Software and technology companies have used astroturfing—information dissemination campaigns sponsored by an organization but made to appear like spontaneous, decentralized grassroots movements—since the dawn of the Internet.
Often, this is done through third-party marketing or PR companies. Astroturfing is widespread, extremely difficult to catch and even tougher to prove. Lately, though, astroturfing has also begun to evolve. A new strategy dubbed “crowdturfing,” involves a combination of astroturfing and crowdsourcing in which the marketing and PR companies farm out large-scale astroturfing to a paid stable of everyday Internet users.
In the past few months, electronics giant Samsung has been caught twice spamming false or artificial content not through marketing and PR companies themselves, but via individual users paid to post it for them. In April, the Taiwanese Fair Trade Commission launched an investigation into Samsung for hiring a local advertising agency to pay Taiwanese students to post negative comments about HTC devices while praising Samsung phones.
Then last week, SD Times reported on Fllu, a Korean digital marketing company offering US$500 to users of Q&A programming site StackOverflow to pose “casual and organic” questions about Samsung’s 2013 Smart App Challenge. Fllu posted no content directly, but simply reached out to users with directions of what to post and when.
Keeping their hands clean
Over the years, companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Nokia and Sony have employed astroturfing on various platforms, and have even disguised their efforts to churn out fake product reviews, story comments, forum posts or dummy websites to promote their products or disparage competitors.
On the rare occasions these campaigns are discovered, the PR middleman usually takes the blame, giving the companies deniability despite whatever media attention or public opinion links them to the astroturfing. Hiding behind PR and marketing companies to facilitate the procees is “far more the norm than the exception,” Ben Zhao, associate professor of computer science at UC Santa Barbara, told SD Times. Zhao introduced the term crowdturfing in his 2012 co-authored research paper, “Serf and Turf, Crowdturfing for Fun and Profit.”
“In almost all instances, it’s how these companies operate,” he said. “They interact through PR firms or media companies, which protects the actual party from public opinion or blame.”
The water army
For the research paper, Zhao and his colleagues studied the systems and methods of crowdturfing within a gigantic sample size—China.
China was an ideal place to study crowdturfing, according to Zhao, because it boasts the world’s largest Internet population (more than 485 million users) and a moderately low per-capita income (approx. $3,200 per year.) Large crowdturfing sites like Zhubajie.com and Sandaha.com connect Chinese PR and marketing firms to a population willing to receive low pay for crowd-sourced labor. Zhao likened these crowdturfing sites, which give companies instant access to thousands of global workers, to the structure of U.S. job marketplace sites such as Amazon Mechanical Turk. The massive pool of crowdturfers then posts fake comments spreading false rumors and advertisements, as what the Chinese have taken to calling the “Shui Jun,” or Water Army.
“All data points to the fact that these sites and tactics are growing exponentially,” said Zhao, and not just in China. “We’re already coming to a point where in every instance of product reviews, we ask ourselves what proportion of the data is fake.”
Zhao and his colleagues break crowdturfing down into how its structure works. Customers—the companies who initiate the campaign—hire agents, the intermediary marketing or PR companies to plan and manage the campaign, and distribute funds to Internet users known as workers, who post the false information.
A global crowd
When asked about Samsung’s strategies in particular, Zhao admitted that industry-specific instances, like those involving Samsung crowdturfing on StackOverflow, are quite hard to come by, because PR firms tend to be more careful about the content users are looking for. “It’s difficult to come by evidence unless someone tells you,” he said.
In Samsung’s case, Fllu’s efforts were clumsy and Android developer Delyan Kratunov turned down their offer, instead publicizing the entire exchange on his blog. Aside from admissions like Kratunov’s, detection efforts are general techniques at best, easier to identify fake product reviews on larger sites such as Amazon and Yelp.
According to Zhao, the best way is to follow pay-cycles and content spikes, looking for suspicious bursts in comments and reviews lining up with when workers are paid. Zhao’s research was based in China, but he already recognizes telltale signs of crowdturfing in the U.S. and other parts of the world, Samsung being the latest example.
In the research paper’s conclusion, Zhao and his colleagues warn just how widespread and pervasive crowdturfing is. They write, “Our survey of crowdturfing sites in the U.S. and elsewhere demonstrates the global nature of this problem. Unscrupulous crowd-sourcing sites, coupled with international payment systems, have enabled a burgeoning crowdturfing market that targets U.S. websites, fueled by a global workforce.”