Companies are secretly encouraging influencers to shill for their products
Over the weekend, the Online Right alleged that one of the biggest critics of seed oils, the Right-wing diet trend du jour, was an astroturfed personality designed to promote the startup Zero Acre Farms, a company that’s trying to create a vegetable oil alternative.
The short version of the allegations is this: Zero Acre Farms designed or otherwise heavily influenced Twitter user @SeedOilDisrespecter to act as a thought leader to sow distrust of seed oils in online communities.
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The truth of the matter is unclear, but from the outside looking in, the case laid out by user @getrawmilk is fairly convincing. Let’s say — for argument’s sake — these accusations aren’t unfounded. How does something like this happen?
This practice of engineering brand awareness is called astroturfing, and while it’s been around since the dawn of marketing, it still feels shrouded in mystery. But it’s common enough for there to be the occasional witch hunt about this or that personality being a ‘secret corporate shill’. Plus, there have been other high-profile examples of astroturfed personalities and campaigns in the past — like in 2006, when Exxon Mobil turned out to be behind a 29-year-old YouTuber who was spoofing Al Gore or just last year, when the anti-Bernie Twitter personality ‘Brooklyn Dad Defiant’ was exposed as a political shill.
While we know that this behaviour happens, no stats for how many influencers are astroturfed or ad campaigns are covert exist. But just look at the symbiotic relationship between newsrooms and PR, where the trends are mirrored: some estimates of how many soft stories originate from publicists are as high as 23%. Irrespective of what we already know about historical instances of brand astroturfing, why would the same logic not apply to social media as well? If you know you’re being advertised to, you may be less likely to trust the claims made.
The problem companies face is that organic business growth rarely happens. You might get lucky and find that you have a passionate community of early adopters, like Duolingo did, but it still takes a lot to leverage that community. To successfully cultivate brand awareness, it usually requires some combination of traditional marketing campaigns — publicists, savvy community management and influencer marketing — which means an entire team of people. For small businesses, that can cost a lot of money.
When I briefly helped with influencer marketing, part of the research I did was, “How many followers does this person have, and what is the quality of their engagement?” If a person had over 8,000 high quality followers and was organically embedded in a community, that was enough of a reason to send them something. You’d do this several times over, and with the hope that these people would have an accumulating effect within different online communities. But some companies might try riskier methods to promote their business.
One way to do this is by creating an influencer all on your own, or buddying up to an existing influencer, and, well, whispering in their ear, as one agency did with YouTuber Mirko Drotschmann, who was allegedly offered money to share negative information about Pfizer vaccines. In some circles online, rumours swirl that this type of social engineering happens with shady billionaires or even the federal government. That might be far-fetched (or less common), but corporations engaging in similar behaviour isn’t.
Corporate shills are everywhere, even in online communities that may seem like they’re ‘untouchable’ due to problematic or unsavoury political views, including the dissident Right. As long as there are people to sell to, there’s a market. Does this mean stay cynical? No. But it does mean asking that age old question, “Who benefits?”