Astroturfing Comes to Social Media — What Reddit Can Teach Us

April 1st, 2011 by Search Influence Alumni

Nothing like the smell of hot plastic on a sunny day.

While I’m not the biggest video gamer — the glowing box, as a general rule, holds other and better appeals for me than pushing around pixels shaped like underwear-clad lady ninjas — when I came across this kerfluffle involving Reddit’s /r/games section my ears couldn’t help but perk up. Several notable gaming media entities such as GamePro and G4 TechTV have published stories on the section that were almost instantaneously upvoted for maximum viewability. An intrepid Redditor discovered this and unraveled an astonishing 20+ accounts belonging to the same “social media expert,” whose sole purpose seems to have been to create this plethora of fake handles and use them all to create a healthy crop of discrete upvotes for his selected domain’s stories. When confronted, the individual responded to complaints by pulling out all of his handles in an attempt to shame the accusing party into submission (the all-too-predictable “virgin nerd” comments are just the tip of the iceberg). The companies in question have all issued half-hearted apologies.

As a former politics junkie (currently on full media blackout for the sake of my blood pressure) I can’t help but immediately draw comparisons to the time-honored politico sleazebag tactic of astroturfing — planting paid “cheerleader” supporters in order to sway public opinion on unpopular issues due to perceived popular support. There was an little-publicized scandal of this note in 2003, when over 500 identical copies of a letter describing the ringing success of the war in Iraq were falsely attributed to soldiers and published the newspapers of said soldiers’ small-town homes. More recently, the ever-reprehensible Scott Walker has found himself embroiled in controversy yet again as small groups of bought-and-paid-for pro-Walker demonstrators attempt to face off against the seething milieu of pissed-off pro-union protestors. (Walker has since brought the cyber-stupid in the form of a half-hearted Twitter trend as well.)

Political astroturfing relies on a light form of peer pressure, the human instinct to go with popular opinion, but when the technique is applied to social media it takes on a less-than-egalitarian light. Instead of organically swaying opinion by tone and suggestion, virtual votes have real power — the power to decide what’s being seen in the first place. If entities with resources to burn on this kind of social promotion decide that they want all of their stories to be above the fold (so to speak) every day, the entire concept of sites like Digg or Reddit becomes moot. Essentially, it’s sort of an online, non-organic dysgenicism: when votes are worthless, massive inflation occurs and an individual personal recommendation becomes almost meaningless in the face of mechanical cranked-out upvotes.

So with these comparisons in mind, at what point does social media manipulation become sleazy? The core of the matter is at sites like Digg and Reddit’s model. By their very nature, social bookmarking sites want to promote what the people like: one vote = one recommendation from one real person. By manipulating this system with fake accounts, the sphere of viral media as a whole is corrupted. However, the trait which enables social media to be manipulated is also the very trait which allows it to regulate itself. The best and only way to control this phenomenon, at least in the simple scope of Reddit’s business model, is by a self-policing community. Every upvote from a fake user can be downvoted by a real and conscientious Redditor, and the system can thus correct itself — if the community is sharp and engaged in rooting out these false users.

The spammers... they... they could be anyone!

Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing compares the whole mess to The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street — the egalitarian nature of online handles makes the “monsters” (fake-account spammers) and real people upvoting their preferred stories pretty much indistinguishable. Given that the Reddit community at this point is around 5000K+ daily users, one guy abusing the system through twenty accounts won’t make that big of a ripple; however, it remains to be seen whether this tactic will take on real corporate value in the future, and if so what steps social bookmarking sites will take to correct the measure. It’s a thorny issue and, as the Internet becomes more and more socially-oriented (as the newly-announced Google +1 button indicates), one against which webmasters and e-entrepreneurs alike will have to continually fortify their defenses.