Taiwan's Fair Trade Commission this week fined Korean conglomerate Samsung $340,000 for "astroturfing."
Specifically, the Taiwanese FTC said Samsung paid two "marketing firms" more than $100,000 to hire people to "highlight the shortcomings of competing products," engage in the "disinfection of negative news about Samsung products," positively review Samsung products and, (in a bizarre turn of phrase), do "palindromic Samsung product marketing," whatever that means.
Wait, what's 'astroturfing'?
Samsung was fined for paying a "large number of hired writers and designated employees" to post comments in online forums praising Samsung and criticizing competitors.
Astroturf is a brand of fake grass; "astroturfing" is a reference to a fake "grass-roots" movement.
The practice of astroturfing has a long and sordid history. The term was coined by U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas in 1985, referring to a letter-writing campaign orchestrated by the insurance industry. In fact, astroturfing has been a major tool of political dirty tricks since the Roman empire.
The rise of the Internet, online messages boards and social media — and with it, the rising influence of "the crowd" — has brought the practice to business, including the mobile computing industry, as well as other types of businesses.
Astroturfing scale ranges from the local business where the owner asks family and friends to write positive online reviews to the biggest sustained astroturfing campaign in history: China's 50-cent army.
The Chinese government reportedly pays as many 300,000 people to post pro-Chinese government comments on forums, message boards and social media sites within China and all over the world. It has reportedly being going on for years as part of a sustained policy.
(This effort of disinformation bolsters that government's massive monitoring system for social media worldwide, which reportedly employs 2 million people.)
While China allegedly relies upon sheer manpower to overwhelm global public opinion about the Chinese government, other organizations use automation.
A class of software called " persona management software" magnifies the effectiveness of each paid fake opinion writer by auto-generating a credible but phony online persona (also called a "sockpuppet"), including a fake name, email address, web site, social media profiles and other data. The software creates fake online activity to give the non-existent users a "history" or online "footprint."
"Persona management software" specific to social networks is called a " social bot."
Some industries rely almost entirely upon web-based reviews, and so astroturfing is rife. Hotels, restaurants and books are heavily reliant on customer-generated reviews to attract new business.
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