Astroturfing or Thought Engineering

Article: About Astroturfing or Thought Engineering Using the Internet


The word Astroturfing has no Persian equivalent, and its meaning is used when we want to express the process of fake public efforts through the Internet to engineer the thoughts and change the opinions of the target spectrum. This method mainly focuses on influencing public opinion. Behind the scenes of such movements in the Cyberspace are companies, political institutions, and economic identities that advance their tribal goals.

1. Definition of the word Astroturfing

The artificial grass produced by a company called AstroTurf has inspired the invention of the term Astroturfing. The high quality of this artificial grass, similar to the natural samples, formed the use of such a term. Astroturfing involves creating a virtual and unreal image of public support to influence others. Sometimes we see some content on the cyber web that, contrary to our imagination, has received a lot of Likes. It is usually done by the internet robots under the authority of the interested cores.

In political science, the process of helping to win elections /or trying to reduce acute social grievances by exaggerating or spreading unreal information by Internet robots is called Astroturfing. When this technique is used, an image of public consensus that does not exist externally rises in the target society and gradually or suddenly affects public opinion. As was said before, the driving force of such actions are mainly companies, political organizations, and contaminated governments. (1) (2) (3)

2. Astroturfing on the Internet

On the Internet, a person affiliated with existing organizations creates many identities behind the scenes to induce the illusion of “we are countless” in society or the target spectrum. The conducted studies say that; this method can create a significant effect on its audience. The lack of awareness in some audiences is the reason for the mentioned effect. Literacy, politics, and history are the enemies of this technique.

In the first systematic study conducted by Professor Ann Howard of Oxford University, the person mentioned argues that the Internet is a convenient tool for powerful lobbyists and makes their work very easy.

The ability to program and publish content through the robots is such that they can automatically print consecutive content for some time. In January 2021, a study was conducted that confirmed the ability to automatically publish posts by a robot for up to 14 consecutive days.

In the United States, prohibitions have been imposed on violators in this area, including a fine of $16,000 per day for violation. In the European Union, laws have been enacted to protect consumers. The UK has consumer protection laws against unfair trading.

Of course, we know that the above and similar countries outside their borders do not set a limit for lawlessness and violation of principles at any level. Creating a crisis in cyberspace and applying cognitive warfare in the target countries are prevalent tasks of these regimes. Currently, in the United Kingdom, a maximum prison sentence of two years and unlimited financial fines for economic criminals (in fact in micro-fields) are predicted. (4) (5) (6) (7)

3. Justifications of some stakeholders in defense of Astroturfing

Some activists in this field defend their actions seriously. In reality, everything considered in these claims is in the interest of a powerful minority. Machiavelli’s policies cannot be a justifying tool to achieve a goal. Illegitimate means will not justify their target. Naturally, using illegitimate ways to achieve an improper goal is worse.

Some Astroturfing operatives defend their practice. Regarding “movements that have organized aggressively to exaggerate their sway,” author Ryan Sager said that “this isn’t cheating. Doing everything in your power to get your people to show up is basic politics.” According to a Porter/Novelli executive, “There will be times when the position you advocate, no matter how well framed and supported, will not be accepted by the public simply because you are who you are.” (10) (11) (12) (13)

4. The effect of using Astroturfing in the target communities from the security-political point of view

Cognitive Warfare is a more evolved, advanced, and effective form of term Soft Warfare. It is known as Termite Warfare too. One of the significant features of this war is relying on the infrastructure of modern cyber media that targets human thinking. Astroturfing is one of the tools used in this type of war.

Cognitive Warfare creates many threats for the target countries, including the disintegration, fracture, and fragmentation of society, the loss of the collective will to resist the enemy, and accept complete domination without force or objective coercion.

The goals of Cognitive Warfare can be both short-term and medium-term, as well as strategic and long-term. For example, in the short term, Cognitive Warfare aims to prevent a planned military maneuver or to change a policy. The long-term goals of Cognitive Warfare can be, for example, disrupting society or solidarity by creating doubts about the government, subverting democratic processes, inciting civil unrest, or inciting separatist movements.

Astroturfing is a subset of Cognitive Warfare and is one of the efficient tools that play a role in this collection. When this tool is used on a large scale and for fundamental changes in the history of countries, it creates many disasters. It also has destructive effects on other applications. For example, trying to remove economic competitors from the competition ring is corrupting and worthy. It makes the business patriarchy problematic (17) (18) (19) (21).

5. General technique

As mentioned above, beneficiary organizations introduce themselves with fake cover titles to serve public interests. Behind the scenes, these organizations instill the suspicion that “we are countless” by emphasizing the viewpoint of a minority or false news for people who are prone to accept them.

Newsmaking is mainly done by humanoid robots that are in large numbers at the disposal of people and mercenary organizations. This technique uses the social flaws and problems in society and makes violent changes by spreading rumors, making excuses, and encouraging the audience to riot on the waves of dissatisfaction. It will complete by the assistance of mercenary terrorists and uninformed infantry. In other words, the output of astroturfing is prone to tension, disturbance, and sabotage, which will be carried out in the next phase by mercenaries and the ignorant under the influence of psychological operations.

In economic matters and the like, similar methods are used with differences. Commenting on the quality of a product or eliminating economic competitors from the competition field through the Internet are included in this category. (17) (18) (19) (20) (34)


6. History and examples

When the term astroturfing was not developed yet, we can see its prototype in Act 1, scene 2 of Julius Caesar Shakespeare’s play. In this play, Gaius Cassius Longinus writes fake letters on behalf of the people to convince Brutus to assassinate Julius Caesar. (15)

 The term “astroturfing” was first coined in 1985 by Texas Democratic Party senator Lloyd Bentsen when he said, “a fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grass roots and AstroTurf… this is generated mail.” The person mentioned by the senator was none other than himself. His reason was a mass of emails, cards, and letters that were sent to his office to promote the insurance industry. (12) (13) (35)

Our country Iran has always been attacked by enemies in various forms. Consequently, when faced with the term Thought Engineering, our minds usually turn to the types of planned attacks against the country’s solidarity. But it exists in other fields too. We may want to add the not-so-principled activities of some political factions during election times to the above issue. Dealing with these issues requires another opportunity. In addition to this fact, as previously stated, Astroturfing is used in various fields.

Some of the aspects of this phenomenon may have been conceived by some of us and some not. Depending on the type and quality of monitoring made by the authorized organizations, this category is constantly being repeated in different forms and intensities. Our goal in this article is to familiarize a range of audiences with generalities that can relatively immunize them against lies and collusion with sources that pursue illegitimate personal goals.

Given that Westerners were creators and primary users of this method, we will continue to add a few cases that happened in the United States. (10) (25)

Number 1

Email, automated phone calls, form letters, and the Internet made astroturfing more economical and productive in the late 1990s. In 2001, while Microsoft was defending itself against an antitrust lawsuit, Americans for Technology Leadership (ATL), a group heavily funded by Microsoft, began a letter-writing campaign. ATL contacted various people under the guise of conducting a survey and sent forms and sample letters to pro-Microsoft customers to send to the lawmakers involved. The effort was designed to make it appear that there was public support for a sympathetic ruling in antitrust litigation. (12) (22) (25) (26)

Number 2

In June 2010, the US Air Force requested software called “Persona management” that would enable an operator to train and use several people online from a single workstation without fear of detection by professional adversaries. These characters should be able to appear anywhere in the world to accomplish their cyber goals. The identities in question should be able to interact with each other through conventional online services and social media platforms.

A $2.6 million contract was awarded to Ntrepid for astroturfing software that the military uses to spread pro-American propaganda. In the West Asia region, according to them or their justification, disrupting propaganda and preventing the recruitment of extremists was part of the goals of this program. The deal is believed to be part of a program called “Operation Earnest Voice. For the first time, it was deployed as an advanced psychological warfare weapon against the online presence of groups opposed to coalition forces. (16) (29) (30) (31) (32)

Number 3

In 2009-2010, on the eve of the 2010 US mid-term elections and the suspension of accounts on the social media platform, due to the topic sensitivity, a research study was developed at Indiana University. A software system was expanded to detect trolling on Twitter. The study cited several examples promoting and advocating conservative policies and candidates. (22) (23) (24)

Number 4

In 2003, offered the site’s users “points” that could be redeemed for products if they signed a form letter promoting George Bush and got a local paper to publish it as a letter to the editor. More than 100 newspapers published an identical letter to the editor from the site with different signatures on it. According to their media, similar campaigns were used by and to promote Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 film, which does not diminish America’s negligence in the crimes committed. (19) (27)

Number 5

The Federal Budget Committee’s “Fix the Debt” campaign advocated reducing the government’s debt without disclosing that its members were lobbyists or high-ranking employees of companies aimed at reducing federal spending. They also sent articles to various students to publish as it is. (28)

Final points

The number of examples in this field is many and varied. To avoid the length of the text of the article, we refrained from expressing them. If the Astroturfing method is used for the more limited problems mentioned above, it is also possible to use it for larger dimensions and purposes.

This method has been used in our surrounding area and some other parts of the world. Our goal in this article was to state the generalities of this illegitimate cruel method and provide some limited examples. Naturally, it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the role of Astroturfing in the social unrest of countries like what happened in Iran last fall. After the emergence and expansion of the Internet, Western countries, under the guidance of Americans, have tried to implement such a model many times in our country. It has unfortunately caused some losses. But due to the grace of the dear God, despite the severity of the attacks, they have failed to achieve their evil goals.



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