Fake Followers and Twitter Astroturf: It's Sorta Social, Demented and Sad, But Social

"It's sorta social, demented and sad, but social."

I couldn't help but think of that great line from the brat pack classic The Breakfast Club when I read on Mother Jones and Rainforest Action Network's Understory blog about last Thursday's discovery that Big Oil has resorted to creating fake Twitter accounts in order to fabricate an illusion of 'grassroots' support for the controversial Keystone pipeline project. If approved by the Obama administration, Keystone XL would bring Canadian tar sands oil from Alberta down to the lower 48. Find out why this is a really bad idea here.

Hats off to Rainforest Action Network's Brant Olson for his keen eye and attention to TweetDeck detail in finding this. His blog does a great job of detailing how he caught it and is worth a read.

For folks not familiar with the term, 'Astroturf' (as in fake grass) is a term often used to describe the creation of an artificial, fictitious grassroots buzz about an issue, political viewpoint, product or service. These are usually created and/or funded by corporations, industry trade groups, front groups, public relations firms or political interests.

It's been going on for years, with Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Plastic, Big Pharma and Big Ag all jockeying to outdo themselves in a bottom-feeder buffet of deceit and trickery. Witness the creation of countless Astroturf groups with clever names that sound really grassrootsy, the paying of people to plan events, attend rallies and demonstrate, and now even Tweet. The American Petroleum Institute has even stooped to using stock photos in ads and claiming those pictured are 'ordinary Americans' with API's particular political outlook.

But now that these practices have come to social networking and social media, it's time to dust off that Breakfast Club classic: "It's sorta social, demented and sad, but social."

Big Oil likes to file frivolous lawsuits, and undergo massive lobbying efforts for and against policies that might at all limit their ability to go unchecked. And of course they collaborate closely with PR firms that provide the strategy and execute many of these 'astroturf' tactics.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before 'astroturf' practices found their way to social networking, but I find it sweetly fitting that this would be uncovered on Sheldon Rampton's birthday.

Rampton and co-author John Stauber first introduced me to the concept of Astroturf groups in their legendary work, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry. Their follow-up book, Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future, is also a classic.

The two and their team also maintain PRWatch and SourceWatch, important sites that track 'astroturf' activities and other wrongdoing. No doubt their documentation of this trend's splash over into social media will grow in coming months.

It turned out to be quite a week in the Twitterverse. While despicable and pathetic, I can only hope that Newt Gingrich's fake tweeps scandal helps illuminate rather than overshadow this one! So ironic that someone who wants to be president of our fine nation would brag about having more followers on Twitter than the other candidates, only then to find 92 percent of them were bought. Demented and sad. (If you haven't heard about this, NPR and Mashable.com have some great coverage!)

A good friend, aerial activist and artist John Quigley shared a fascinating challenge with me. He asked me to ponder this with him:

In this Attention-Deficit-Disorder-Age-of-Twitter, where things come and go so fast, what is the stuff of legend? And how does something or someone (whether it is an activist folk hero like Tim DeChristopher or a social movement like the Climate Justice Movement) become legendary? And how does something continue to be legendary?

Can overnight legends still be called legends if their hash tags aren't trending by the following afternoon? Is there a formula for predicting this? And who will unlock the code first? Will it be 'real' grassroots change agents who want to make our nation and our world a more just place, or the astroturf Twakers (Twitter-Fakers) paid off by Big industry to make a bid for control of our idea space? Can corporations or candidates really win if they sink to the most embarrassing and despicable lows of FAKING grassroots support? What new and improved form of media literacy must we foster to make sure legend-seekers know the difference between the makers and the fakers?

I am rooting for the good guys, the ones whose movement is made of living, breathing people who believe in a cause, not those paid off to 'friend' or 'follow' whatever demented, sad sheister throws down some coin.

So come on Tweeps, don't let me down!