The famous NY Times cartoon suggested that on the Internet, no one knows that you're a dog. Whilst the ability to hide behind a username is a long and often cherished Internet tradition, it does have a darker side. Astroturfing is probably the most common, that is using fake names to post positive (or negative) reviews of your own products online. There have been laws in place to prohibit astroturfing since 2009 but it seems that it hasn't put people off.
A new paper by the University of California Santa Barbara looks at so called Crowdturfing, a concept they define as being a combination of crowd sourcing and astroturfing. Their research found that creating fake profiles on social networks was a rapidly growing industry and that the quality was improving from the previously obvious and poorly created machine generated profiles.
Ben Zhao, lead of the research, analysed a large set of blocked accounts from the Chinese social network RenRen, and found many of them were convincing looking shill accounts created automatically. Zhao uncovered a thriving spam business in China in the generation of such accounts. Many companies offer astroturfing services for sale and whilst prices are incredibly low these companies nevertheless make incredibly good livings from astroturfing, a sure sign of the level of demand.
The website Zhubaijie for instance was found to have advertised as many as 100 such campaigns per month way back in 2007, with more recent analysis showing the figure now to be in the tens of thousands per month. It seems clear that whilst laws exist to prevent this in Europe and America, outsourcing much of the work to India and China is proving very effective at getting round these laws.
Zhao reveals the extent of the problem in this MIT Technology Review article. “This industry is millions of dollars per year already and [shows] roughly exponential growth,” Zhao added. “I think we’re still in the early stages of this phenomenon.” he says.