The Impact of Astroturfing on Online Communities

Spreadable Media raises the issue of marketing subterfuges such as “astroturfing” employed by modern corporations. The massive explosion of online social networks and communities has naturally garnered the attention of marketers, who see great potential for outreach to customers. Given the communal, societal, and at times relatively anonymous nature of the modern Web, marketers enjoy greater ability than ever before to circulate their message while disguising its origins.

“Astroturfing” refers to the practice of corporate representatives masquerading as normal members of an online community in order to promote a company. With sites such as Reddit reaching millions of individuals a day, incentive for companies to engage in such behavior certainly exists. I will briefly examine the impact of this practice on another community briefly touched on by Spreadable Media, the anonymous imageboard 4chan. 4chase

As noted by Spreadable Media¸4chan stands as a prominent center of remix culture. To some the site, notorious for its unfiltered and often offensive content, likely epitomizes everything wrong with the internet. Despite its flaws, 4chan has stood the test of time as an important part of Web culture and source of content such as some mainstream “memes”. 4chan’s most distinctive trait – total anonymity – also renders the site particularly susceptible to astroturfing. Many 4chan users refer to the practice as “viraling”, short for viral marketing. As the site enforces complete anonymity, there exists no basis to question someone’s credentials as an authentic member of the community other than the content of an individual’s post.

An awareness or fear of “viraling” has spread in some areas of the site, notably the video games board, /v/. Due to the inability of 4chan users to identify marketers effectively based on a lack of documented history as a normal member of the community, many users have become wary and spiteful toward any post which appears overly effusive in its praise of a game. Threads which users deem overly complimentary of a game, particularly a game perceived to be disliked by a majority of the community, are likely to experience aggressive posts denouncing the original poster as a marketer or “shill”. Unfortunately, no effective method to identify actual marketers exists, and so legitimate discussion suffers from the specter of astroturfing. I myself have been accused of marketing for a company when I simply wanted to discuss a game I enjoyed.

The example of 4chan indicates a greater problem caused by astroturfing. Stealth marketers foster a lack of faith in the validity and integrity of an online community. Many members of a community may become paranoid and distrustful of their fellows, stifling discussion and restricting the community’s ability to function. Astroturfing poisons the well of web communities, so to speak. I’m not sure that any effective solution to the problem exists, but should one not be found, our ability to place any faith in Web communities at all will be greatly hampered.


Works Cited

Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. NYU Press, 2013.

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