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My social media presence is weak at best. Instagram is the only app I’ve ever been interested in posting on, and I only have 14 posts to my name despite setting up my account back in May 2016.
Instead of posting my own content, I’m what you might call a “mindless scroller.” Between Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter, I can spend hours browsing other people’s content. As online content piles up by the second, there has been a noticeable shift in how people are using their favourite apps. My scrolling might still be mindless, but the content I’m consuming is not.
Social media has become an invaluable communication tool for people to discuss world events, engage with social and political topics, and organize groups, movements, and protests. Instagram stories are full of colourful infographics explaining social issues, Facebook has community groups dedicated to local causes, and Twitter wields the power of the hashtag, like the #MeToo movement which started in 2017 and the #BlackLivesMatter protests of 2020.
These examples of activism are what you might call “grassroots.” Grassroots implies something is natural and at ground level. A grassroots organization, for example, is an organization that represents the interests of regular people as opposed to those of a large corporation or influential politician.
I’ve always thought calling something grassroots is to give it a compliment. Grassroots feels warm, welcoming, and authentic.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. A 2022 University of Toronto study concluded that the appeal of a grassroots movement comes from our tendency to trust group opinions more than individual ones. Grassroots movements usually form solely on the merit of their objective, so when a large group of people believes in it, it feels like a more worthwhile cause.
Robert Mensies is the volunteer director of fundraising and community engagement for Reaching Out Winnipeg (ROW), a volunteer-run organization that helps sexual orientation and gender identity minority (SOGI) asylum seekers resettle in Winnipeg. He says that staying authentic on social media is key to the organization’s success.
“We try to connect with our audiences on a more personal level,” Mensies says. “If we stay authentic and people understand what we’re trying to do, they have an easier time connecting with the cause.”
To demonstrate authenticity, ROW posts profiles on asylum seekers it has helped as well as photos from community events it participates in.
As “grassroots” has become a popular term often attached to good causes with strong support from the community, it has led to the creation of another term: astroturfing. If grassroots is a compliment, then astroturfing is an insult.
AstroTurf is a company that makes synthetic turf, or in other words, “fake grass.” Historically, AstroTurf has been used for professional sports fields, such as baseball, soccer, and football. It requires minimal maintenance compared to real grass, and is designed to look exactly like real grass at a passing glance.
In the world of social media, the phrase “passing glance” can be substituted for “mindless scroll.” That’s what astroturfing is: a fake grassroots movement or organization designed to look like a real one.
So, how can you tell the difference between grassroots and astroturfing online? Before doing anything else, you have to ease yourself out of the “mindless scroll” mentality. To understand the content I’ve been mindlessly consuming on social media for years, I embarked on a crash course in social media literacy, starting with the idea of astroturfing itself.
Astroturfing has come a long way from being just a piece of clever political slang, and has been directly addressed by the Competition Bureau of Canada. In volume one of the Bureau’s Deceptive Marketing Practices Digest from 2015, astroturfing is defined as “the practice of creating commercial representations that masquerade as the authentic experiences and opinions of impartial consumers, such as fake consumer reviews and testimonials.”
Under Canada’s Competition Act, the Bureau has the authority to investigate and penalize false and misleading practices in the marketplace. Astroturfing is considered a misleading marketplace practice, and the Bureau has twice penalized companies for it.
In 2015, the Bureau found Bell Canada was encouraging its employees to post positive reviews of their MyBell Mobile and Virgin My Account apps. Bell removed the reviews soon after they were posted, but the telecommunications company still agreed to pay a $1.25 million penalty and undergo a corporate review.
In 2021, the Bureau reached an agreement with the travel company FlightHub Inc. to pay a $5.8 million penalty and undergo a corporate review for similar reasons. FlightHub was found to be posting positive reviews of their services that were made to look like they were from real customers. The Bureau also found that FlightHub misled customers about prices and charged hidden fees.
The Bureau offers a list of tips that help consumers recognize fake reviews:
- Watch out for a sudden spike in positive reviews or a sudden dip in negative reviews.
- Watch for reviewers who seem like they only created their profile to review a recent item.
- Beware when a reviewer says, “It’s the best ever!!! or “It’s the worst ever!!!”
- Beware of a company that only has five-star reviews.
- Watch for products or services where multiple reviews use very similar language.
I found the tips to be helpful, but imperfect. Sometimes a product or service is the best ever, and deserves reviews that say so. However, the message in these tips is clear: avoid passively absorbing content.
The Competition Bureau’s definition and enforcement of astroturfing in the marketplace explains one side of the practice, but doesn’t explain how astroturfing is used to influence opinion and policy in the world of politics.
Dr. Robert Neubauer, a communications professor at the University of Winnipeg, has spent his career studying communications strategies related to energy infrastructure and the Canadian oil industry. He thinks astroturfing has two definitions.
“First, there’s the objective definition of ‘some form of industry-funded political campaign that masquerades as grassroots,’” Neubauer says. “The second definition is more glib. People use astroturfing as a label to insult any industry-funded political movement or campaign that they don’t like.”
Part of the reason people use astroturfing’s second definition is that real astroturfing is harder to recognize.
“Before the internet existed, industries would have to hire people to pretend to ‘protest’ in person,” Neubauer says. “Social media has made astroturfing easier and more sophisticated without any shred of a doubt.”
Instead of hiring fake protestors, industries can save themselves time and money by hiring one programmer to flood social media with fake accounts often called “bots” that are designed to look like real people showing support at the grassroots level.
Estimates vary, but according to the same University of Toronto study mentioned earlier, approximately 5 to 10 per cent of Twitter accounts are bots. In online discussions about more politically-charged topics like COVID-19, a 2020 study from Carnegie Mellon University found bot activity on Twitter increased to 45 to 60 per cent.
According to Neubauer’s “objective definition,” if corporations or political groups were behind this bot activity, it would qualify as astroturfing. The problem is, identifying the source isn’t exactly an easy task for a casual social media consumer. The Competition Bureau only regulates astroturfing as it relates to the marketplace and has no control over astroturfing as a political and social concept.
To better understand why people use astroturfing as an insult toward online movements and campaigns they don’t like, I turned my attention to the Canadian oil industry, and one of its largest advocacy groups, Oil Sands Action.
At the time of writing, the group has over 327,000 followers on Facebook, and over 84,000 on Twitter. Their profile picture is a logo that reads, “I love Oil & Gas.” Both social media pages have links to the group’s website, where the “about” section describes the group as a “grassroots, independent organization.”
At first glance, there is really no need to question that self-assessment. The pages have hundreds of posts supporting pro-oil governmental policies, all backed by a chorus of agreement in the comment sections. Other posts advertise the group’s “I love Oil & Gas” merchandise, and show happy supporters wearing branded hoodies and hats out in public.
There is no doubt that the Canadian oil industry appreciates this support, and an industry having supporters doesn’t automatically mean an industry is astroturfing. It makes sense that the Canadian oil industry would have a large, vocal group of supporters, particularly in Alberta, where the mining and fossil fuels industry accounted for 26 per cent of the province’s GDP in 2020.
“Industries will always have some level of grassroots support,” Neubauer says. “When that grassroots support is well-organized and performs well, it’s easy for critics to label it as astroturfing.”
Canada’s Extractive Services Transparency Measures Act (ESTMA) requires Canadian businesses involved in commercial extractive practices, like the oil industry, to report any payments over $100,000 made to the Canadian government or any government abroad.
On May 27, 2020, Canadian energy company ARC Resources appeared to mistakenly over-report payments on its 2019 ESTMA Annual Report, disclosing a $100,000 payment to Canada Action Coalition, the parent organization of Oil Sands Action. Canada Action Coalition is a registered non-profit, but ARC Resources was not required to disclose any payments it made to the organization. The report was amended soon after.
Neubauer says ARC Resources’ payment to Canada Action Coalition is an example of “treetops advocacy.” Treetops advocacy is when a large corporation directly influences the grassroots, instead of the other way around.
Treetops advocacy doesn’t fit the definition of astroturfing, but it does complicate Canada Action Coalition’s claim as a “grassroots, independent organization.” Because the oil industry isn’t required to disclose any payments made to organizations like Canada Action Coalition, it is easier to influence public opinion inconspicuously. The lack of governmental regulation or definition of astroturfing in cases like this one has caused Canada Action Coalition’s founder, Cody Battershill, to repeatedly deny claims that his organization is indeed astroturfing.
The grassroots support for the Canadian oil industry demonstrated in groups like Oil Sands Action makes sense given its economic impact on the country, but there’s more to it than that. Part of the appeal of grassroots movements and organizations is the sense of community they offer.
“Political communication has become more about a shared sense of identity than anything else,” Neubauer says.
For members of the Oil Sands Action Facebook group, a common way of expressing their shared identity has been through memes and infographics.
With a meme, you can take an already well-known joke, message, or image and remix it to your liking. In the Oil Sands Action Facebook group, it is common to see memes addressing Canadian political leaders and oil industry-related governmental policies. The “I love Oil & Gas” message that unites the group is an effective way of framing these memes as “pro-Canadian,” giving group members a collective cause.
The idea of a grassroots movement is the collaboration of like-minded people as they attempt to express their collective interests. In other words, grassroots movements can often become echo chambers.
The phrase is often used as an insult, much like astroturfing. In an echo chamber, there is no room for outside opinion, and you can only hear things that you can agree with or already believe to be true. In many cases, echo chambers can be the enemy of progress, but without them, successful grassroots movements would never be able to form in the first place.
It is likely that Oil Sands Action supporters view the organization’s work as a sign of progress, but the politically charged nature of its conversations can cause others to label it as astroturfing as according to Neubauer’s second definition of the term.
In Oil Sands Action’s case, Facebook appears to be the most effective way to reach its loyal supporters. Facebook is commonly known as a space for an older demographic that could more easily include people with long-established careers in the oil industry.
Memes and infographics have proven to be an effective way for organizations and movements to spread their messages on other platforms like Instagram and Twitter.
As an Instagram user, the reliance on infographics by social movements on the app caught my attention. These infographics tend to follow a specific formula on Instagram:
- Use the carousel feature, starting with a title page that often reads something like “10 things you should know about ‘insert cause, world event, or movement.’”
- Keep information on each slide to a minimum, often just one sentence each.
- Give the audience information about how to learn more on the final slide.
- Use pleasing, pastel colours that are welcoming and easy on the eyes.
The logic behind using infographics with this format is simple. Draw people in with pleasing colours, influence them with simple facts that come from complex issues, and convince them to join your cause. While this technique invites new supporters to the cause, it also opens the door to “slacktivism.”
Slacktivism blends the words “slacker” and “activism” and describes actions people take online to assuage guilt without making much of a real difference. An optimist might argue that slacktivism is a good gateway to real activism. Social media users who start by reading an infographic and signing a petition might feel the need to continue supporting the cause out in the real world. A cynic might say that slacktivism is harmful to real activism. Signing an online petition is a nice gesture of support, but it lets social media users feel helpful without much effort.
In November 2021, the organization Plant A Tree Co. went viral with an Instagram post that read “We’ll plant 1 tree for every pet picture.” Millions of Instagram users posted photos of their pets as instructed because it seemed like an easy and fun way to make a positive difference online.
With its Instagram following into the millions, Plant A Tree Co. began to sell jewelry, claiming the profits would go toward planting as many trees as possible. The organization offered little to no explanation for how it would distribute these funds, and called on Instagram to provide funds of its own toward the cause. In reality, Plant A Tree Co. didn’t have the capacity to plant that many trees, and retracted their pledge.
To this day, Plant A Tree Co. still has over 800,000 followers on Instagram, but the link in its bio still claims to have planted only 6,500 trees. It remains unclear whether the organization intentionally misled its supporters or if it legitimately did not expect its initial post to go viral.
Regardless of its intentions, it was relatively easy for Plant A Tree Co. to avoid taking any meaningful responsibility for its failed pledge. For many social media users who posted pictures of their pets as instructed, the stakes were low. At the end of the day, they still got to see cute pet pictures. Whether those pet pictures ever translated into trees in the ground became an afterthought.
We are familiar with the idea that you can’t believe everything you see on the internet, but we don’t yet have enough regulation or tools that can protect the integrity of internet discourse and allow legitimate grassroots groups and movements to succeed in the online space.
One tactic that has shown some promise in this area is “prebunking.” Online content is designed to be infinitely shareable, so faulty information or information that lacks appropriate context for consumers can spread out of control long before any debunking tools can have any meaningful effect. To prebunk potential misinformation, Twitter curated threads of contextual information before the 2022 U.S. midterm election aimed at “inoculating” users from common voting misinformation.
Since his purchase of Twitter in October 2022, Elon Musk has introduced changes to the platform including an option for users to pay for a verified account. Verified accounts are supposed to give users more confidence in the information being shared, but a December 2022 survey from Ipsos found that 61 per cent of Canadians believe that misinformation will only get worse on Twitter under Musk’s stewardship.
Musk has also vowed to rid Twitter of the “spam bots” that dilute real Twitter discourse and make it more difficult for users to determine what is real and what might be astroturfing online. Musk’s proposed solution has been to start charging users for access to Twitter’s application programming interface (API) which currently provides people like marketers and researchers with access to Twitter’s user data.
While the pricing plan is intended to reduce the number of bot accounts using Twitter’s API, it has caused concern from the academic community that uses Twitter’s API to conduct long-term social media research on the portal. The new pricing plan only grants access to 0.3 per cent of Twitter’s API data, compared to the one per cent of data that the community previously had access to for free. Most academics will not be able to pay for even the most basic pricing plan, leaving their Twitter research out in the lurch. At this time, we don’t yet know whether the change will reduce the number of bots on Twitter or if the positive impacts of a lack of bots will outweigh the negative impacts of reduced academic discourse on the app.
Laying regulatory responsibility solely at the feet of social media platforms like Twitter is probably not enough to protect the integrity of internet discourse. As the amount of online content continues to pile up, the world will need a more sophisticated approach that requires substantive changes on both the structural and personal level.
The Competition Bureau’s official definition and enforcement of astroturfing as it relates to digital marketing practices set a good example. If it becomes possible for a regulatory body to define astroturfing as it relates to social and political discourse, there is hope that the term can slowly transition from a poorly understood insult to an enforceable practice.
Until that time comes, responsibility will continue to fall on social media consumers to critically engage with the content we see online. Social media is designed to encourage mindless scrolling, but if we are vigilant and arm ourselves with the right tools, it can remain an invaluable communication tool at the grassroots level.