My experience with Social Media is pretty recent and so I spend as much time as I can reading. It helps me understand these hugely popular online spaces that are part of Social Media and how they can provide companies an opportunity to meet and sell to customers in a virtual world. As a budding content writer, it also helps me refine my writing skills.
Recently while browsing the net, I stumbled upon this word called ‘Astroturfing’. A company in the US offering a facelift was hauled up by the office of the Attorney General of NY for Astroturfing and in a first of its kind in US history was fined $ 300,000!, yes you can let out a low whistle like I did. Gosh, did the facelift company go bust? Apparently not, and quiet a few people felt that $ 300,000 was a small price for Astroturfing and the company had actually got off lightly!
What is Astroturfing
So what is Astroturfing, even my American English MS Word shows it up with a red line under it. No, its not synthetic grass, as most of us thought. According to Wikipedia Astroturfing is “formal political, advertising, or public relations campaigns seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous “grassroots” behavior”. “The goal of such a campaign is to disguise the efforts of a political or commercial entity as an independent public reaction to some political entity—a politician, political group, product, service or event. Astroturfers attempt to orchestrate the actions of apparently diverse and geographically distributed individuals, by both overt (“outreach”, “awareness”, etc.) and covert (disinformation) means. Astroturfing may be undertaken by an individual pushing a personal agenda or highly organized professional groups with financial backing from large corporations, non-profits, or activist organizations. Very often the efforts are conducted by political consultants who also specialize in opposition research.”
Ah, now I understand. In Social Media, we work with a range of channels, like, Social Networking sites, Micro Blogs, Social Bookmarking sites, Video sites, Picture sharing sites, Blogs etc. The internet offers an excellent shroud of anonymity, and it is rather easy for marketers to participate in these channels under pseudo names. Pseudo names give both the Social Media Company and their Client more leeway to promote their products or engage in Online Reputation Management, with much less responsibility, should they so desire.
The Absence of Legislation regarding Astroturfing in India
Since I work in India, I have had the opportunity to see Indian companies vying for clients in Europe and the US, with the pressure to outbid competitors the marketing managers may sometimes promise the client results that are not quiet possible to achieve within a short duration of time, and so the strong urge to Astroturf ones way to targets.
Secondly, Social Media is still a new concept in India; it is yet to be professionalized with a strong set of ethical guidelines. Here, the internet still has an ‘unrealism’ associated with it, such that it permits marketers to do activity with the feeling that they are not being watched, or that they cannot be tracked. Thus when an outsourcing company gets unreasonable with its requests, managers in a Social Media Company may not accurately understand the consequences of their commitment and thus may not lay out the right arguments against Astroturfing.
Yet, as the internet begins to penetrate through India and Social Media is making waves, it is time for social marketers, both in their corporate and individual capacity to come together and determine the parameters of their work. While I understand that Astroturfing is a fairly well defined concept in countries like the US, it is important to bring the debate around it to India so that as a practice and ethical concept it develops deep roots.
Why Astroturfing is a Bad Idea
Astroturfing and ethical parameters need to be discussed and adopted in the Social Media sector in India for numerous reasons
- Astroturfing harms the outsourcing company – I was reading an incident wherein a marketer was discovered as representing a company and that he was Astroturfing. The website immediately took down the article posted by the marketer and a discussion ensured online on the ethical lapse. Obviously this made for poor publicity, not just for the company written about but the Social Media Company too. Such negative content (like positive content) remains on the internet; it is accessed and referred to for years to come. Obviously the Social Marketing effort proved counterproductive and a huge waste of resources in this case.
- Astroturfing harms the Social Media Company – Social Media companies are already known to engage in a certain amount of Astroturfing, and this shadow follows them. Being singled out and discussed online for a lapse of ethics can only adds to their problem. Social Media companies in India are already facing stiff competition if not from other countries then definitely among themselves. Taking a stand against Astroturfing can give a company an edge over competitors.
- Astroturfing reflects a poor understanding of the Social Media space –Social Media is a way to meet potential clients on their own turf. Companies are online because their customers are comfortable with the online space and spend a lot of time there. Companies are online also because it is becoming increasingly cheaper to advertise online than through traditional methods. The online space allows for dialogue and discussion. If a company produces quality products and is known for that, their clients will invariably be speaking positively about them online, if not they wont. So it may make sense to go back to basic, “focus on your core areas”.
- It’s unethical – Astroturfing is misrepresentation and misleading and so the lack of ethics in this practice cannot be disputed.
What are we looking at by way of Solutions
OK, as mentioned in the beginning of this article I’m only just beginning to develop an understanding on Astroturfing and still have limited experience with Social Media and so, these are just my amateur ideas of possible solutions. Please feel free to correct me and add to the suggestions below
Some ways to avoid Astroturfing
- Go as a Company Representative– instead of using pseudo names, it is best for Social Media companies to go in as Company representatives. This ensures that both, Social Media Companies and their client act responsibly. There is no scope for temptation to Astroturf here.
- Set Realistic Expectations with the Client – Social Media Companies in India must set realistic expectations with their foreign clients. What is not achievable and ethical in the US or Europe is not achievable and unethical else where. The rule is as simple as that.
While some companies can come to India and engage in unethical practices like Astroturfing, it’s only a matter of time before laws are put in place and the system catches up with them. Till then, the best solution would be to PLAY FAIR.