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100 articles – ‘The need to protect the internet from ‘astroturfing’ grows ever more urgent’

A blog post warning of an alarming development in online marketing has been selected by James Rosewarne as one of the '100 articles' about journalism that every journalist should read.

‘The need to protect the internet from ‘astroturfing’ grows ever more urgent’ by George Monbiot

Online astroturfing‘. A strange term with truly sinister implications. Imagine reading an article or a blog, listening to a podcast or participating in a chat forum and discovering that all the associated comments were overwhelmingly supporting or condemning the issue at hand. Now imagine that all of these comments were computer-generated. Bogus entities created and electronically bussed in to internet spaces to provide the illusion that large numbers of people are either opposing or supporting a particular issue. Genuinely scary stuff.  

George Monbiot wrote this piece after being contacted by what he described as a ‘whistleblower’ late last year whorevealed to the acclaimed Guardian journalist that he’d performed just such a function on behalf of various corporate clients. That he’d personally entered public internet forums posing (under as many as 70 different personas) as a disinterested member of the public voicing the support of his employer’s product.

However in recent times Monbiot has become even more concerned that ‘internet astroturfing’ is now moving away from the likes of his whistleblower into something far more sophisticated and with more scope: a world computer-generated on-line personas equipped to perform the insidious work of ‘human astroturfers’ only with a depth of identity, presence and range the human simply isn’t capable of.

Monbiot calls the internet a ‘wonderful gift’ but he’s right to suggest that this phenomenon truly has the ‘potential to destroy the internet as a forum for constructive debate and one which makes a mockery of online democracy’.

James Rosewarne is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University.

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