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AstroTurf and sockpuppets

Published:Wednesday | October 22, 2014 | 4:07 PMTony Deyal

Anyone who ever played on artificial grass, known as AstroTurf, knows that if you fall, skate or trip on the stuff, you get badly burnt and bruised, and it takes long to heal. This is not the major reason that the practice of masking the real originators or sponsors of a message to make it look like it came from grass-roots or ordinary people is known as 'Astroturfing', but it does add the pain factor.

Increasingly, political, religious, advertising and public-relations organisations are going underground to disguise where their messages really come from or who is the actual sponsor, source or financier. It is a practice intended to give the statements or organisations more credibility by withholding information about the source's financial connection. When they do that, they are 'Astroturfing'. The word is apt since it is named after 'AstroTurf', a brand of fake or synthetic carpeting which is supposed to look and feel like natural grass. So when you make people believe your message is grass roots and not corporate, you are not just Astroturfing, you are playing the grass, big time.

According to Campaigns & Elections, Astroturfing is "a grass-roots programme that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them."

Astroturfers now abound on the Internet, especially on social media, where many of them use software to hide their identity. In fact, you can buy or lease software, which gives you thousands of identities that are capable of fooling the Facebook gatekeepers. This makes it easy for one person to operate many personas and give the impression of big-time and widespread support for a candidate or party.

There is some evidence to suggest that Astroturfing can make a difference in public perception and action. During the political silly season, already beginning big time in Trinidad and elsewhere in the region, every blogger seems to be trying to make the playing field less than level so when ordinary people, especially prospective voters, think they are capturing nuggets of solid information, the reality is that they are really catching their AstroTurf in huge quantities.

I have a little game I play to see if I can spot the AstroTurf on Facebook and letters to the editor. While in other countries, especially in the US and Britain, newspapers make an effort to determine that the writer is a real person, there is no such thing in Trinidad. You see a letter with 'E. Smith', which is 'sent by email', or you see names and even the most cursory of checks on social media show that the person or address does not exist.

There is some evidence to suggest that newspaper editors sometimes write the 'letters to the editor' themselves. I remember a friend who went to carry a letter from the prime minister to one of the Trinidad newspapers and found the editor, a very respectable lady whose career as a journalist spanned many decades, writing a letter to the editor to justify an editorial she had just written.

In addition to Astroturfing, there is the phenomenon of what is called the 'sockpuppet'. Wikipedia explains that this happens when a single person creates multiple identities online to give the appearance of grass-roots support. In other words, it is an online identity used to deceive the ordinary person.

"Sockpuppets may post positive reviews about a product, attack participants that criticise the organisation, or post negative reviews and comments about competitors, under fake identities. Astroturfing businesses may pay staff based on the number of posts they make that are not flagged by moderators. Persona management software may be used so that each paid poster can manage five to 70 convincing online personas without getting them confused."

The term came from the use of a sock to make a hand puppet which can be manipulated to look like if it talks or behave like a human. The practice started on the Internet but now includes all misleading uses of online or newspaper, magazine and media identities used to 'praise, defend or support a person or organisation'.

While many people use pseudonyms in the newspapers, the major difference between using a pseudonym and giving voice and life to a sockpuppet is that the sockpuppet deliberately intends to deceive by posing as an unaffiliated individual who is not associated with the puppeteer and gives the impression that it is a real, genuine person with strong views on a subject. Obviously the sockpuppet not just smells, but sucks.

Then there is the 'meatpuppet'. Wikipedia cites a 2006 article in 'The Chronicle of Higher Education' which defined a meatpuppet as "a peculiar inhabitant of the digital world - a fictional character that passes for a real person online." In that sense, a 'meatpuppet' and a 'sockpuppet' are not vastly dissimilar.

The practice, though, is widespread.

An Ohio newspaper caught one of President Obama's sockpuppets, someone known as Ellie Light, sending identical 'letters to the editor' to a dozen national newspapers using the same name but different addresses. There is overwhelming evidence that Astroturfers helped to defeat President Clinton's proposed health-care reform through a front group called Rx Partners, which was created by a public-relations firm and the Coalition for Health Insurance Choices.

Another was used to oppose restrictions on smoking in public places through a front group called National Smokers Alliance, which was created by a global public-relations firm. Astroturfers were even used to encourage people to buy Coke.

In the Bible, Isaiah (40:6) says, "All flesh is grass and its beauty is like the flower of the field." Those days have passed and all flesh is now Astroturf, and its beauty, if you call it that, is that it can be legion.

* Tony Deyal was last seen saying that with all these fake people writing letters to the editor and on Facebook, he is more confused than a cow on AstroTurf.