How to spot an astroturfer or an online fake

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How do you spot an astroturfer, or an online fake? Australia’s finest investigative journalist, environment editor Sandi Keane, provides perhaps the most comprehensive ever guide. Part 2 of the Role of Deception.


[Read Part 1 here and Part 3 here

Manipulating the mind used to be the weapon of choice of totalitarian regimes. But the last decade has seen an unprecedented rise in corporate funded propaganda in our so-called “beacons of democracy”, USA and Australia.

Modern age PR illusionists, today’s digital age snake oil salesmen, are reeling you in by evermore shameful and unethical means.  They display no regard for possible tragic consequences. The most despicable are the climate skeptic spinmeisters, whose crowning achievement may well be the end of the planet.

Following Part 1, “Deception is our Product”, posted on February 7, Indy Oz has compiled “A Practical Guide to Trickery & Fakery in the Digital Age” to help you sort the shill from the sham and spin from the scam.

In the humbug peddler’s SHAM BAG, you’ll find:

Phony Grassroots Groups or Astroturfers

as well as

Multiple Fake IDs - using Persona Management Software, Avatars, Shills, Sockpuppets, Fake Blogs (Flogs) and Trolls.

Of these, the most effective at manipulating public opinion is the

Phony Grassroots Groups or Astroturfers

The following are a list of questions this writer employs when on the trail of an astroturfer. They are by no means finite, but proved successful in exposing the Landscape Guardians and the Waubra Foundation in July last year. The third part of this trilogy on “deception” will be the actual Case Studies.


Did the organisation appear to shoot up overnight?

When you dig down deep into a genuine community group, you’ll find real grassroots: roots that start out small and generally grow over a period of time in response to efforts and fundraising by its members. If it sprouts overnight like a weed, it’s probably not grass.

Who Benefits? 

“Following the Money” has served investigative journalists well since time immemorial. Does the campaign benefit a large corporation or industry instead of the public?


Does the group have slick websites, attract wall-to-wall media coverage, use expensive media monitoring services and run protest meetings stacked with more “out of towners” than “locals”?  In short, is its marketing campaign the envy of other community groups?


Genuine grassroots organisations choose incorporation for these benefits:

Legally, the organisation becomes an “entity”, which can open bank accounts, take out public liability insurance and enter into contracts. Its members and officers are protected from personal liability against the organisation’s debts. It also qualifies the group for government and other grants.

When an astroturfer incorporates, it is usually to mask the fiction. The difference between a real and faux group is obvious when you check their last financial statement.  A copy of this and the Application for Association Incorporation can be applied for in all states and territories (e.g. the Dept. of Justice, Consumer Affairs in Victoria and NSW Government’s Fair Trading in NSW.)  A full list can be found here.

Both provide a mine of information such as date of incorporation, number of members, address of entity, name and address of Public Officer/Secretary and the source of the group’s income as well as expenditure items.


Does it hide the source of its funding? If incorporated, it must submit an Annual Financial Return.  Does it show “zero” for both income and expenditure? If so, who is paying for advertising, resources, and so on, and why the cover up?


If incorporated, how many members are listed on the Application? A minimum of 5 is generally required to incorporate. Applications showing barely the minimum number of members are less likely to be genuine community groups.

Can you join or get a list of members? If so, do its members have links to vested corporate, ideological or political interests?

Does the number of “branches” outnumber the members?

Single Issue or Cause

Environment astroturfers far outnumber any other. Genuine environment groups are broad-ranging. A good question to ask is: “is it active on multiple fronts to protect our beleaguered planet or focused on just one issue?”


Does it scare off genuine community members who have an opposing point of view through violent and aggressive behaviour? Astroturfers incite the irrational and volatile in our community (sometimes using psychosocial tactics) for one reason: to make a lot of noise and drown out opposition.


Does the group operate the classic “blind” of an astroturfer, where you fill in a box as the only means of “contact”, with no published address or phone number listed?

If you have a copy of the Application for Association Incorporation, whose name and address is given as the Public Officer (in Victoria called “Secretary” since 1 Dec 2011)? Does the same name and address come up repeatedly for different “branches” of the group? Does the Public Officer live in the community the group purports to represent? Does this person have links to vested corporate, ideological or political interests?

If the group has a website, you can look up the name of the person responsible for the site on a “Whois” site such as Internic.


Does it have any roots? (Other than those that lead back to vested business, ideological or political interests or links to known “front” groups.)


These follow a pattern in the way they manipulate triggers in the mind to evoke a psychological response, similar to “greenwashing”.

I’ve included a number of US examples. Given the clumsy efforts so far by practitioners of the art in Australia, we’re not likely to see anything more original. If it works over there, the “$dollars for deceit” mob will try it here.

Names that include “Coalition” or “Partnership” disguise the fact that there is usually just one entity involved, albeit a multinational corporation.

Titles like “American” or “Australian” relay nationwide relevance and importance.

Citizen” is a popular moniker disguising the fact that there are no citizens, only corporate fat cats, usually hiding behind several layers of astroturf in the form of front groups, right wing advocacy groups and think tanks.

In the case of the US’s “Hands off my Healthcare” campaign, the overuse of names which included words like patients”, “public” or rights was a give-away. Most of the US campaigns were organised by another front group, founded by “free-marketeer” David Koch, Executive Vice-President of multi-national, multi-billion dollar mining conglomerate, Koch Industries – the Americans for Prosperity –on behalf of the health insurance lobby.

Here are examples of the dozens that proliferated during the campaign.

  • Conservatives For Patients Rights

  • Coalition to Protect Patients Rights

  • Centre For Medicine In The Public Interest

The now disgraced and defunct Enron Corporation’s earlier campaign to stop regulation of the energy industry concentrated on words like “Affordable” and “Reliable” to hit the pocket nerve, adding words like “American” or “Partnership” for reassurance:

  • Americans for Affordable Electricity

  • Coalition for Clean, Affordable and Reliable Energy

  • Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy

ExxonMobil has spent over $25 million in its bid to stop action on global warming. Its list is by far the largest with over 150 astroturfers. This is one to download as you’ll refer back to it, time and time again.

The list includes several Australian organisations:

the Institute of Public Affairs (the driving force behind Australia’s skeptic movement – surprise, surprise) and

Australian Climate Science Coalition established by the

Australian Environment Foundation, itself a front group for the

 Institute of Public Affairs.

Handles like “Citizen”, “Coalition”, “National” and eco-friendly sounding names like “Earthwatch” or “Environment” abound.

In Australia, the word “Foundation” or “Landscape” is popular with climate skeptics and their paymasters (dominated by the mining lobby), to convey authority or a veneer of enviro-cred.  Examples include:

Multiple Fake IDs

Fake IDs by individuals

These infect the threads of any on-liner but are most virulent on environment web sites.

Friends of the Earth’s high profile Campaigns Co-ordinator, Cam Walker, spotted an outbreak of vitriolic anti-wind comments on FOE’s YES! to renewables website. All different IDs but the same toxic rhetoric. A check on the email address showed them to be from the same person – possibly the same person masquerading as “Cam Walker” who was responsible for the anti-wind comments on Victorian Regional newspaper websites.

One way to check whether multiple entities are the same person is to check their IP address. Here’s a useful site. Once you know how to look for headers depending on which application you use (Outlook, Hotmail, etc.), look for “Received: from”. The IP follows in square brackets [ ].  Then go on to IP Look Up and type in the IP number.

Here’s how a certain senior executive of the paper giant, Solaris, got himself fired:

Greenpeace ran a successful campaign on how rainforests in Indonesia’s tiger habitat was being destroyed for the production of toilet paper. Consumers boycotted IGA who, in turn, cancelled its order. The supplier, Solaris, retaliated. The award-winning PR website, Mumbrella, ran the Greenpeace story but became suspicious when a torrent of abuse from a large number of people hostile to Greenpeace suddenly flooded the website. Mumbrella checked the IP addresses and traced them back to an office at Solaris. The company apologized for the abusive and deceptive behavior, and the executive was sacked.

Persona Management Software

Companies now use highly sophisticated "persona management software" to create multiple identities, which in turn creates the impression of support (for a corporation) or criticism (of a competitor). The most disturbing case is that of the US Air Force, which tendered last year for companies to supply it with such software to sabotage democratic debate and manipulate the outcome.


This is a term to describe the name or handle of an internet user. It is usually a small, square-shaped, pixelled symbol to identify the writer, either designed by the user or selected from a preset list. Avatars are often used as a sham to create the impression of multiple identities.

Shills & Sockpuppets

A “shill” is a person engaged in covert advertising. The shill attempts to spread buzz by personally endorsing the product in public forums with the pretense of sincerity, when in fact he is being paid for his services.’ (From the Urban Dictionary)

Also paid for their services are “sockpuppets”. They post comments under different aliases to spruik the upsides or downsides of a product by supporting and engaging in conversation between their different aliases. The term comes from a puppeteer’s use of two sock puppets engaging in two sides of a conversation.

Fake blog (or flog)

A blog tricked up to look like an independent on-liner, but is, in fact, created by a company or organisation to push its product or political viewpoint.


A “troll” epitomizes all that is ugly on the internet:  someone (generally hired) who posts inflammatory comments, often nothing to do with the topic, for the sole purpose of disrupting sensible and rational debate. A favourite tactic with the Tea Party and its ideological kin: the climate skeptics and anti-environmentalists.

This is the second part of Sandi Keane’s trilogy on the role of deception in the public debate on global warming.

The first part, Deception is our Product, looked at the role of clever PR practitioners hired by the mining oligarchs to trick the unsuspecting into sacrificing their interests for those of their clients. 

The third instalment is the actual case study - Landscape Guardians and the Waubra Foundation  - a look behind the scenes of Sandi’s investigation, the 'Ugly Landscape of the Guardians', published in IA in July 24, 2011.

IA was the first to expose the political and vested interests behind the Landscape Guardians and the Waubra Foundation.

Sandi's investigation is now in Hansard after being used as a speech to the House of Representatives in Canberra by Labor's John Murphy MP.

Useful websites and resources


Click here to download this guide as a PDF.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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