Astroturfing more difficult to track down with social media - academic

9:00 am on 6 April 2021

Weeding out fake news and misinformation is becoming increasingly difficult in the new media environment where social media rules, an academic says.

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Massey University academic Catherine Strong says there's a lot of fake grassroots organisation but they're not illegal (File image). Photo: 123RF

Massey University academic Catherine Strong occasionally spends a few hours tracking down the original source of some social media post setting the internet ablaze.

Dr Strong, who teaches journalism and public relations, said surprisingly often it turned out to have been generated by a bot or a new Facebook page or Twitter handle.

"Anybody can set up a website that looks like it's an innocent user group, but it's actually paid for by a client that wants the public or politicians to think there's a whole lot of people out there who feel this way. So social media has made it a whole lot more difficult to go back and see the originator."

Social media has been a game-changer for lobbyists and politicians, allowing them to bypass mainstream media and speak directly to their legions of followers.

But are journalists also being hoodwinked?

Research by Dr Strong and journalist Fran Tyler in 2015 found 90 percent of stories published in a three-month period on Stuff and the New Zealand Herald's website quoting 20 selected lobby groups did not contain any description or label, just their names.

Dr Strong said this left the casual reader unaware of the interests behind any position they were peddling.

Who would guess the benign-sounding Association of Community Retailers was in fact set up and funded by Imperial Tobacco to protest tobacco-related legislation?

It was a couple of left-wing bloggers who revealed this, embarrassing journalists who had been regurgitating their press releases uncritically without realising it was an astroturf - a fake grassroots organisation.

"Astroturfing is actually used a lot, even though it is considered unethical. But it's not illegal," Dr Strong.

Former ACT Party researcher Grant McLachlan said part of his job was producing easily digestible newsbites.

"I used to put to put together personalised media statements and statistics for community newspapers, and they used to love that sort of information because it was personalised for their subscribers."

Investigative journalist Nicky Hager has written extensively about political lobbyists.

Nicky Hager walking into Wellington High Court 15/07/15

Nicky Hager. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

He said to be fair to journalists, they were vastly outnumbered by lobbyists and PR flunkies, who were generally better paid and more experienced.

"It takes a tip off from somewhere or some extra effort by a suspicious journalist before you crack through that. So it's not that journalists are being willing fools in this, it's just deliberately deceptive things are hard to find out."

So what can be done about this kind of cynical manipulation?

"It's hard to regulate because it's in the free speech democratic zone and it's easy for people to scream, 'You're taking away our freedom of speech'," Hager said.

"And you've got to be really careful you don't do that because the heart of freedom of speech is you protect the rights of people who you don't agree with.

"So yes, it's hard to do.

"But everything that can be done, should be done because they can swamp the genuine political space, cut out other people, make people distrustful of news, distort issues. It really matters."

Unlike Australia, Canada, the European Union and the United States, New Zealand doesn't require third-party lobbyists to register before meeting MPs.

However, academic Catherine Strong was skeptical a register would make political lobbying completely transparent.

"They aren't lobbying by physically going into Parliament or going to their local councillors. They're not physically fronting up. They're using social media, they're sending out tweets, they're using a whole lot of other things. So a register really couldn't be controlled."

The only thing that would stop astroturfing and fake news was for mainstream media to "call it out" and always make it clear who was behind the statements being made, Dr Strong said.

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