Is fake grass always greener? Astroturfing and ethical internal communications

Now more than ever, social media is an essential source of news for people around the world – as is evident in Twitter’s rebrand as a news platform earlier this year. Absolutely anyone can set up a twitter account and get tweeting in a matter of minutes, weighing in on topics from local to international importance.

In 2010, politically minded Toronto residents took to Twitter to defend their chosen mayoral candidate under the hashtag #voteto. On the face of it, @QueensQuayKaren was just another concerned voter. Describing herself as a ‘downtown Toronto gal who likes politics, my cat Mittens, and a good book’, Karen Philby seemed constantly engaged in political combat, steadily losing faith in her chosen Toronto mayoral candidate George Smitherman and turning to his rival, Rob Ford.

Looking at the @QueensQuayKaren profile now, it’s hard not to be struck by its artificiality. But it was convincing enough to persuade Dieter Doneit-Henderson into handing over an incriminating audio clip. Set up by Ford’s deputy communications director, this social media ‘sock puppet’ enabled the safe retrieval of the clip, and then continued to weigh in heavily on the debate, gradually turning to Ford and influencing the opinions of legitimate voters.

Although in no way a new issue, astroturfing – where the impression of support for an idea or person is created using fake profiles (or ‘sock puppets’) – has been a pertinent issue for politically troubling 2016. An article published by Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project estimated that 15% of the twitter accounts that engaged in the Brexit debate were partly, or entirely, automated. The same worries shrouded the presidential debate, with both sides accused of artificially bolstering their ranks.

Clearly, astroturfing is having a worrying impact on public opinion. But what influence would astroturfing have on employee engagement if businesses started to use it in their internal comms? Is falsifying employee opinion on the next big merger, the next structural or strategy change, the way to go to get colleagues on side?

Practically, astroturfing doesn’t need to be costly. Granted, some huge organisations have reportedly piled large investments into persona management software, which is capable of creating believable sock puppet profiles that can be set to churn out likes, favourites and retweets. But some instances of small-scale astroturfing have been orchestrated by just one person, as was the case with @QueensQuayKaren. Clearly, somewhere in between these two extremes lies something which is easily accessible, and devastatingly effective.

So what’s stopping comms teams from taking this route? It could certainly be tempting to ‘soften the blow’ – to mask an impending change with positive responses to attempt to sway negative reactions. But such practice is not only dishonest, it breeds distrust. To lie about sentiment, or to try to influence opinion by avoiding the facts, only serves to widen the gap between those in charge and those on the front line.

Moreover, if internal comms teams have the means to synthesise engagement among their colleagues and create imitation support for products, strategy, anything – then why would they bother investing in genuine colleague happiness? This worrying move to artificial happiness has the capacity to change the face of employee engagement – but it really shouldn’t.

One of the corporate practices that is most damaging to employee engagement is denying the negativity of a situation – sugarcoating the facts and denying any wrongdoing. Astroturfing is yet another tool in the arsenal for those unwilling to accept accountability. In our own research, we find time and time again that honesty and openness from leaders is invaluable to employees. Astroturfing is a quick fix, but in the long run it will only lead to mistrust and apathy.

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Posted on 13th December 2016 in Culture
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