If it defies common logic, it may be astroturfing.
Astroturfing is defined by Wikipedia as ‘the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization to make it appear as though it’s a naturally formed grassroots movement. Fake grassroots = Astroturf. Instead of letting the population figure out what they actually want, third parties meddle with the natural order of things to sway people towards the response they want. Confusion and disinformation are what they’re after!
Remember Amazon’s attempt to unionize? And how several people on Twitter responded to tweets about poor working conditions with “um, actually that doesn’t happen because Amazon is great”? That’s peak astroturfing. Even employees at good warehouses weren’t denying that workers at bad warehouses were having to pee in bottles and skip lunches.
If an organization like Amazon doesn’t have enough members to push an idea, they’ll buy participation, either by hiring some or ‘making’ some, which leads to these weird Twitter accounts with no past at Amazon or no past at all. The end result is fence-sitters seeing much more opposition than there actually is, and they may be discouraged from voting pro-union. If it’s done well enough, the outside world is also confused, and the real campaign loses some of its support – people aren’t sure they’re doing ‘the right thing’ by supporting the organic movement anymore.
Luckily, many of the Amazon puppets were so obviously shady that the trend was easy to spot, and it only helped prove that the real workers needed unions if they were going to be heard. Amazon’s obviously not interested in improving the working conditions if this is how they’re responding to complaints.
And on the other hand, Wall Street Journal claims that the unionization efforts themselves were the result of a grassroots campaign by Amazon’s competitors! However, the workers who posted online as pro-union were generally provably real people – unlike the anti-union shills. Getting a movement started by advertising how much unionizing would benefit workers who are already imagining unionizing is not the same as using literal puppet accounts to tell people they shouldn’t unionize, or ads saying that they’ll be spending so much money on union dues, or intimidating employees into not voting with posters up in the breakroom that they rarely get to use…
Reddit: Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt
Gamestop hit the news with a share price of nearly 300$.
Hedge funds were attempting to profit off of Gamestop’s loss of popularity – they were a physical retailer in a digital world, of course they’re less popular than they used to be. Short sellers took advantage of their loss– the way short selling works is that they don’t really own the stocks, they’re just borrowing it to sell. They then sell these stocks and hope the price goes down before they have to buy them back to return to the broker. Dying and ill companies can be shorted to death. If supply is much, much bigger than demand, then the stocks are super cheap, but nobody wants to buy them knowing that the company isn’t going to go back up. Which makes them cheaper.
The mistake the Gamestop short sellers made was in overdoing it – they’d put too many stocks out, so if a retail investor thought to themselves “I want 20,000 shares at 3$ a share”, they’d reveal the true demand. The short seller has to buy stocks back for the broker, so 20,000 shares going missing because somebody who wasn’t supposed to buy them, bought them, was catastrophic. Suddenly, 3$ was 20$, and then a real grassroots movement started on Reddit’s investor subreddits to buy as much Gamestop as possible to stick it to the hedge funds for playing too fast and loose with money they didn’t rightfully have, by using shares they didn’t own.
Obviously a jump from 3$ per share to 483$ is going to be quite an issue when the bill comes due and the hedge fund has to own those shares again. Early estimates of the first squeeze show that hedge funds lost approximately 12 billion dollars, and they weren’t about to lose another 12bn. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and it started with Robinhood suddenly not allowing users to buy shares, only sell. Attempts to intimidate retail investors were going to get worse, via astroturfing.
A new campaign emerged: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. This was abbreviated to FUD, and FUD is what the astroturfers wanted: If they could get demand to go down, the stock’s price would go down too, and the hedge funds might survive this massive spike in price. They had to buy these shares back, there’s no other option! So, they turned to regular posters on the subreddit and attempted to compromise them with money. Few people trusted the new accounts after the mess hedge funds created with Robinhood, but regular posters could sway the folks already trying to get out – an unfortunate number of folks took the easy money and got off the hype train. Mods were also compromised, with some strategically deleting posts revealing that the astroturfing was happening.
Astroturfing nearly ruined a retail trader’s rally! “The world is against you”, they said. “Robinhood caters to the hedge funds, not you,” they said. It wasn’t enough to bring prices down past 129$, where it sits now (as of 1/4/2022). Online retail traders re-rallied, and kicked stock subreddits that had betrayed them.
The subreddit r/WallStreetBets came under fire for manipulative behavior by the mods, followed closely by r/GME losing support after a mod was caught using her underage daughter to help moderate. Strange times all around. R/superstonk, named after a meme, seems to be the current headquarters of the real GME movement.
It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message.
You may have heard that statistic that 12 users made 60% of the misinformation users on Facebook see about vaccines. To get those posts boosted enough to spread all over the web, paid promotion and bots as well as genuinely gullible folks interact with them over, and over, and over.
The same goes for those weird ‘life hacks’ that pop up all over the web: Youtube’s algorithm doesn’t know the difference between bot views and legit subscribers to a channel, so once these low-effort content farms break past a certain barrier, they have enough momentum to keep going, all on their own. The hacks don’t work, of course – they don’t have to. Not anymore. Not now that they’re famous!
In a world driven so hard by algorithms, Astroturfing is becoming more and more dangerous. Amazon employees and “Amazon Employees” have equal weight online, but fact checks don’t circulate nearly as far or as wide as the initial disinformation does. The same goes for hacks: you can’t just put a rose into a banana and expect it to grow, but the gardening experts who know that don’t have nearly as wide a reach as that content farm does.
All the astroturfer has to do is make sure you see their content first – they know the truth can’t keep up.