Char Stiles’ Astroturfing explores the political power of social media. By populating a digitally constructed field with the social media posts of the Chinese 50 Cent Army (五毛党), the largest exporter of online astroturfing, Stiles questions the unmooring and impact of digital messages. Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants. The 50 Cent Army was a group of low-paid workers posting millions of comments on social media to persuade the public’s opinion in favor of the Chinese government. Stiles extracted the posts of the 50 Cent Army from Chinese blogger’s Xiaolan, who hacked into and published email archives of the Internet Propaganda Department of Zhanggong District in Ganzhou, including over 2,700 emails to and from 50 Cent Party internet commentators. Stiles translated the posts from Chinese to English through Google Translate.
Stiles connects the influence of social media in China to the supporters of Donald Trump in the U.S. 2016 Election. She explains, “there is indisputable evidence of an army of workers who beefed up support of @RealDonaldTrump via meme posting bots, convincing fake social media accounts, and other programmatic or systemic advocacy.” Astroturfing emphasizes the historicity of astroturfing as a sociopolitical tool used by authoritarian governments, past and present.
Check out Kevin Johnson’s response to Astroturfing here.
Char Stiles is a researcher posing and posting as a digital artist. Her work advocates to value human agency over technological determinism. She is studying art and computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, spending her time between New York City and Pittsburgh. You can access Stiles’ portfolio at CharStiles.com and she is on social media as @CharStiles.