Ah, astroturfing. My new favorite “PR ethics dilemma.” If you have been following my blog, you will know that my interest in astroturfing was sparked by the Tea Party movement (see a previous post), the Coffee Party movement (another previous post), and their mutual accusations of astroturfing. Astroturfing is defined by Wikipedia as “political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behavior.”
You can imagine my delight when the topic of astroturfing came up in my social media strategy class. For an assignment, we were asked to pick an ethical dilemma (my dilemma of choice was astroturfing – big surprise) and provide recommendations for an organization struggling with this dilemma. Because of my interest in politics (hence the relevancy to this blog), I decided to raise the astroturfing dilemma from a political campaign standpoint. This is my core question: Should a campaign – anonymously or posing as ordinary citizens – post comments on political forums, blogs and online news stories in order to generate the idea that there is widespread opposition to our opponents or a groundswell of support for the campaign?
I’ll just cut to the chase. The answer is NO! The answer is no for three (of course, there are countless other reasons) specific reasons: Astroturfing..
- erodes the democratic process: Disguising the campaign online in order to create the appearance of a diverse conversation surrounding either the candidate or opponents erodes the democratic process, which requires citizens to seek and obtain honest information from their fellow citizens in order to make informed decisions when voting.
- makes enemies of news organizations and online opinion leaders: Astroturfing angers journalists and online opinion leaders, who use the Internet as a place to help citizens make informed voting decisions. The media are important filters and gatekeepers in a campaign and to anger them can have negative repercussions.
- destroys credibility and support: When found out to be astroturfing, a campaign will be painted as unethical, dirty and disingenuous. This will erode support and give opponents the upper hand.
Transparency and disclosure are key in undertaking a political campaign. You will garner support with honesty, not with deceit. If you want to read an example of campaign astroturfing (the McCain campaign), visit this blog, which provides a great description of campaign astroturfing and why it is unethical