Digital marketing practices are not always above board. It is not uncommon for ads to be displayed as organic content coming from real users. It started with advertorials masked as real news, but it is now becoming a common practice known as astroturfing. And automated social media accounts – bots – are coming into play. More about multiple account management you can find at Smartproxy.
Astroturfing is basically the act of masking advertisements and promotional materials as genuine excitement and recommendations from real users and organic sources. Businesses and brands have a lot to gain from astroturfing, particularly from the boost in credibility that they normally aim for.
Nevertheless, astroturfing is harmful to both the audience and the digital marketing landscape as a whole. It is not only unethical but also exploitative, especially when you consider the number of viewers that believe those promotional posts are genuine.
Astroturfing On Social Media
What’s more common than posting advertorials as real news is astroturfing on social media. The simple reason behind this is the fact that social media posts are not as strictly regulated as news and articles. This is more of a grey area than an illegal thing to do.
With the regulation not being strict enough, businesses and corporations can use social media accounts to promote their brands while masking those promotional posts as organic ones. If you see real-looking social media accounts posting branded content as reviews or testimonials, you may be seeing astroturfing in progress.
Influencers are also adopting a similar practice. Not all paid posts are obvious, especially when the brands work closely together with the influencers. The posts may seem like organic, honest reviews, or just random posts coming from the influencers when they are, in fact, paid posts tied to a digital marketing campaign.
For viewers, this type of content is deceitful. It makes us believe that we are reading real reviews. There have been cases where the practice of astroturfing was exposed, and viewers’ trust towards social media accounts (and even influencers and the brands) was badly hit.
Big And Small Companies
Earlier in this article, we mentioned how astroturfing has now become a common practice adopted by almost every industry player. Astroturfing is no longer the domain of smaller companies trying to boost their credibility. Larger brands and established corporations are also adopting this tactic to expand their reach and increase brand and product credibility.
In some cases, astroturfing is done via grassroots organizations or third-party executors. This is the case with Tesla’s attempt to mask its solar panel lobbying efforts behind the Energy Freedom Coalition of America, an organization that – at least from the outside – appears to be founded and developed by those who are genuinely concerned about renewable energy.
The Energy Freedom Coalition of America or EFCA was unmasked as being more than an advocacy group. Some of the named members of the organization, Silevo, SolarCity, and Zep Solar, were actually subsidiaries of Tesla. The close affiliation with Tesla is not only problematic but also raises further questions about how the two are linked.
For example, Tesla refuses to answer questions about how the EFCA is being governed. Being a member-first organization, EFCA is supposed to be neutral. If anything, the organization should be promoting its primary cause, which is becoming a national advocacy group for solar and alternative energy sources. EFCA’s role in lobbying for Tesla is a classic astroturfing example.
Bots At Play
Astroturfing has become an even bigger problem since the 2016 US election, where bots prevailed in spreading disinformation while pretending to be real social media users. Bots actively follow and engage your posts, hoping that you will interact with their posts in return.
The introduction of smarter social media bots – backed by machine learning – makes posts coming from bots appear more natural. This adds a layer of complexity when trying to detect astroturfing on social media sites since it is virtually impossible to separate real accounts from bots and fake ones. There are also accounts created to mask entities behind them, such as the case with EFCA.
Bots enable one additional thing when it comes to astroturfing: astroturfing at scale. A handful of influencers or accounts created to mask certain entities can start threads or share information, but then bots amplify the message and expand the reach of those posts significantly. Combined with other social media marketing campaigns, the damage caused by astroturfing is significant.
At the end of the day, these practices are beyond unethical. Creating fake social media accounts for astroturfing harms the ecosystems provided by social media sites. Instead of trusted user reviews and word of mouth, you end up with promotional content masked as organic posts. There is no real way to stop the practice from happening either, especially with the current regulation we have.
The best way to stop astroturfing from becoming more commonplace is by distancing ourselves from the companies whose marketing strategies use this tactic. If a company is willing to exploit other people, your resources and attention span, and the legal loopholes in our regulations, it is not a company that you want to engage with.