Friday, November 17, 2023

It's easy for social media to fill with astroturf

Most underestimate how easy it is for social media to become dominated by astroturf. It's easy. All you need is a few people creating and controlling multiple accounts. Here's an example.

Let's say you have 100M real people using your social media site. On average, most post or comment infrequently, once every 10 days. That looks like real social media activity from real people. Most people lurk, a few people post a lot.

Now let's say 1% of people shill their own posts using about 10 accounts they control on average. These accounts also post and comment more frequently, once a day. Most of these use a few burner accounts to like, share, and comment on their own posts. Some use paid services and unleash hundreds of bots to shill for them.

In this simple example, about 50% of comments and posts you see on the social media site will be artificially amplified by fake crowds. Astroturfed posts and comments will be everywhere. This is because most people don't post often, and the shills are much more active.

Play with the numbers. You'll find that if most people don't post or comment -- and most real people don't -- it's easy for people who post a lot from multiple accounts they control to dominate conversations and feign popularity. It's like a megaphone for social media.

Also important is how hard it is for the business to fix astroturf once they (often unintentionally) go down this path. This example social media site has 100M people using it, but claims about 110M users. Real engagement is much smaller with fewer highly engaged accounts, not what this business pitches to advertisers. Once you have allowed this problem to grow, it's tempting for companies finding themselves in this situation to not fix it.

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