NOTE: This article was first published in March, 2011. In it, we predicted the ‘fake news’ scandals that would eventually rock the 2016 elections. For anyone surprised at what is happening today, the seeds were planted long ago.

Nobody likes to be manipulated. Between advertising, the 24 hour news cycle and endless political propaganda flooding the airwaves, it’s become harder and harder to get facts without spin. Truthiness has replaced truth in American politics.

According to Wikipedia, Astroturfing is ‘political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but designed to mask its origins to create the impression of being a spontaneous “grassroots” behavior.’ It’s a campaign designed to look like a spontaneous uprising of public opinion – but the activity is anything but spontaneous. Instead, a political astroturf campaign is carefully planned, nurtured and funded by an organization. The campaign is designed to appear like an issue has public support but actually benefits the organizers more than anyone.

How many television commercials and websites today promote viewers to contact their members of Congress in various lobbying efforts for legislation or issues? They are everywhere – and the practice is increasing. The next logical step from asking people to participate is to actually create the participants. With the reach of the internet and the rise of social networks, bogus astroturfing web campaigns have already become a force designed to create the impression that large numbers of people are opposing or demanding certain policies.

Our term for online astroturfing is webturfing.

Even on a local level, there are already plenty of dirty tricks that political campaigns can pull on the web. For example, political microsites are often used to highlight a particular issue or to serve as an attack platform against an opponent. The new webturfing ‘twist’ for political attack websites is to have these sites appear to be ‘independent’ or not not affiliated to another political campaign. Independence tends to lend credibility, even when it isn’t deserved.

Even more cunning is the use of ‘independent’ blogs or news websites to circulate information that is simply not true. With today’s never-ending news cycle, rumors, innuendo and outright false information are picked up and passed along as breaking news without verification. Corrections never seem to get the same coverage, though.

Campaign Website Design

Webturfing Social Networks

Since social networks do not perform verification on individual profiles, it is fairly easy to set up fake profiles to ‘troll’ candidate websites and social media profiles and leave nasty comments and links. Even fake Twitter and Facebook accounts can be easily created. A lot of damage can be done to a candidate’s reputation before the accounts can be discovered and shut down.

The US military is getting in on the act by developing a program that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites by using false online identities (known as “sock puppets” to social media users) to influence non-English overseas internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.

How soon will it be before smaller organizations and political entities start using fake social media personas to generate the illusion of voter support or foist propaganda? Go to a site like fiverr.com and there are offers for ten thousand views to your YouTube video, a hundred Facebook likes, a hundred new Twitter followers or even a short website review – all for five dollars a pop. If you are a local politician, why go through the work of building up your online presence when, for a few dollars, you can immediately have hundreds of Facebook fans, Twitter followers and fake ‘independent’ websites endorsing your campaign and slandering your opponent? When ‘real’ voters see that kind of support, will they not be influenced by the ‘crowd’?

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” — Wendell Phillips

As the costs come down and leverage increases for online technology, it’s only a matter of time before webturfing tactics trickle down to even the local level. We’re not presenting these ideas to encourage or provide ideas on how to manipulate voters. In fact, we would hope that if a candidate were discovered doing these sorts of things, it would put an end to their credibility and campaign.

The best defense against webturfing is to call it out and expose it for what it is – an unethical and cynical attempt to manipulate voters. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but when people find out they are being actively manipulated, they will really turn against you. Our advice for candidates has been and remains: Start early, build an online following and cultivate trust that attracts others to your message.

Our prediction: A major webturfing scandal will embarrass at least one large political campaign by November 2012. What do you think? Is more government regulation needed? How can voters and candidates fight against these tactics?

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