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Astroturfing in PR is “more widespread than you’d imagine” and is not just a practice used by smaller consultancies on the fringes, according to Media House Executive Chairman Jack Irvine.
He has spoken out in the wake of the Guardian’s expose of Lynton Crosby’s firm CTF Partners, which ran online disinformation campaigns for controversial clients.
Astroturfing refers to the practice of creating professional-looking Facebook “news” pages to reach tens of millions of people on highly contentious topics, without apparently disclosing that these pages are being overseen by CTF Partners on behalf of paying clients.
They manage dozens of accounts for clients ranging from the Saudi government to major polluters, such as oil companies,
And they are able to sidestep Facebook’s transparency tools by using a single high-level “business manager” account, The connection between the pages is not visible to normal Facebook users.
Irvine said: “There’s a lot of dirty work going on in the PR world.”
His view is that astroturfing is not limited to smaller consultancies who might operate outside of the watchful eye of trade bodies.
Speaking to website PRWeek, he added: “I don’t want to sound cynical in this, but it’s another tool in the PR box that is widely used,”
Adding that Media House International would never use the tactic, he said: “It’s been going on for a hell of a long time; this technique is not news to me at all.
“And if you had time to investigate it, you’d find it’s much more widespread than you imagine.
“I would say it’s the very big agencies that have been using it. You need a lot of manpower, a lot of clout to do it. Especially in the tobacco and oil industry it’s the big agencies.”
Irvine pointed out that it’s a common tactic used by big oil and big tobacco, highlighting recent examples of astroturfing including Philip Morris’s campaign to fight plain-packaging legislation in Australia.
He said: “There were several websites purporting to be interested parties, but pushing Big Tobacco’s agenda.
“It’s worked all over the world. Big oil companies use it when they are having problems with conservation and pollution issues.”
Both PR trade associations, the PRCA and CIPR, strongly condemn astroturfing and are adamant it rarely occurs.
Irvine said Media House International, which is a member of the PRCA and falls under Public Affairs Board ethical codes, has been approached to carry out a kind of astroturfing work, an offer that was turned down.
“I was approached by a journalist last year and was asked if I could place pro-stories about certain Arab countries,” he went on.
“There was an American PR firm willing to pay £5,000 a time to get positive stories.
“I said, ‘That is absolutely outrageous, not just for a PR company to do it, but a journalist’.
“These things are going on all the time in the industry. I think after the Guardian story, some people might be running for cover.”
A common thread with the CTF Partners case and others is the use of social media platforms to amplify and spread campaigns to target audiences.
Facebook Pages which appear to be independent online news sources are used to distribute highly selective information which reaches tens of millions of readers.
Irvine said social media sites are being “used and abused to peddle fake news”.
He added: “Social media is totally out of control, It has provided this weapon and there are a lot of companies not afraid to use it.”
Irvine believes social media platforms should be held responsible for spreading misinformation and “vile propaganda”.
“Yes, they have a responsibility to better monitor their platforms. What would happen if The Times produced vile propaganda and made it up? They would be hammered and could be done for libel and come up before various regulators.”