Power, Corruption, and Social Media

I came across this blog post from the UK’s Guardian about astroturfing.  And no, it has nothing to do with fake lawns or stadium football. Astroturfing refers to the creation of multiple artificially generated profiles used to control public opinion often at the expense of drowning out comments from real users.  This, of course, made me think back to Michael’s presentation that posed an interesting question of “Who is really at the keyboard?”

This technique is becoming more prolific, and the software is more sophisticated. Just think about the implications. The ability to manipulate mass public opinion is the ultimate weapon. It seems that even the U.S. military has been leveraging social media, and not in a way that would seem to be consistent with a country that touts itself as the promoter for free speech.  Another article from the Guardian, Revealed: US Spy Operation Manipulates Social Media, discusses the military’s plan to use astroturfing to make fake online personas to influence internet opinion and spread pro-American propaganda, primarily in the Middle East.

There have been other known instances of tobacco companies using astroturf groups to fight regulation, and even fake grassroots campaigns that appear to have mass public support. This just validates the importance of developing a critical awareness in our students about new media. When I think of the powerful and sophisticated systems and software that large corporations and governments can employ, the potential is a little scary. One of the big draws in social media comes from the power of numbers–we’ve seen how social media can incite uprisings and revolution–but what does it mean when those voices can so easily be co-opted by powerful organizations?  As someone who regularly uses social media sites like Yelp for restaurant and business recommendations, it makes me wonder whose truth I am buying into…

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3 comments on “Power, Corruption, and Social Media

  1. Ingenious. Mob mentality works. I am particularly fearful of it, as I know how easily swayed I am by emotional arguments. I hope my self-awareness will save me. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I watched National Geographic: Inside North Korea, which came out a few years ago. It’s deeply unsettling. I also thought of the television show Candid Camera’s elevator experiment. (Can I hyperlink in a comment? I’ll put the link below.) I’ve watched videos like this before, but I found this one particularly unnerving as the host of the show and the audience members are laughing. Laughing! Sure, this is just an elevator experiment, but people succumb to the pressure just the same when the situation matters. Also, what did Hilter’s ministry of propaganda find? A lie is believed when it’s repeated often enough. And it seems to spread when it’s backed by enough “people,” but now it may just take one person. Thanks for posting this. Stay vigilant.

    Elevator psychology: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPobACr9oL4

  2. Emily,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response and the video link. I remember a discussion about this elevator experiment my sociology class. The pressure for people to conform to these types of social norms is enormous. You also bring up a good point about Hitler’s propaganda ministry. He mastered the art of manipulating public opinion, and did it through different tactics. The display of “degenerate art” as a means of propaganda still astounds me. I think what bothers me most about astroturfing is the hypocrisy of our military using it, but at the same time, decrying other nations for their practices in Internet censorship, when in fact, this seems much worse.

  3. This was a great post you kind of threw me for a loop with the term “Astroturfing.” IT “refers to the creation of multiple artificially generated profiles used to control public opinion often at the expense of drowning out comments from real users.” I also like your comment like your comment about “Who is really at the keyboard?”

    You are so right, “The ability to manipulate mass public opinion is the ultimate weapon.” If they can control how people think or influece people then they can control elections and many other things. Your comment on “US Spy Operation Manipulating Social Media and the rush “to use astroturfing to make fake online personas to influence internet opinion and spread pro-American propaganda, primarily in the Middle East.”

    I loved your comment, and how you ended your article, “As someone who regularly uses social media sites like Yelp for restaurant and business recommendations, it makes me wonder whose truth I am buying into.”

    Great writing,

    Joe Ramos

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