Many people may be aware of internet users coming onto websites and forums, pretending to be ordinary, but are in fact pushing an agenda. Sometimes this is fairly harmless, like when a pop-manager goes onto a music website to hype-up their singers. However, most of the world is unaware of a growing industry in which teams using sophisticated software programmes are paid to sit at their computers for hours on end, infiltrating online communities to promote their client’s agenda.
This is known as astroturf campaigns, where online grassroots movements are faked. When seemingly thousands have taken to the net to support or oppose a policy, brand or idea, in reality such a response has been generated by a small team working in the same offices.
George Monbiot has been exposing such activities for years now through the Guardian and through his blog. The usual suspects appear to be political groups, climate change deniers, tobacco and alcohol companies.
A study from two years ago shows that such tactics has a significant impact on online communities. When the research group traced recurrent terms and phrases for describing climate change scientists they could be traced back to the posts of users who had essentially spammed several internet websites with the same message. Posts which stated that they worried about the trustworthiness of climate change scientists were echoed in many posts thereafter.
While it’s important for community managers to respect the autonomy of its members, such insidious forms of what could be loosely described as community management are worth remaining vigilant for.