The Dark Underbelly of Internet Marketing

Odds are if you’re reading this you’re familiar with internet marketing: pay-per-click ads, social media campaigns, pre-rolls... that kind of thing. 

But there’s a deeper level to it that you might not know about. A level that’s as fascinating as it is morally and legally ambiguous, and that might be one of the strongest influencers of consumer opinion to date.


Get your tinfoil hats out – we’re about to go down the rabbit hole.

The grass is greener because it’s fake


In August 1985, Texan senator Lloyd Bentsen was looking at a mountain of letters on his desk, many of which were supposedly from concerned citizens who strongly opposed his stance on new tax regulations. However, he knew better than to take them at face value. Convinced that they were actually from lobbyists disguising themselves as ordinary people, he ignored them, telling the Washington Post he can “tell the difference between grass roots and Astro Turf… This is generated mail.”


Since then, the practice of corporate or governmental influence masquerading as public opinion has been known as ‘astroturfing’. It has exploded alongside the internet, because of the anonymity and access to niche communities that the internet facilitates. These days astroturfing is everywhere you look online, but more often than not it’s very hard to spot because if it’s done right the results look completely organic. 


So, how does it work? Well, astroturfing is essentially falsely manufacturing support for an opinion about a topic through the use of fake, paid ‘front groups’ or individuals. The idea is to create sufficient support and visibility for the opinion to influence the public stance on it, with the end goal being to popularise the opinion enough that people begin to spread it naturally.

Sometimes it's only possible to tell the real from the fake when you look very closely

For example, company X has a product they want to sell. They pay a group of people to go on the internet and post things in favour of their product: good reviews, comments that name-drop it, pictures and memes that paint it in a good light. They’ll also tell them to boost the visibility of similar posts that will inevitably be created by members of the public who, because of the astroturfing effort, see that it’s popular to endorse that product online. If successful, it can snowball and become free advertising – but if it’s done wrong it can have serious consequences, because in many parts of the world astroturfing is technically illegal.

The most cited modern example of astroturfing is probably the mentions of ‘Russian troll farms’ regarding Brexit and the Trump campaign sagas; foreign nations militarising social media and hiring people to pose as proponents of certain political beliefs in order to change public opinion.


Although the history of astroturfing is political – as well as many contemporary examples of it – its use in advertising has picked up dramatically, namely because it’s so effective. Why? Because the opinion of an individual seems much more trustworthy than that of a brand. People don’t have the ulterior motive of selling you a product or service like a brand does. Unless, of course, they were paid to do so.


There are estimations that as much as one third of online consumer reviews on the internet are fake. It’s common knowledge that a significant portion of Amazon reviews are false, and the same is likely true for Google, the Apple app store, and other platforms with similar rating systems.

But consumer reviews are just the tip of the iceberg. The reality of corporate astroturfing goes much deeper, to the point where by the nature of it, it becomes impossible to tell whether there was ever an astroturfing effort to begin with.

For sale: The front page of the internet


Perhaps you’ve heard of Reddit, the self-styled 'Front Page of the Internet'. It’s a social media platform that consists of a network of user-created news, content, and discussion forums called ‘subreddits’, the users of which are called ‘Redditors’.


It works by aggregating content that is both created by and then voted on by users, the most popular content of which is then displayed at the top of the subreddit it was posted in. If a post becomes popular enough it can reach the ‘front page’, which displays the most popular posts across the whole website within a given timeframe.


Reddit is different than most other ‘connection-based’ platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, in that users are connected through the communities they’re active in rather than through a process of ‘friending’ or following other profiles. With roughly 330 million users, Reddit is a similar size to Twitter, and ranks as the 18th most visited website globally. And, like any social media platform of its calibre, it also has a serious astroturfing problem.


It’s a bit oxymoronic, really. Because of its young demographic and user-curated ethos, the Reddit community (if you can put 330 million people in a box) is described as being comprised of generally privacy conscious people who dislike being manipulated by brands or overtly advertised to. At the same time, the voting system is easily exploited. With a bit of forethought, a halfway decent marketing team can not only get a disguised advertisement to the front page where it will be seen by millions, but create a trend that can take on a life of its own.

A video by investigative video journalism site, Point, into gaming the Reddit algorithm

Of course, Reddit has measures in place to combat astroturfing and botting. Communities won’t let you post in them until you’ve amassed a certain amount of ‘karma’, which is a rough sum of the voting other users have done on your posts and comments. Unfortunately, this only stops the laziest of astroturfing attempts, because there are plenty of services that sell pre-aged accounts so as to avoid suspicion from moderators and users alike.

The above video explains how easy it is buy a pre-aged account and game the Reddit algorithm – so, if a couple of guys with a shoestring budget were able to get a fake news story to the front page of an influential subreddit, just imagine how simple it must be for a corporation.


On his website, ‘Reddit Marketing Expert’ Brian Swichkow explains a little about the psychology behind what happens next. He states that Reddit has the “ability to foster Discovered Content [which] ripens opportunities for creating Choice-Supportive Bias in Redditors—an audience that includes celebrities, influencers, journalists, and presidents. Thus, Reddit is an ideal incubator of Bandwagon Effect.”


In other words, the opinion of a Redditor on a given topic will generally align with the popular opinion of the communities which they’re involved in because of their choice to involve themselves in those communities. People such as Swichkow – and many others who wisely remain anonymous – put two and two together and realised that if one can manufacture popular content, then the community will pick up on it and do the rest. Voila – astroturfing: cheap, effective, and a little morally bankrupt.


So, where’s the evidence? Well as previously mentioned, the more well-executed the astroturfing, the less obvious it is. But traces of it are out there, clues waiting to be put together to form a picture of a much larger effort. We’ll take an example of something we believe has tell-tale marks of a coordinated astroturfing effort, but keep in mind that none of the evidence can be substantiated, so the verdict is up to you.


Brand ubiquity or marketing scheme?


On November 12, 2019, Disney released their new streaming service, Disney+. The service is Disney’s entry into the streaming wars, a move that was made viable after their merger with Fox earlier this year. The companies together now own 35% of the global movie market, a number which is unprecedented in the industry.


The weeks around the release of Disney+ saw an influx of Disney related content appearing on the internet, particularly Reddit. Some of it seemed so dubious that it was called out immediately as advertising. Other pieces of content featuring Disney+ branding made it as far as the front page however, such as this or this, because they offered more to the community than an explicit ad.


One particular post, a fan art crossover between a recently released video game and a character from the flagship Disney+ show and Star Wars spin-off, The Mandalorian, blew up in the gaming subreddit just hours after the character was revealed. This led to people questioning the possibility of creating such intricate artwork in that short a time without insider knowledge, and why fan art would include a brand logo rather than an artist signature.


Then there was the Baby Yoda saga. With the release of The Mandalorian came the introduction of The Child, a cute, wide-eyed, baby-fied look-alike of one of pop-cultures most memorable characters. Unsurprisingly, the internet loved it, and in no time at all the internet was awash with memes and gifs celebrating this adorable new addition to the Star Wars universe.    

Then Disney went and did a strange thing: they tried to serve take-down notices to all Baby Yoda gifs in an attempt to monetise them. It failed, because gifs are considered part of a “fair use” exception in copyright law – a fact which is pretty basic knowledge to the average internet user, let alone in the case of the army of lawyers employed by a sprawling multi-national like Disney. This point led some commentators to question whether the take-down notices were part of a marketing strategy to boost the hype around The Mandalorian, and by association, Disney+.


So, was Baby Yoda all a part of a well-executed Disney+ marketing strategy? Some seem to this so, such as the author of a brilliant but incredibly cynical article on The Outline, who thinks that Baby Yoda “is widdle and charming by design, the product of a merciless capitalist machine bent on one goal: buy our shit. It’s the logical endpoint of a sinister company with decades of experience at tapping deeply into the human need to nurture something small and charming, literally designed in a lab to provoke devotion and love”.


Other critics were a little more light-hearted in their response. An article on Ars Technica pointed out that “suggesting that Disney and The Mandalorian are somehow cheating by making Baby Yoda so cute that it brought Werner Herzog to tears is like faulting a chef for salting their food… OK to enjoy things, it is”.


Naturally, it’s impossible to tell if all these events surrounding the release of Disney+ were constructed - or at least aided - by an astroturfing effort, and we’ll probably never know. But it’s rational enough to conclude that it’s likely, because corporate astroturfing on popular social media sites is proven to exist, and Disney are undoubtedly powerful and influential enough to pull it off without being caught.


But the obvious question to come out of all of this is: does it matter? Is it really a problem that brands are advertising in such devious ways if they’re offering content which is considered valuable to the community they’re targeting? 


Well, it’s a matter of opinion; on the one hand it shouldn’t matter if it creates content that people love enough to contribute to and spread by themselves, but on the other, the fact that brands will resort to illegal guerrilla tactics to promote their products and services seems to be a hallmark of the unethical, if anything just because of the dangerous precedent it sets for more malicious types of propaganda.


A moderator from a subreddit that aims to expose astroturfing on Reddit made an interesting distinction about the topic, stating that they believe that “good advertising (the open and honest kind) attempts to influence, not manipulate. The recipient knows both the company and the motives involved… Every single successful product that exists is only successful due to reaching a target market through advertising. You can have the greatest product in the world, but it's useless if nobody knows about it. There's no way to justify living off the comforts of modern society while at the same time stating that all advertising is evil. It isn't.”


Nevertheless, it’s fascinating that branding has become so ubiquitous that one can no longer tell if something is an advertisement or not. Culture has become almost inextricable from brands, and even totally harmless, mundane things like wearing clothes with logos or eating a particular type of breakfast cereal can act as adverts if captured and shared to a large enough audience. It could even become standard practice for brands to advertise backwards, signal boosting organic mentions of their product as a cost effective alternative to creating content themselves. 


Who knows? With the lines this blurred, it’s hard to say what happens next.

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