Astroturfing, #dickileaks and why perception is the key to good PR.

by Veronica on December 31, 2010

in Soapbox

Nestle would be the first company to line up and tell you why perception, not truth is the key to good PR and keeping clients happy. For them, it doesn’t matter if they actually were carrying out the questionable practises in third world countries involving formula and women dressed as nurses, because that’s what people believed they were doing.

A whole generation of women, threatening to boycott Nestle. Globally damaged reputations. I would assume that the PR company they employed to do damage control after this information came out would have been skilled in manipulation of media and information.

Astroturfing is manipulation of the comments on the Internet, designed to look like a grass roots campaign. It shows up often on articles about climate change and controversial things like that. While it’s relatively new to bloggers, I hear that online newspapers have been dealing with it for a long time.

The point to astroturfing is to derail the conversation. To lose articulate and intelligent comments in amongst the white noise of abuse and name calling. To set the commenters on each other and turn it into a bun fight, instead of a discussion about the original issue.

This article from the Tasmanian Times goes into more depth about Astroturfing, what it is and how it presents itself.

I’ve run up against astroturfing here and not known it. I just assumed that the commenters who continually reposted the same argument over and over again, regardless of how many times I explained that I wasn’t talking about those points, I was talking about legalities, well I assumed they were incredibly stupid. In hindsight, I expect that they were paid by the Coeliac Society, or PR company, to come in and derail conversation here. They were incredibly effective and 150+ comments in, I gave up and shut down conversation. They’d achieved what they set out to do and silenced debate.

Watching the #dickileaks debacle play out online has been interesting. The St Kilda Schoolgirl started a blog and posted an articulate post about what had happened to her and how she was feeling.

The first 40 or so comments were divided in their support of her, but everyone was reasonably fair and there was little abuse.

However, once the masses got wind of her having a blog, the comments degenerated. Flame wars started, the girl was abused, and the general language deteriorated beyond what the current conversation should have been about. Name calling between commenters was rife, with the supporters of the girl remaining mostly articulate and polite, while the dissenters were trying to draw everyone into an argument.

The most interesting thing that I found, all of the vocal dissenters and name callers, their blogger profiles were private. “Profile not Available” Some weren’t, but the ones who kept coming back and arguing, calling names and making a nuisance of themselves, they were all privatised accounts.

There is no shame in starting a new blogger account to comment on a new blog if you don’t have one. Several commenters appeared to have signed up for an account, just so they could comment. If you don’t want to be contactable, then you don’t add any email information to the profile.

I think that St Kilda’s PR team had discovered her blog and decided that as articulate as she is, they’d best do everything in their power to discredit her. Calling her a slut and a thief, a whore and a football chaser. Things that really have no bearing in the discussion about her treatment after the fact.

Perception is the key to good PR. It doesn’t matter what the AFL has or hasn’t done, because they are perceived as being bullies. As the controlling body in charge of the teams, it doesn’t matter who was actually being horrid, if the general public thinks that the AFL body should have reined them in and stopped the threats and name calling.

Truth is a fickle thing. There are always multiple versions of truth, depending on what side of the fence you’re on and how you perceived the actions of the other party.

Widely held perception is that this girl was badly treated and that the AFL are bullies. Like the catch cry of ‘Nestle kills babies!’ that ‘The AFL are bullies’ is an effective tool that doesn’t need to have any bearing on the truth.

When photos were released of Lara Bingle in the shower, surprise photos taken by Brendan Fevola, a footballer, the media and AFL brushed it off with claims of ‘Boys will be boys’. Lara Bingle wore the shame for that, her photos splashed all over the Internet. She didn’t consent to those photos being taken, they weren’t posed, like the recent Saints photos.

However, when the photos emerged of the Saints boys, the combined weight of everything they could bring down upon the girl who released them, was designed to make us believe that she was in the wrong.

Why the double standard?

St Kilda and the AFL are in damage control now and I expect their PR company is working double time to control what the discussion is actually about on the Internet.

What their next step will be remains to be seen however. I think this is a bigger cover up than a lot of us have realised and I can only wonder what is in the other photographs that they don’t want us knowing about.

What can I say, I’m eternally curious.

Pete December 31, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Would be interesting to see the logs of the blog, that’s fer sure.

Veronica December 31, 2010 at 1:56 pm

It certainly would be. I’d love to get hold of her stats and check them out.

frogpondsrock December 31, 2010 at 2:13 pm

What I am quite interested in is the silence within some parts of the blogosphere regarding this issue.

frogpondsrock December 31, 2010 at 2:14 pm

I hadn’t pressed submit. Stupid comment form. I was also going to say Good Post Veronica.

Veronica December 31, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Yes, it has been rather silent.


Miss Ash December 31, 2010 at 3:12 pm

I’m amazed by some of the comments you get. I’ve never been awesome enough for astroturfing. Sometimes I post about religion and get people from my past (like the principal of the Lutheran school I went to, or old classmates) who surprise me, but rarely any sort of real discussion… Even if it is just folks trying to sabotage a point. [sad face]

Interestingly (to me at least), astroturf is what we call the fake green stuff they lay down in football stadiums.

Veronica December 31, 2010 at 3:44 pm

I think that’s why it’s been called Astroturfing, because it pretends to be a grassroots mobilisation of people, when it’s fake.

Michelle December 31, 2010 at 4:20 pm


I have been interested in the issue of Astroturfing, and agree with you that it quite often is organised. However with the case of the Facebook set up that published the arson suspect of the Victorian bushfires, sometimes there is enough public passion to bring the trolls out of the woodwork.

I think that’s what we have seen here. Over the last three days, one of these trolls going by the name of PaulDWilkie has been publishing a naked photograph of a dissenting voice of a private individual who supported an investigation into the AFL/VicPol situation. I’ve never been more stunned.

Not that pauldwilkie was smart enough to realise that his entire argument of the ‘slag’ being wrong for posting photos. He said he was justified so that the other individual ‘knew what it felt like”. So bizarrely brainless, that he couldn’t have been anything but a rabid supporter.

They used to be easier to spot (my personal favourite is on the SMH – named Peter).

I’ve also read your coeliac Domino’s issue (what trolls!) and would say that with the level of social media awareness with that the Coeliac society has, it was more likely Dominos. I am a coeliac as well – and agree with your premise. I trust no establishment that they are glutenfree anymore.

Of course our greatest organised astrotrufers are our friends at the ‘b’ board of 4chan They are brilliant at organised hits, trolling and DDoS

Keep up the awareness. I was horrified to see posts saying “well this girl has been having sex with three men from different clubs”! So it would be ok if they were from the same club? Or seeing as all the men have been taking their pic of groupies for years and casting them aside – what exactly does it make them?

Here endeth the slightly disconnected rant.

Veronica December 31, 2010 at 4:36 pm

I agree, I don’t think that pauldwilkie was affiliated with anyone, nor do I think that everyone who is disagreeing with her is being paid to do so. There is a huge range of opinion and frankly, I don’t care if people disagree, if they’re being decent humans about it which a few of the people who disagreed were – should also note that their profiles weren’t private and they weren’t slagging her off, just disagreeing and/or questioning.

But I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that some of the people causing arguments in her comments are being paid to do it. They would be the ones, I’d imagine, who are engaging the other commenters and steering the conversation (demanding people produce proof of things, for example) not just addressing the girl directly.

The Coeliac society thing was astounding. I do think it was the coeliac society, because when I voiced my concerns to them over the phone, they basically told me to ‘remove that piece of reputation damaging writing, RIGHT NOW YOUNG LADY’. They weren’t impressed when I declined to delete it. Heh.

Michelle December 31, 2010 at 4:52 pm

RIGHT NOW, YOUNG LADY. That’s hilarious. I stand corrected – I have to say that Ann did sound just a little unused to online argument ettiquette.

I agree with you that there are some who are employed to put her down, I think they are the ones who are being careful to just go to that borderline of acceptability, and yes – steering. It’s an interesting skill to develop and one I’ve been studying now for years. The linguistic patterns are very interesting from that perspective.

Still pauldwilkie just floored me with such bottomless wells of ignorance. And the picture was such a serious error in judgement (as the voices of reason had been saying about the original posting of the photos). The whole ‘if you’re not with us, you’re agin us”.

Looking forward to your next post.

Veronica December 31, 2010 at 5:29 pm

There is a definite difference in the way they type in my opinion, the steering of the conversation is the giveaway. They’re not flat out abusive, but they do keep harping on about the same things. ‘Prove that she was pregnant. PROVE IT’, etc, like proof will suddenly make it all go away.

Yes, I was astounded that he did that. I mean, I clicked his link and really didn’t expect to be attacked by a penis. I was a bit shocked. It certainly wasn’t the way to go about it ‘see how you feel’. I’m sorry, you can support the girl because she’s being bullied and still agree that posting the photos was a silly thing.

And thankyou! I can’t guarantee that the next post will be anything spectacular, but who knows?

Kelly March 4, 2011 at 2:29 am

The whole Domino’s thing, arghh…. I’m still onto it! 😀
So many are in disagreement with my blog post:
:@ grrr…
Yeah the CS said the same thing about my post too. Should get in touch with the ACCC; shall do that in a few days if I remember.

Speaking of which, I’ve some GOOD NEWS on the topic: The ACCC has flatly refused to address Graham Price’s request on changing laws from ‘no detectable gluten’ to ’20ppm’ trace level; no questions asked. The coeliac society is worried manufacturers will not want to keep making gluten free food for us and seeks support from its members to help get this passed. Fingers crossed, it shan’t happen…

Never knew about astroturfing, but an interesting point indeed! I always knew there were some issues with derailing of comments (some have done so on my blog, too) but the system usually gets them before they seem to appear. Anyway I shall be off for now.

Michelle December 31, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Agreed on the photo. I’d chosen not to look for the others on the basis that I disagreed with them being posted in the first place, but that the treatment before and after has been appalling – and a lovely case of the elite class at school. For someone to repeat it to somehow prove an argument was ludicrous!

The underlying issue is that there is something fishy about any complaint, and suddenly the players have done no wrong. There is something wrong with the underlying culture that needs to change.

Let’s hope the next post is about something that is lovely, peaceful and happy 🙂

Veronica December 31, 2010 at 5:56 pm

I agree, the underlying culture of ‘protect the players!’ needs to change. I agree with someone else who said footballers weren’t quite so bad when they only played on weekends and had to hold down jobs during the week. Stopped the god complex maybe?

Mrs Woog December 31, 2010 at 7:46 pm

V, thanks for bringing it to my attention. I had no idea this went on. You are a brave and patient woman. x

Veronica December 31, 2010 at 8:05 pm

It shows up a lot on newspaper articles and I think it’s something we need to be aware of, if for no other reason than preventing ourselves getting tangled up in it.

Watershedd January 1, 2011 at 8:48 am

Veronica, you’ve got an advocate’s soul and for that, you’r going to suffer the “astrotrufing” as it’s called. Be glad it doesn’t go any further than that.

I read some of the blog posts for that lass after reading an earlier post by you and yes, many of the dissenting, profiles were private. More interestingly, as you’ve alluded to, some that were not locked down were started in December 2010, with relatively few comments. But there were still other commenters that were supportive and had locked their profiles, I suspect to protect their own blogs from abuse. As we’ve seen before, abuse spreads from the victim to anyone who supports him/her. If you’re unlucky, or perhaps just hitting a topic that is hurting someone with a high profile, the attacks may spread beyond the blogs and ether.

The biggest issue here is the difference in treatment of the “hero” sportsman versus the naive young woman. It’s not the first time. Unless our society has a change in perception about treating people equally, it won’t be the last. Elitism is something that’s always chaffed at me. I guess that’s why I hover on the outer, in no-man’s land, because I refuse to fight to climb the ladder and won’t conform to a group standard.

As for the concept of hitting back so others will ‘know what it feels like’, its a pretty childish approach. It makes you no better than the person who started the argument. At it’s extremes, it leads to people taking the law into their own hands.

What a sad society when the reputation of a club/industry (and it is an industry – that’s why the PR against her has been so vitriolic – the money is more important than the reputations – don’t be fooled) is worth more than simple good ethics that apply to all. And these sportsmen are our children’s – our boys – role models. The next 50 years will be interesting.

Veronica January 1, 2011 at 1:41 pm

I’m definitely glad it doesn’t go any further than that, astroturfing is stressful enough! I can’t help myself, staying silent doesn’t sit well with me, especially not when it comes to bullying. I always find it more interesting to talk about it and draw the issues into the open, than not.

I will be pushing for Isaac to play soccer, or even hocky, rather than football.

Wanderlust January 1, 2011 at 1:28 pm

What an interesting post, Veronica. We saw this astroturfing played out in full glory here in Kansas during the “evolution debates”. Anytime discussion came up in an online forum, letters to the editor, at State Board of Ed meetings, etc, they would be systematically derailed (and I do mean systematically) by the same tired creationist/intelligent design arguments. They actually succeeded in shutting down a popular and thriving online forum in a university town here. Astounding. When it’s an attack on a young woman by a sexist establishment, it’s just maddening. It reminds me of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when the Secret Service basically held her captive in a hotel room and grilled her.

Veronica January 1, 2011 at 1:48 pm

The systematic derailment is, for me, interesting to watch. Incredibly frustrating, but they are good at what they do, that is for sure.

I think it’s something to be aware of and for me, as anti-comment moderation/conversation stifling as I am, I think if I see it happening again, I’ll just shut down any debate that I believe to be coming from atroturfers.

Wanderlust January 1, 2011 at 1:59 pm

I don’t consider it “conversation” stifling. I’m happy to encourage actual conversation and polite debate. But I figure it’s my blog and if someone is going to try to take it over for their own purposes or divebomb it with anonymous and nasty comments I have every right to delete them or shut them down. I just post a statement saying what I’m doing and why. If they don’t like it they can go start their own damn blog with *their* name and picture and email contact.

Veronica January 1, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Yes true, that was a bad choice of words on my part, astroturfing certainly isn’t conversation, or even healthy debate. It’s hijacking of a comment thread.

Tanya January 1, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Ugh I’m so hungover from New Years it took me three goes to read that properly and it’s still a bit fuzzy to me. :-S

I haven’t been following any of it in the news but the term ‘astroturfing’ is starting to make sense to me now. I think.

Veronica January 1, 2011 at 2:48 pm

I’ve been following it online mostly and just because St Kilda started being so nasty. If they hadn’t of come across as attacking her, I don’t think I wouldn’t have gotten so passionate.

Astroturfing is something that we all need to be aware of, in my opinion. It’s basically hijacking comment/forum threads and starting flame wars and stopping discussion.

Sue January 2, 2011 at 2:47 am

I was reading along the article and comments, wondering why people don’t moderate their comments and delete the offensive ones that derail discussion, when you finally declared that this would be your intention in the future. Whew!We used to call this ‘metadiscussion’ on email discussion lists in the late ’90s/early ‘naughts, and refused to publish ‘discussion about the discussion or about other poster’s attributes’ and suchlike. Since the purpose of metadiscussion is to shut down the many voices with ideas about the topic, weeding it out will only help the conversation. It can be labor intensive – how much do you love your discussion? Good luck with this!

Veronica January 9, 2011 at 4:54 pm

I think because there is also a push to allow conversation and dissenting opinions. Some bloggers have come under fire for never allowing anyone to disagree with them and only allowing the supporting comments through. I’m of the opinion that people can disagree, provided they are polite about it – but I also tend to leave comments that have trolled, because it makes them look stupid.

The astroturfing thing is more tricky of course, because of how it degenerates the conversation, but in future for here, I know what to watch for and how to moderate to avoid it.

Sue January 10, 2011 at 1:54 am

Conversation and dissent (which I think of as criticism of ideas which is how we learn) are what we are here for- well, at least those of us who want to learn and improve our ideas 🙂 trolling and astroturfing is a waste of people’s valuable time imo. It’s the difference between wanting to learn and wanting to force one’s point of view on someone else; between wanting to help and wanting to harm. Moderating online discussions is definately an evolving art form!

best wishes

theduckherder January 3, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Hi Veronica
I just read the whole Dominos gluten thing and MY GIDDY AUNT I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. I am not startling enough (well, I DO blog about flowers and chickens and tea cosies which is pretty low risk) to attract any astroturfing – only the odd idiot….and I must admit I just delete the comment, and if I am cranky, write a sarcastic post about it…..

That post and all the comments are almost a text book example I would think!

The whole dickileaks thing I find predictable and sad……during the 90’s I worked with young people running a youth health service, and it saddened me muchly that absolutely nothing had changed for young women either then or now, in terms of the negotiation of early sexual relationships, the power dynamic of gender relationships and the grinding crushing impact of victim blaming and heaping total responsibility for safe sex and blame for sexual encounters between very young women and grown men firmly and squarely on the young women. It seemed like I saw a constant stream of bewildered sweet young things staggering clumsily through their late teens linking up with the most awful loser men with no idea whether they were having safe sex or not, desperately needing the morning after pill or pregnancy tests or terminations with no support from friends or family for fear of being labeled a slut. But seemingly totally captured by their idiot boy friends, or at least desperate for the attention or connection or something they they couldn’t articulate and I couldn’t understand. I can’t even bring myself to read any of the news or articles about the issue, because it is just makes me so sad.

I totally respect and admire the way you take on thorny troll attracting issues Veronica.


Veronica January 9, 2011 at 4:52 pm

It is a definite text book example! I spent a lot of time banging my head against a wall with that one. Insane.

And thankyou, I’ve got nice thick skin nowadays, so troll thorns bother me a whole lot less.

Rob January 7, 2011 at 1:49 am


Unfortunately for you, this blog has been linked in the “dikilieaks” blog, so you’ll have to put your helmet on and prepare for action.

I haven’t commented in any of her cyberspace forums, though I have on footy forums. I’m a footy fan, but I barrack for Carlton so the controversy is beneficial to us as it threatens to take the focus of a fellow finalist off its game. Despite that, I’m fully supportive of the tough stance taken by St Kilda. I recognise that your blogcomment isn’t at its heart about the merits of that debate so I won’t take that further.

I will, however, respond to your comment about Fev and the AFL. The AFL did not dismiss Bingle’s complaint on the basis that “boys will be boys”. The AFL commenced an investigation and wanted her to meet with its investigating officers (one being a female former police officer, Susan Clark) with a view to taking a detailed statement from her. That’s an analogous process to that which occurs when a complaint is made to police. Bingle refused to do so, and instead provided Stat Decs through her solicitors. That might have been okay if the facts were undisputed, but there were disputes all over the place. Investigators in that situation need a face-to-face interview to obtain a fluid account which deals with all issues and assess the witness, as they also do with the player. Critically in this case, Fevola asserted that Bingle consented to him keeping the photo on his phone and that he didn’t disseminate it. He said that the phone was stolen from him and the image was sent out without his knowledge or approval. I agree that his assertions seemed like nonsense – a bit like OJ’s claims that the real murderer was out there somewhere. But given that the issue of dissemination was at the heart of the complaint, there was a critical weakness in the case for disciplinary action. The involvement of Markson and the decision to sell the story to a womens’ mag for $200,000 also muddied the waters. Where a complainant refuses to cooperate with an investigation, there’s not really much of a suprise if the investigation fails. I suspect, though, that the AFL would have been quite happy to take Fev down if it were possible. He’s a serial pest and he may well be taken down over this latest saga as the AFL did with another high-profile star in Cousins.

You then imply that the AFL showed double standards by throwing everything at J. But the AFL isn’t a party to it and doesn’t have the right to control the proceedings. St Kilda and the players concerned are in charge of it and are enforcing private rights. The only involvement for the AFL has been over the original complaint that linked sexual activity to the school appearance. The players deny any connection and J has made contradictory statements about that and now appears to concede that there was no meeting until Sydney. The players have always said that she claimed to be over 18 and while she now disputes that you can hardly think that the AFL will revisit that issue given that her implicit assertion that numbers were exchanged at her school has been blown out of the water.

They are enforcing their rights over the photos, and they are entitled to do so. Her defence to that, that she took the photos, has been exposed as a lie given that they were clearly taken in Miami. She has the chance to bring the proceeding to a close by consenting to the destruction of the photos and ensuring that they don’t leak out. If not, though, I wonder whether perceptions will change when the truth comes out in court, given that “the truth” is supposedly what is at stake here, particularly if there is evidence of blackmail or attempts to sell them to the media. To use football parlance, it’s only the 1st quarter.

You obviously were disgusted about Bingle’s photo being passed around, and the poster on J’s blog doing the same to another poster. But you can’t have it both ways. If you believe there is a right to privacy and cyber-humiliation is a bad thing, then doesn’t that apply to all privately-taken photos? You may say that poster was inconsistent, but surely you are too.

Veronica January 7, 2011 at 9:05 am

Hi Rob,

Can I grab a link to the dickileaks blog you were talking about? Strangely, it’s not showing up in any of my stats.

Regarding photos being passed about, I was never defending the girl over her actions. I think putting the photos on the Internet was poor form on her part and don’t think that she should have done it. My reponses have all been to do with her treatment after the fact.

Rob January 7, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Hi Veronica,

Sorry – it wasn’t the blog I thought it was and I can’t find the correct one now. If I come across it again, I’ll let you know.


Louisa January 7, 2011 at 9:19 am

I’ve been thinking of your post all week
& completely agree.

Sleep deprived at the moment so struggling to be more articulate right now…

Veronica January 9, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Sleep deprivation is the pits!

Phuckae January 8, 2011 at 11:57 pm

I posted abuse on her site. I’ve had a blogger account for years. My profile is marked private. Big deal. I’ve got nothing to do with STFC and I stand by what I posted on the slut’s blog.

Michelle January 9, 2011 at 12:02 am

Marvellous. Admirable that you can use the word slut. I would have hoped that you’d go for the more descriptive demimondaine.

Don’t abuse anyone. Ever. Post your opinion, but if you cannot do it sensibly and without name calling, then you should keep your writing skills under wraps. Anything else is pure bullying.

Veronica January 9, 2011 at 12:43 am

No name calling here. I don’t care what you think of her, or whether you agree or disagree with her actions, there will be no name calling.

I have more control over comments than a blogspot blog and I can and will edit comments to remove name calling.

Michelle January 9, 2011 at 12:58 am

I’d ask another question of you, Phuckae. I may be incorrect, but by your language structure I’d say you are a male. Age range is fairly clear also.

What word would you choose for a man who chooses to sleep with teenagers, when the man in question has his ‘pick’ of women in Melbourne?

Sorry Veronica, I had to ask the question.

Nathan January 18, 2011 at 11:47 am

I would of liked that guy to reply to Michelles Question

Brenda January 9, 2011 at 4:36 pm

My issue with this is the moment you comment against her on her blog, even if you are being sensible in your oposition someone like frogpondsrock comes along and accuses you of working for stkilda or the PR team when nothing could be further than the truth

Veronica January 9, 2011 at 4:49 pm

From what I saw, frogpondsrock didn’t accuse anyone in particular of astroturfing, she just mentioned that she thought it was happening, and to be honest, I agree. I do think that there is astroturfing happening over there.

Brenda January 9, 2011 at 4:53 pm

i should go and see where frogpond said it to me then

Veronica January 9, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Okay then, come back with links so I don’t have to bother chasing it down for myself?

Brenda January 9, 2011 at 5:06 pm

will do. perhaps i have the wrong person but im sure it was frogpond. cos i was quite offended. wish i was being aid for my opinions :-0

Veronica January 9, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Wait, you’re not being paid? Sheesh woman, haven’t you seen the fallout lately from people doing things for PR companies and not being paid for it. 😉 There is a big push for payment for services rendered now.


Karen January 10, 2011 at 6:08 pm

I don’t think it’s astroturfing at all with the St Kilda girls blog, just plain, old run of the mill trolling. Looks like a couple of the inmates have escaped from or ozdebate.

Veronica January 10, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Some are definitely trolls, and the more recent posts have more trolls than not, but some just seem a bit suspicious and I’d be interested to know their motives.

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