Current trends in social media are both exciting and potentially scary. The amount of change is unprecedented, and the future of social media is a giant question mark waiting for our ideas to shape and transform it. Social media is centered around real people being themselves and expressing their ideas in a honest and open dialogue. It’s about connection. It’s about being social. It’s about opening the doors to a global community.
However, there are threats that many users may not even be aware of.
Astroturfing. Before reading this article I had no idea what ‘astroturfing‘ was, let alone how greatly it could affect online users. For those that were in the dark like myself, astroturfing involves using sophisticated software to pose as real people and support the cause of the software purchaser.
This is an almost unbelievable problem. Movie plots of smart technology going horribly wrong like the Matrix, Smart House, and iRobot all come to mind. However, the worst part of it is that the bad guys here are not smart technology — it’s people. This is something that used to be done as anonymous letters to the paper, but as technology advances the threats become even more expansive.
The people involved in using this software are betraying the very nature of blog comments and social media. These forums are meant to give each individual a voice, including those who are using astroturfing to silence that voice. It is a behind-the-scenes lie that attempts to sway public opinion by pretending to be the public, something so unethical I can’t believe that it’s legal. As journalists, I believe it is our responsibility to call out such activity and advocate for the public, although the software could comment on our articles and make it appear that no one agrees with our take on the issue.
Sponsored Tweets. While astroturfing can take place on a number of platforms, sponsored tweets are a challenge that has grown as Twitter has become increasingly popular. Well-followed celebrities or parody accounts will accept money to give a company or brand a positive shout out.
As a Twitter user, I can think of nothing I detest more than when these kind of tweets pop up on my news feed. Twitter should be an ad-free space, and I greatly lose respect for any popular people I follow that engage in this activity. Most of the time I simply unfollow them. These people are well trusted in the media and, while they may not consider themselves accountable to journalistic standards, they need to reevaluate their ethical standards. Accepting money in attempts to try to persuade their followers is not keeping the best interest of those followers a top priority. Take a look at how much some of the most popular tweeters are being paid.
With both of these growing issues it seems we are being catfished by celebrities we may look up to and businesses or government agencies that might not deserve the respect we give them. For those that don’t know what catfishing is, the following video will make the similarity abundantly clear.
Just as Nev didn’t know who the girl he met online truly was, perhaps we are getting to the point where we can’t trust the authenticity of fellow blog commenters or advocating tweeters.
It is up to us to stop these shady breaches of confidence from happening. If celebrities lose large followings every time they take cash for a tweet, it will decrease their incentive to do so. In addition, if the public can shed light on the specific events and organizations involved in astroturfing, the software loses its purpose and the public dialogue can continue to be an exchange worth having. Like I said before, it’s up to us.
-Ann Watercutter is a junior studying strategic communications with a minor in business and a marketing specialization. Keep up with Ann at @AWatercutter.