Monday, February 25, 2013

Astro-tweeting has Arrived

About 20 years ago, a not uncommon term in PR circles was “Astroturf,” which was used to describe campaigns that feature a master draft of a letter that is then distributed to various individuals who then put their own signatures to the letters to send to their congressional representatives, regulators or even the media.

While corporations weren’t innocent of this practice, the most common types of organizations that employed such tactics were special interest activist organizations. 

With the dawn of the Internet, or more specifically search engines the practice of “Astroturfing” became much more discoverable and subsequently less effective.

The one thing that more often than not was true, however, was that real people signed those letters, expressing sentiments that they personally supported.

Enter the age of social media and the “Astro-tweet.”  Some organizations have found a way to use Twitter to create the perception that a certain position on an issue has strong popular support.

Here’s how it works.  An activist organization wants to create the perception that its cause is receiving popular support as evidenced by an explosion of social media commentary.  Twitter is one of the most common vehicles for this.

Publicly, the organization calls on the public to “tweet” their congressional reps and senators on the issue.  But the congressional reps’ staffs notice that the vast majority of the tweets they are receiving are eerily similar.  In fact more than similar, but they are exactly the same. 

In Washington, staff members who have begun to investigate the tweets they get are finding that in fact, a large number are not from real people but are delivered to them from fake, computer-generated “spambots.”    Anyone who uses Twitter is familiar with some of these fake personas online. 

If you look at the Twitter “user’s” profile, tell-tale signs are that they have not had any interaction with other people, and their tweets are in fact robot-like in the way information is posted.  Another way to detect a fake is to examine who “follows” the tweeter, and who the tweeter follows.  If it’s fake, you’ll likely see an obvious pattern that reveals the type of organization, if not the organization itself, that is behind the social media spam campaign.

While “Astroturfing” was never something in which I engaged, in light of this latest trend, there is something nostalgic at the thought that at least Astroturfers were usually real people who believed in the letters they sent, even if they didn’t write them. 

Astro-tweeters, on the other hand, aren’t even real people, but their creators are. 

Keep this in mind the next time you see a story about an organization or person under siege from a deluge of tweets that seem designed to paint the target as going against popular opinion.  Thanks to “Astro-tweeting,” there is a chance that just a handful of people are behind those thousands of tweets. 

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