Here are some keys to protecting yourself

In China, the government pays more than 280,000 “civil servants” to “manufacture” public opinion. Their name? The “water army” created in 2010. This “army” is made up of users who may be part of private firms that are paid to post comments on Chinese-language websites in accordance with government guidelines. They generally operate on the most popular online platforms, such as the Sina-Weibo microblogging site, WeChat messaging, or Taobao, the country’s main online shopping site.

Thus, this “water army” dedicates itself to the practice of “astroturfing” approaches saturated with messages, especially in social networks: using bots, multiplying fake accounts, etc. This approach is analogous to certain techniques of “black hat hackers” or hacktivists. Some flood require servers to block them (DDos attack), others deface the site to display their claims on the targeted site’s home page. If we are concerned, saturation makes one think of mass movements.

Astroturfing has gained some traction in recent years, if not recently. The term, which can be translated as “synthetic turf”, refers to an operation intended to create a false impression of spontaneous behavior or popular opinion. It is not the prerogative of the political world, but as we will discuss, firms use it, be it to restore the image of the product, to counter criticism or even to disqualify the product by any means. Science as a Monsanto firm, revealed by the “Monsanto Papers” in 2017, the latter, among other things, commissioned a consulting agency to produce emails and create a “Center for Food and Agricultural Research.” Critics of Monsanto.

However, it would be a mistake to think that “political astroturfing” would be reserved for authoritarian and/or dictatorial regimes such as China or Russia at the behest of the St. Petersburg-based Kremlin.

So, during the last presidential elections in France in 2022, the newspaper The world “Eric Zemmour revealed how activists artificially exaggerated the presence of his candidate on Twitter.” Journalists have collected hundreds of thousands of tweets in support of Zemmur… very little about his real “hit” on the networks.

“Why am I getting this message? »

So how can citizens “protect” themselves from these manipulation attempts and detect an astroturfing campaign? Here are some keys:

  • The message is repeated.

  • The campaign uses multiple distribution channels and multiple identifiers on the same platform (eg Twitter, although social networks officially prohibit this practice).

  • It is characterized by the repetition of the same vocabulary sequence through more or less simultaneous messages from different sources with no apparent connection between them.

Sometimes a message cites similar messages as the source, which reinforces the idea that the idea being conveyed is shared by many people, that the sources refer to each other, and that the content is similar. In addition, most attempts to reply to the sender result in a higher than normal failure rate.

The temporality of very fast messages as well as retweet campaigns (lasting longer than average), elements that are difficult to detect without significant IT resources, should also be considered. In the example below, on April 20, 2022, the account @Samuel_Lafont (Digital Strategy and fundraising for @Reconquete_off @ZemmourEric), which currently has nearly 54,000 subscribers, as noted by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), shared a petition24 in less than five minutes.

Astroturfing also plays on its audience’s fear of being de-informed, that is, the fear of missing something important or, worse, being manipulated by a propaganda version of the information. This reinforces a climate of mistrust of the news media and the isolation of people who are connected to the world through social networks, but who are practically cut off from social life.

By asking the right questions, one can understand the intentions of the authors: to raise an agenda for public opinion. In addition, astroturfing is generally characterized by the presence of an identifiable or removable sponsor.

Therefore, a measure of “good data hygiene” is always to ask: why am I receiving this message from someone I do not know in principle?

Working with saturation

Of course, like all propaganda, astroturfing cannot convince the unwilling. At most, it can raise suspicion among people who no longer want to take a stand, or among the small minority who value information outside the system, in other words, people who tend to maintain conspiracies and bubbles. real social life. This is one of the pathologies of information.

Like propaganda, it can only function through saturation, in a dense information environment where people have neither the time nor the will to step back from the messages that reach them. Being isolated from the flow of information, it loses all relevance. Therefore, its relative harmlessness for people who invest in attentive search for information and have high cognitive and attentional investment” Political Communication Vol. 37, 2020)

Avoid the critical point

However, in addition to its “weaknesses”, its effectiveness should not be underestimated, especially in times of general distrust and doubts about the future in many aspects, which is the current and general context of our societies. Authors of astroturfing campaigns, even at a decent level of education, benefit from the real poverty of conceptual frameworks and the richness of the vocabulary of the population and the generalized tendency due to the nature of media and mass. information available to encourage emotional responses (now ubiquitous anger) to critical engagement with information.

The real risk is when an astroturfing campaign reaches a tipping point where it is captured by the original buyers and perpetuates itself regardless of the actions of those who initiated the campaign; then it becomes a rumor, an element of common sense that can no longer be rooted out or easily detected. He then succeeded in changing some of the public opinion.

However, trying to censor these experiences is not a good idea. The first is because, as mentioned, virtually all political and geopolitical actors use it to one degree or another, not always with “bad” intentions, and any censorship will usually be partial and aimed at the interests of censoring groups. This will also result in a reduction in the number of actors, strengthening the power of the rest, indeed remember that one of the weaknesses of astroturfing is that the proliferation of campaigns helps to weaken their influence.

In conclusion, we must learn to live with it, be aware of these “asymmetric” methods of information, which hopefully, like all marketing methods, political or not, will create a learning curve for Internet users in the long run. increasingly inactive.


Yannick Chatelain, associate professor. Digital I IT. GEMinsights Content Manager, Grenoble School of Management (GEM) and Jean-Marc HuissoudProfessor and Researcher, Internationalization Strategies of International Relations, Grenoble School of Management (GEM).

Through this article, the authors would like to pay tribute to Jean-Francois Fiorina, a dedicated geopolitics enthusiast and longtime Deputy Director of GEM, who was appointed General Manager of Ipag in September 2022 and who left us suddenly on November 16, 2022 in Nice. ..