An interesting thread came up on Reddit a few days ago which outed an astroturfer using a large number of accounts to promote certain articles and posts on the site, specifically within its gaming area. One enterprising Redditor did a little digging and exposed the whole thing which you can read about here. The sites that have apparently been benefiting from having a few of their articles promoted in this way on Reddit are GamePro, G4TV, VGChartz, and GamrFeed.
Quite a few of the replies to it are filled with obvious, albeit civil and measured, rage. There are also a few amusing ones in there including one from an account called BiowareMarketingDept complaining about the unfair treatment of Dragon Age 2. But there’s no question how serious a problem this is.
So what is astroturfing? In short, it creates an illusion of popularity around something by using tactics disguised as the public voice – old fashioned shilling. In this case, by having one user masquerade as several different ones using separate accounts to promote certain articles. Instead of having the kind of social discourse based on honest votes, astroturfers stuff the ballot box by using fake people. It’s really nothing new and there are PR companies out there that have hired out people to do exactly this, creating underground ad campaigns with the appearance of a grassroots movement. There’s even a film out there that documents what it’s all about.
It’s pretty frustrating to see sites such as the ones above resort to using methods like this to promote their own work on a social news site like Reddit since it taints the entire reason for sites like it to exist in the first place. Promoting your piece by submitting it on sites is one thing, but hiring someone to fake the sort of discourse that should result subverts the kind of social interaction from those honestly assessing it.
The sites outed above have issued apologies, but one or two smack of PR backtracking after having their hands caught in the cookie jar. Simply stating to being ignorant of who they were hiring and what methods they were using comes off as almost irresponsible. Where was the review process? The oversight? Or did they not care above seeing the hits coming in?
Sadly, this will likely not be the last time an astroturfer has been caught and the sites they worked with outed. There are probably many more out there doing the exact same thing and taking better care in covering their steps. It might only be a matter of time before they are also found out, but when it comes to the ‘net, picking up where they had left off is as easy as registering for a new account.