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The practice of astroturfing involves an interested party creating the illusion of public support, to push a particular agenda. For example, the alliance of Australian retailers was set up in 2010 as a front for tobacco companies to campaign against the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes. American senator Lloyd Benten is credited with inventing the term when he said, “A fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grass roots and Astro Turf” (Washington Post, 7.8.85). The usage may well be older, and the practice certainly is – probably as old as politics itself. Shakespeare’s Cassius is portrayed doing a spot of astroturfing as he seeks to convince Brutus that he is more popular than Caesar by faking letters from the public: “I will this night,/ In several hands, in at his windows throw,/As if they came from several citizens,/ Writings all tending to the great opinion/ That Rome holds of his name.” (Julius Caesar, 1.2). This ruse, while successful, looks rather primitive today when the anonymity of the internet allows you to adopt a persona to promote whatever you like. There’s a name for this too – sockpuppeting. It can be harder to discern the true hand beneath a “virtual sock” than to distinguish between real and fake grass. Written by Adam Smith, senior research assistant at the Centre for Language Sciences, Macquarie University.

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