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Astroturfing – a nuisance, or a brave new world of activism?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently said that the government has allegedly received numerous emails demanding it to lower property prices, or face voter pull-out at the next election. However, it was deduced that these emails were the effort of astroturfing, as a number of such writers have purportedly “borrowed” the identity of real-life grassroots leaders to mount the campaign.

Is the claim valid? Honestly, we can never be sure. With all due respect to the Prime Minister, detecting astroturfing is minimally about deduction, mostly about a hunch. Personally, I thank the article for piquing my interest in the term, as I would normally have mistaken it with a purely online activity – astro, cyberspace, turf ‘n’ surf, get it?

It got me intrigued enough to start searching for a proper definition. To this end, Wikipedia, which basically covers just about everything but the kitchen sink, did the job:

“Astroturfing is an English-language term referring to political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but designed to mask its origins to create the impression of being spontaneous, popular "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, unions, non-profits, or activist organizations.”

This differs from what the Straits Times provided, which defined it as:

“…the creation of a fake grassroots movement to suggest more people feel strongly about an issue than is actually the case. Astroturf [sic] often involves genuine views held by several persons who go on to rope in others to express and multiply these views with little effort by creating templates they can adapt. It seeks to give the impression of a groundswell of opinion.”

The key differences between the two definitions are:

1) The Straits Times defined astroturfing as a numbers game, while Wikipedia alludes to the strength of influence, even with lesser numbers.

2) The Straits Times suggested that astroturfing often takes the form of the use and re-use of templates, while Wikipedia broadens it to include both the creation of false witnesses, as well as the consolidation/rallying of genuine but otherwise obscure support for a cause, both which might or might not use a prepared script or letter.

3) The Straits Times article has – wittingly, conveniently or otherwise – conflated the definition of “grassroots” with that of grassroots leaders that PM Lee noted, while “grassroots” as defined in Wikipedia is more general, meaning “from the ground up”.

And if you prefer a more succinct definition, take your pick from Urban Dictionary.

Essentially, if you trust the “less reliable online UGC source of information” over the “credible and factual” traditional media – well, uneducated, mouse-click-happy blokes like me tend to do that – you would arrive at a broader definition of the term.

My view: More accurately, astroturfing is an effort by any group that is not in a position of power, leveraging visibility at an appropriate platform of influence, to pressure those in power to act in their interest. The activities are not necessarily restricted to an online campaign, but could also involve advertising and public relations. The intended zone of influence is not restricted to politics or public policy, but can be commercial (e.g. spreading rumours of a faulty product to cause disrepute to a company).

Given the rather narrow definition presented by the government and the Straits Times, it is little wonder that online commentators have alleged that:

1) Sending template letters does not mean the common view given is not genuine.

2) Sidelining potentially genuine sentiment by labelling it as astroturfing, rather than entertaining the possibility that it could be real, encourages “selective tunnel vision” that focuses policy makers away from the real issues.

3) The ruling party also engages in astroturfing on their own, with Young People’s Action Party opinion seeders cited as an example.

I would rather not dwell too much on these arguments, but instead relate my experience as an astroturfer, or the “victim/willingly coerced party” of an astroturfing campaign, and hopefully provide what has been lacking – an alternative, insider view of such efforts, measured against the definition you did not see in the news.

When Genting Group – developer of Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) – first announced its intent to build a whale shark exhibit in its Integrated Resort bid in 2006, the local marine conservation community, a small but highly vocal bunch, expressed strong dissent in the local media and blogosphere. I was part of that public conversation.

But I was also part of another dimension of this opposition – the astroturfing variant. An activist group set-up a website that generated an automated petition to RWS, created as an individual email for each supporter of the cause. All I had to do was enter my email and click the send button. There was an option to modify the letter as I liked, but it was really social activism in five seconds.

I was impressed – you could imagine the flood of letters that greeted RWS public relations officers every day. But technology cuts both ways – RWS too was well-equipped. I immediately received an automated reply from RWS acknowledging receipt of my email, together with the usual spiel about them “looking into it”.

Shortly thereafter, RWS decided to can the whale shark exhibit. We will never know if it was the tirade to the local media or the blatantly obvious astroturfing that caused the result, as RWS cited only commercial interest for the change of mind.

I learnt a lot about environmental conservation then, but there was another conclusion I drew from the experience that I wish to relate: Astroturfing, for all its ills, is really another mean by which we make our opinions known.

The intent behind astroturfing might not always be malicious, despite what the Straits Times suggested. In addition, the RWS example suggests that “turf wars” are already in existence, where organisations have the ability to fight back using tit-for-tat technology, rendering such efforts irritating at best, futile at worst.

In this day and age, it might be better to associate astroturfing with aggressive lobbying, rather than as a clandestine black propaganda operation. In this view, power holders must not be obsessed with deducing whether a particular chain of spam should be classified as an astroturfing campaign, to be ignored or countered with its own tactics, but rather to view it as a valid, albeit aggressive, piece of the overall public conversation that goes on in our pluralistic society.

Failure to do so is a failure to acknowledge that relationships between society, traditional media and the power elite are neither what they used to be. Singaporeans are increasingly adept at using social networks to mobilise like-minded people to campaign for a cause. Traditional means like writing to forum pages are no longer sufficiently expedient, and alternative means can be just as effective if not more so. In addition, there is less apprehension for direct engagement with the powers that be – even going so far as to tell them in the face that they are disliked and why.

My suggestion to the authorities is: get used to it, get thicker skin, or get up and react positively. The astroturf is no longer as cleanly manicured as it used to be.

By Howard Lee

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Picture from LA Progressive.