On the threat of paid followers, bots, and astroturfing:
Just how harmful are techniques like astroturfing and paying for followers to our social media ecosphere? What should be done about these issues?
Welcome to the Internet, where nothing is as it seems.
As much as this has more or less always been the case, we continue to be faced with ever-evolving ways through which organizations try to push their message online – some in more deceptive ways than others. One might argue that some methods are quite harmless – sure, paid followers are disingenuous, but a quick scroll through any given list of followers will often easily reveal who’s real and who’s fake – however, it becomes a bigger problem when organizations infiltrate and completely overwhelm social media sites in the aim of getting their message across.
Meet the biggest problem we face today: astroturfing. As The Guardian‘s George Monbiot describes it, “An astroturf campaign is one that mimics spontaneous grassroots mobilizations but which has in reality been organized.” It’s also an issue that isn’t going away anytime soon.
Let’s start with the business angle. I would argue that one could extend Monbiot’s definition to include more commercial practices such as product reviews. Through bots or paid helpers, companies might flood their review section with positive reviews, or even more maliciously, sabotage a competitor’s review section. Suddenly, user reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor don’t seem as innocent and helpful as they once did.
As frustrating as dishonest reviews may be, they are a much smaller problem compared to astroturfing’s other aims. Consider the lobbying efforts of the oil industries, or alcohol, firearms, and tobacco. Imagine it’s in a company’s financial interest to stir doubt about climate change, or the danger of alcohol addiction, or the link between firearms and homicides. Certainly, the prospect of influencing attitudes through online forums would be enticing. It’s more than just a hypothetical situation, too: a study at Concordia University suggests that astroturfing has already affected public perception of climate change.
Consider an even greater scale. Imagine astroturfing being used in the context of escalating tension between two countries. One country wants to invade another country, but it needs a reason to do so – otherwise, the general population will oppose it. Cue astroturfing. With enough well-planted fear-mongering posts in online forums, a political party could sway public opinion into supporting war measures.
This may sound sensational, but it’s entirely possible – and in all likelihood, it’s already happening. It’s hard to come up with an answer for what should be done about it. Some might be tempted to force all users to reveal their true identity online, but anonymous use is an integral part of Internet freedom. A better solution might be enforcing strict repercussions on any organization caught astroturfing, but this requires a very concrete definition of astroturfing. It also requires a governing board large enough (and morally sound enough) to operate above the fray – even when that might include government organizations. At the very least, awareness of the problem is a good first step. Like I mentioned, it isn’t going away anytime soon.
On the need for a different way of looking at social media engagement:
Are there better ways of looking at social media engagement? What would a different set of metrics for measuring success look like? For that matter, what does success look like?
I came across a thought-provoking article by Avinash Kaushik that proposes a different approach to measuring the success of social media. Kaushik’s main argument is that organizations “are doing TV on Twitter […] we do the same uninformed shouting and pimping on social media that we do on TV. We know little about who is on the other end of the TV set and the medium places limits to what we can do. So to make our marketing more efficient we shout more loudly, more frequently!”
I suspect this is true of many organizations on social media. In striving to reach the greatest possible audience, we subscribe to the belief that the more content we share, and the greater number of followers we amass, the better. Kaushik argues – and I have to agree – that this isn’t necessarily true (or even true at all). Instead, he writes, “What matters is everything that happens after you post / tweet / participate! Did you grab attention? Did you deliver delight? Did you cause people to want to share? Did you initiate a discussion? Did you cause people to take an action?” In essence, Kaushik is repeating what others have argued as well: social media is social; it’s about interaction on a one-to-one level, not one-to-many.
The problem many organizations (and individuals) fall into is being distracted by the gamification of social media, where friends, followers, likes, retweets, favourites, and the followers-to-following ratio dictate success. Of course, the numbers matter to a degree: followers increase the size of your network, retweets spread your message beyond your network, and likes/favourites give you an idea of what your audience enjoys. What matters most, though, is interaction: comments, replies, and relationship-building with others in your network. After all, it takes the click of a mouse to like a post or follow a profile. Commenting takes time and effort. For organizations looking for a different rubric of success, acknowledging that distinction would be a good place to start.
On the usefulness of social media:
Does every organization and business actually need a social media presence? Are there characteristics of organizations that do/do not critically need to be on Facebook, etc?
I can’t say with any certainty whether there are any organizations that would not benefit from some type of social media presence. After all, the options in our current social media climate are nearly limitless, each catered towards a particular niche (or not so niche) interest. I also think most organizations would agree that they have benefitted in at least some small way from having a social media presence.
I think the truer statement would be that not all organizations need to be on every social media outlet. For instance, it doesn’t make much sense for a retirement home to set up a Vine or Tumblr account, nor would it make much sense for a bank or investment firm to have a SoundCloud account — the demographics simply don’t match up. Instead, it’s important for organizations to consider what their targeted consumers or supporters are looking for and deliver it to them. This also includes considering where their targeted consumers are having their conversations, and then making sure to establish a presence in that space.
Of course, this is all assuming organizations are in a space where their target market is using online social media. In less-developed parts of the world, or even simply in smaller communities, the need for a social media presence may be non-existent. For instance, the lone general store in a small rural village likely doesn’t need a social media presence. Its target market is already well-aware of its existence, and the customers likely already know the store owners by name. Similarly, a fishing family living in a remote village on the coast of Thailand would have no use for an online social media presence. Their customers aren’t looking online to buy their fish.
The closest large-scale company I can think of that has managed to succeed (largely) without an online social media presence is Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. The company’s web page has barely changed since it was established in the 1990s. There are no “verified” Berkshire Hathaway Twitter accounts. Buffett has a personal account, but only five Tweets. Similarly, there is no official Berkshire Hathaway Facebook page (unless counting Home Services). The explanation for this, I would theorize, is that a multinational conglomerate such as Berkshire Hathaway, which owns so many different well-established brands, might prefer to stay under the radar and let its brands get all the attention. I would say Berkshire Hathaway is the exception rather than the rule, however.
On social media and its use by individuals and organizations:
How similar are the objectives of an individual’s and an organization’s use of social media? What might be some notable areas of congruence or divergence? Are some social media sites particularly effective for individuals but not for organizations — and vice versa?
In general, I believe individuals and organizations use social media with similar objectives in mind. Both want to present the best version of themselves to the world. Individuals want to appear to have social status, be attractive, and look as if they are always having a good time. Organizations want to appear as though they have social status too, and they wish to present the idea that by associating with them, individuals will always have a good time. In these ways, the two sides are very alike.
Where individuals and organizations diverge is in their motivations for presenting the best version of themselves to the world. Whereas individuals are ‘selling’ themselves as a brand with a particular lifestyle, organizations are typically selling their brand – and associated lifestyle – to consumers through merchandise. In other words, the lifestyle is made to appear achievable if consumers purchase an organization’s particular products.
There is one other major divergence that comes to mind: individuals often turn to social media as a cure for boredom. I doubt the same can be said for organizations. Whereas an individual might Tweet or post on Facebook that they’re hungry, tired, or can’t sleep, this same use of social media would never apply to organizations. Instead, there is always a motivation behind social media use for organizations; it is never used because an organization is simply bored.
As for whether some social media sites are more effective for individuals than organizations or vice versa, I would theorize that Facebook is more effective for individuals, whereas Twitter is more effective for organizations. I believe this has to do with one’s motivation for using different social media sites. As a general rule, most people turn to Facebook in order to check out what their friends have been up to. Organizations also suffer on Facebook from the site’s News Feed algorithm, which drastically reduces the reach of any given post (unless paid for by promotion). Twitter, on the other hand, is driven much more by people seeking information on what’s happening around the world. In this case, news outlets (and likely other organizations as well) thrive on Twitter, much more so than individuals sharing casual observations and updates on their lives.