Online astroturfing

 

Early online astroturfing: The Bivings Group

For many companies, the internet, and especially social networking, is one huge publicity machine, ready and waiting to be used for profit. Fake marketing proliferates on social networking platforms. But the corporate infiltration of online discussions can be more insidious. Online astroturfing – advocacy in support of a political or corporate agenda which masquerades as a grassroots or disinterested opinion (derived from the brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass) – is nothing new. For instance, Bivings Group had a long history of manipulating internet discussions in order to promote the interests of its corporate clients. The PR company explains how its methods work in an article entitled ''Viral Marketing: How to Infect the World':

''there are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organisation is directly involved... Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party... Perhaps the greatest advantage of viral marketing is that your message is placed into a context where it is more likely to be considered seriously.”[1]

 

(The article was drastically edited after the story broke in the UK, and the advice for companies to hide their true identity was removed.)[2]

The Bivings Group employed these techniques most notably for biotechnology giant Monsanto, for which it fabricated front emails attacking the company's critics and created a fake agricultural institute, the Center for Food and Agricultural Research, which also attacked Monsanto's critics. This was one of the early corporate responses to the growing role of the internet in encouraging anti-corporate protests. As chief architect of the Monsanto-Bivings campaign, Jay Byrne advised fellow PR operatives to “Think of the Internet as a weapon on the table. Either you pick it up or your competitor does - but somebody is going to get killed.”[3]

Indeed, the internet has come back to bite the Bivings Group. In December 2011, Anonymous hacktivists reported that the Bivings Group's website had been defaced, its database hacked and dumped and hundreds of emails stolen and made visible, and a database of Monsanto documents acquired.[4] The result was the following communication, apparently from the Bivings Group: “Our Cyber Infrastructure has recently been put under attack. We are evaluating the extent of the intrusion, and apologise for any downtime and issues this may cause you. It is not yet determined what the motives behind the attack are, or what, if any data has been compromised.”[5]

The Bivings Group no longer exists. However, its personnel seem to have relocated to The Brick Factory, which seems to be continuing Bivings' work to “plan and execute world-class digital campaigns...from building websites to managing digital advertising, marketing, and fundraising campaigns to developing mobile and app strategies.” Its list of specialities include “Online Campaign Management” and “Social Media Outreach”.

American Petroleum Institute

Online corporate astroturfing techniques have developed to keep up with the popularisation of social networking media. One example came to light when the American Petroleum Institute (API) was accused in August 2011 by Brant Olson of Rainforest Action Network of setting up fake Twitter accounts, all of which tweeted nothing but praise for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.[6] Within three minutes, on the morning of 3rd August, 15 accounts all tweeted the same message: '#tarsands the truth is out', and linked to API's webpage about tar sands. Later on that morning, the same accounts tweeted links to the Nebraska Energy Forum,[7] one of 26 state-based front groups made up of supposed 'concerned citizens' but sponsored by API. Throughout the day, the accounts tweeted a flurry of posts cheer-leading for the pipeline and linking to the Nebraska Energy Forum.

Looking deeper, it became evident that 14 of the accounts were fake: the personas were near-identical, including avatars pulled from the internet; the accounts were all created around the same week, most on the same day; the tweets were issued simultaneously via a widget which allows users to post to multiple Twitter accounts at the same time; and they all re-tweeted each other. Whoever created them also attempted to make them appear realistic by creating a background persona. Yet, despite the apparently normal characteristics of loving Star Wars, working for a fitness centre, or looking after their young child, all they ever tweeted about was tar sands, even managing to shoehorn it in to the most unrelated of subjects. For example, an apparent Pizza Hut manager from Omaha declared: “If you like pizza you should also like #keystonexl and the sweet #oil sands it benefits #nebraska.”

The 15th account was in the name of Keith Bockman, who, according to Olson, is a Facebook friend of Greg Abboud, who he presumes is the brother of the former Nebraska Senator, Monsanto lobbyist and current 'grassroots coordinator' for the Nebraska Energy Forum, Chris Abboud.[8] All this strongly suggests that this apparently genuine grassroots outpouring of support for the pipeline had been co-ordinated, and even fabricated, by the Nebraska Energy Forum or by those close it.

The story is one of a fake grassroots group sponsored by Big Oil lobbyists, set up in order to engineer support for tar sands extraction, a hugely environmentally and socially damaging process. The Alberta tar sands represent the second-largest fossil fuel reserves in the world. If they continue to be exploited, they will result in vast levels of carbon emissions, with devastating consequences for the climate. Such underhand uses of social networking to promote corporate agendas now abound in the world of public relations and marketing.

One of the fake Twitter accounts

Israeli online ambassadors

For those wishing to promote a particular controversial message, social media presents not simply an opportunity, but also a risk of that message becoming unpopular or being drowned out by conflicting messages. This is certainly how the platforms are viewed by many of those who are actively trying to improve Israel's image internationally, and who feel beleaguered by what they see as the disproportionate attention and sympathy generated by the suffering of Palestinians. To address this 'imbalance', on 3 August 2010 it was reported that Yesha Council – an umbrella organisation of municipal councils representing Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank – and Yisrael Sheli (My Israel) – a network of online activists dedicated to spreading Zionism online – had joined forces to train volunteers to write and edit Wikipedia articles to make them “balanced and Zionist in nature” and fix 'problems' such as the use of the word 'occupied'.[9] As Ayelet Shaked of Israel Sheli puts it, “People in the U.S. and Europe never hear about Israel’s side, with all the correct arguments and explanations.”[10] For Mirium Schwarb, a participant from Canada and founder of an internet marketing company, it is “so important for us to be online working to defend ourselves and to prove to the world and to ourselves that we are just and we are right.”[11]

The attempt to orchestrate the editing of Wikipedia pages for ideological gains is against the rules of Wikipedia editing. However, the training includes avoiding getting locked out of the site (banned), hoping to avoid the fate of American pro-Israel pressure group the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). In 2008, CAMERA was exposed by Electronic Intifada to be secretly orchestrating a plan to edit Wikipedia articles in order to “rewrite Palestinian history, pass off crude propaganda as fact.” Its plans even went so far as to attempt to “take over Wikipedia administrative structures to ensure these challenges go either undetected or unchallenged.”[12] Despite the organisation's attempts to hide the orchestration and make its efforts look like the work of unaffiliated individuals,[13] its emails were leaked and it was banned from the site by administrators, who stated that Wikipedia's open nature “is fundamentally incompatible with the creation of a private group to surreptitiously coordinate editing.”[14] Now the participants on the Yesha Council course are being warned: “don't jump into deep waters immediately, don't be argumentative, realise that there is a semi-democratic community out there, realise how not to get yourself banned.”[15]

But the story doesn't stop with Wikipedia. The Yesha Council is also working on training people to post to social networking sites such as Facebook and Youtube, claiming, in 2010, to have 12,000 active members, with up to 100 new monthly signings. Naftali Bennett, director of the Yesha Council, notes: “It turns out there is quite a thirst for this activity... The Israeli public is frustrated with the way it is portrayed abroad.”[16] For these 'activists', the emerging of internet communication platforms represents a new propaganda medium, one in which it is very easy to obscure your true identity and agenda.

These examples of information battles and astroturfing just go to underscore the importance of being extra critical of what we read online to avoid becoming the dupes of propaganda campaigns. Whether for marketing or political ends, there are well resourced agents who are more than willing to use online forums, and particularly social networking platforms, in order to promote their unpopular agendas.

References
[1] Quoted in www.powerbase.info/index.php/Bivings_Group
[2] www.powerbase.info/index.php/Immoral_Maize:_Extract_from_Don%27t_Worry,_It%27s_Safe_to_Eat_by_Andrew_Rowell for more information. For the revised article see www.bivingsreport.com/2002/viral-marketing-how-to-infect-the-world/
[3] Quoted in www.lobbywatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=27
[4] www.examiner.com/article/anonymous-hacks-monsanto-pr-firm-bivings-group.
[5] www.deathandtaxesmag.com/166429/anonymous-strikes-and-ends-monsanto-pr-firm-bivings-group/
[6] http://understory.ran.org/2011/08/04/breaking-tar-sands-pipeline-backers-resort-to-fake-twitter-accounts-to-show-grassroots-support/
[7] www.nebraskaenergyforum.com/
[8] http://chrisabboudpublicaffairs.com/about_us
[9] http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/20/wikipedia-editing-for-zionists/
[10] www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/18/wikipedia-editing-zionist-groups
[11] http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/20/wikipedia-editing-for-zionists/
[12] http://electronicintifada.net/content/ei-exclusive-pro-israel-groups-plan-rewrite-history-wikipedia/7472
[13] Ibid.
[14] Quoted in www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1934857/Israeli-battles-rage-on-Wikipedia.html
[15] Quoted in www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/18/wikipedia-editing-zionist-groups
[16] Quoted in www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/18/wikipedia-editing-zionist-groups

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