the mid-1990s, an organization called the National Smokers’ Alliance sprung up in the U.S. to fight new laws to restrict smoking. Although the group seemed to have been started by disgruntled smokers, it had, in fact, been created by Philip Morris Tobacco.

By masking its role in what seemed to be a grassroots movement, the company was “astroturfing.” Used by corporations to influence public policy, the practice is now being employed to get people to buy products, says Jenna Jacobson, a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Information. Companies identify social media “influencers” and pay them to promote their brands to followers. Not all influencers disclose the relationship, though – hence: astroturfing. “One objection is that audiences are being duped,” she says.


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