In Melbourne, a city full of food and obsessed by coffee, I cook, I eat, I share the good news and the bad. essjay eats

Crowdsourcing + astroturfing = crowdturfing*

If people are paid for postive reviews, where does that leave an honest blogger? Are online mercenaries the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.

I think just about every story I’ve read about the benefits of citizen journalism, or blogging / micro-blogging etc brings up the issue of the uncensored nature of this kind of writing; that’s it’s free from the influences of editors and PR machines, and that it is to be valued for its independence and “truth”.

But what happens when people are paid to provide positive content for facebook, twitter, on blogs and I guess even face-to-face?

Many of us “crowdsource” via twitter, asking for recommendations for everything from a restaurant to a plumber. We get responses from people who follow us, but what if some of those people who follow you are “crowdturfers”?  They look real, but they are paid to be positive about a subject and get a “valued first-person experience”, “non-PR aligned” “opinion” “out there” in the ether.

Recently, Ed Charles from Tomato Melbourne posted a link to someone’s Gumtree ad on twitter.  That ad offered “lengthy and positive” posts on a particular website to restaurant owners, at no cost to the restaurant. The fee-for-service would appear to be very little and come from advertising revenue on a site I’ve never seen before, and is quite unlovable in design. I think only desperate restauraters would take up the offer.  But I haven’t seen shilling so blantantly advertised before. I will assume that there is some other trade-off for the person offering the services as the likely income generated is not much, and the business model has been challenged in other publications.

This led to a really interesting discussion on twitter about the ethics of blogging which I will document in another post, but for now my question is, if crowdturfing takes off what value does your blog/twitter account have.  How can you verify and protect your online persona?  Do you care?



* I took the term “crowdturfing” from an article in The Age, attributable to Ben Zhao, an Associate Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The relavant extract is below as is the link to the full article.

“… the crucial ingredient of a novel form of attack, recently detailed by computer scientists in California, is not software, but people. Growing numbers of mercenaries are being hired to help twist the landscape of social media – to write rave reviews of products, post convincing spam, set up accounts on social networks, or perform other tasks.This gives their employers new ways to do everything from legally questionable marketing to outright theft.

…just glancing at one of the profiles you would probably think it came from a real person; you might read the opinions, and perhaps click on a link or two.

”They looked too real,” said Zhao, ”to be machine generated.”

The accounts were the product of what Zhao has dubbed ”crowdturfing” – a combination of ”astroturfing” and ”crowdsourcing”. Astroturfing is an older term that refers to fake grassroots efforts, such as secretly paying people to send notes to their senator in favour of a bill.

Crowdsourcing is outsourcing to a crowd – a form of mass collaboration in which someone puts out a public request for help with a large number of well-defined tasks.

Combine the two and you get websites such as one called Zhubajie in China, which publishes offers for work like singing the praises of a particular dress on social media.”

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4 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing + astroturfing = crowdturfing*

  • You’ve reminded me that there is more to this story … I have another two articles to publish. The more people like Gina Rhinehart and Ruper Murdoch buy into and (try to?) influence the content of their papers and tv stations, the more I feel like bloggers need to pull their socks up and be a bit more responsible with the trust that readers place in them.

    Comment from: essjayeats

  • Great article. I guess it’s very to tell from fake commentary (ie if crowdturfers were posting on sites like urbanspoon etc) how legit someone’s opinions are, but that’s why I turn to blogs I know (and feel I can trust) for an honest opinion. I feel commentary on “review sites” are often up for too much subjection ie. different standards of quality, but if I go to a blog where I feel I “know” the blogger I’d more likely than not trust their opinions. Thoughts?

    Comment from: Brunchaddict

  • Thanks – I’ve been thinking of making some kind of agreement of ethics (again!) More to come. Thanks for starting the conversation.

    Comment from: essjayeats

  • Nice post. I’ve been thinking it sounds like an idea to keep a list of these turfers.

    Comment from: Ed

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