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Astroturfing and the rise of digital ‘activists’

Instagram fans were excited by the release of a new teaser for star wars: the force awakens, which made use of the social media platform’s new landscape mode. The short clip gathered 179,000 “likes” and more than 35,000 comments in less than 24
Instagram fans were excited by the release of a new teaser for star wars: the force awakens, which made use of the social media platform’s new landscape mode. The short clip gathered 179,000 “likes” and more than 35,000 comments in less than 24 hours. Photo: star wars/instagram
Many Facebook and Twitter users were outraged after being unwillingly
exposed, because of the autoplay settings, to horrific footage of the murder
of two TV journalists in Virginia last week.
Many Facebook and Twitter users were outraged after being unwillingly exposed, because of the autoplay settings, to horrific footage of the murder of two TV journalists in Virginia last week. PHOTO: TOM WARREN/TWITTER

Deceptive way by groups to push their agendas online is something to guard against, especially in election season

It is called astroturfing and social media users should be aware that it is gaining momentum as Singapore heads to the polls.

Essentially, it is the act of pumping out biased online messages en masse through various personas by a group wishing to push its own agenda, thereby making the views appear representative of the majority.

You would probably have come across such messages on your Facebook feed, perhaps as an opinionated reply, at times unsubstantiated, to a story on local politics. Clicking on the poster, however, reveals that he is either anonymous, or possesses sketchy personal information.

According to Facebook, some 560,000 Singapore users have had 3.6 million election-related interactions since the electoral boundaries report was released on July 24. 

LOUDMINORITY

It drowns out our voices and really does nothing to bring the conversation forward.

MARKETING MANAGER AND SELF-CONFESSED DIGITAL ACTIVIST BRYAN CHUA, on how online astroturfing gives people who have genuine opinions – and Facebook profiles – a bad name

The social media giant defines such interactions as any post, comment, “like” or “share” that contains highly specific keywords relating to the election, a candidate or a political party, among other factors.

This half-a-million users represent a mere 16 per cent of the 3.5 million Singapore users who are active on Facebook every month, yet they are making their presence felt.

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It is not known what proportion of these are shell accounts. But digital management consultant Ryan Lim, from QED Consulting, said his team has seen a rise in activity from newly created social media accounts that are often very passionate and vocal about politics online.

Their activities, in posting replies or updates, were detected in 1 in 5 posts before August. It has gone up to 4 in 5 posts currently.

His data is culled from social media analytics tools Digimind and Socialbakers.

“These shell accounts are created just for rebuttals, but without the accountability. While Facebook has measures in place to prevent fake accounts, nothing will really deter these overzealous ‘activists’,” said Mr Lim.

Marketing manager and self-confessed digital activist Bryan Chua, 31, said such activities give people who have genuine opinions–and Facebook profiles –a bad name.

“It drowns out our voices and really does nothing to bring the conversation forward,” he said.

This practice is not new and many have commented on the possible fallout in the past.

Simply put, in the best-case scenario, it is regarded as spam.

In the worst case, it destroys any hope of an informative and well-thought-out discussion, diminishes the authenticity of mass sentiment and eventually sways public opinion.

DISABLING AUTOPLAY

The murderer who took the lives of TV reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, in Virginia last week skilfully used social media to broadcast his killings. Many Facebook and Twitter users were outraged after being unwillingly exposed to the horrific footage.

Said British politician Matt Warman:“Social media, just like traditional media, should consider how shocking other content can be and make sure consumers are warned appropriately.”  The social media platforms have since been called up on to re-evaluate the autoplay function, which can be turned off in the settings.

TAPPING INTO THE FORCE

Fans of Instagram were excited about a new feature which the social media platform just rolled out– landscape or “widescreen” mode.

But it is safe to say a sizeable number were even more enthralled by the release of a new teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, one of the most anticipated movies of the year. 

This was all thanks to @starwars account having first dibs to try out this new capability. The short clip, which features cross guard lightsabre-wielding Kylo Ren, gathered 179,000 “likes” and more than 35,000 comments in less than 24 hours.

THE ‘KING’ IN JAIL

Heard of the Spam King? Sanford Wallace, 47, pleaded guilty last week to sending out more than 27 million unsolicited Facebook messages in 2008 and 2009.

He did this after fraudulently gaining access to about 500,000 accounts.

Wallace currently faces up to three years in prison and a US$250,000 (S$353,000) fine.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline ''. Print Edition | Subscribe