Astroturfing all the way to No 1


LUIS García Meza Tejada is currently serving a very long prison sentence for some pretty hardcore human rights violations. He's the former president of Bolivia who came to power in 1980 with the support of the notorious Nazi, Klaus Barbie.

During his brief presidency he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people - when he wasn't engaged in drug trafficking. But what links Tejada to current X Factor champion Shayne Ward?

Tejada came to power on the condition that his military junta would only rule for one year. At the end of that year, he choreographed a massive, televised public show of support outside the presidential palace. Tejada appeared at the rally, waited for the cheers to die down and told the crowd: "All right, I'll stay on."

It was one of the first instances of a phenomenon that we now know as "astroturfing". The term is a play on the word "grassroots" and refers to the artificial engineering of grassroots support or appeal. We saw it recently with the supposed letter sent by a US soldier to a local American paper detailing his "freedom-fighting" activities in Kirkuk in Iraq. Five hundred such letters were sent to different papers; none had been written by soldiers - in fact, they were all the work of one lieutenant colonel.

Microsoft, which does love its dissembling, also used astroturfing against a proposed governmental anti-trust measure. Hundreds of letters from non-existent citizens were sent to US newspapers protesting against the proposed legislative change

Astroturfing uses an almost forensic level of psychographics to get its message across. It's now such a precise pseudo-science that, if done properly, it's difficult to discern what is genuinely spontaneous or what is apparently spontaneous. It used to be mainly the preserve of political parties, with party activists posing as "concerned citizens" or "ordinary members of the public" to skew or hijack the debate on a particular policy issue. This tactic is still widely used at the press conferences of politicial parties and to a lesser extent by audience members in televised panel discussions.

This year's X Factor winner was - to coin a phrase - astro-surfing all the way to the No 1 slot. Each year the talentshow winner has a tiny window to hit big: if the first song doesn't do it in spades, the album will suffer. The song itself is irrelevant (name the last two songs that won). It's just the scaffolding you put up around the winner.

This year the media did Shayne Ward's astroturfing for him. Or, more importantly, did the astroturfing for the companies behind Shayne Ward. The winner came complete with a handy family criminal past, which kept him on the cover of the redtops in those crucial few days after the competition ended. There was also the apparent iniquity that he only had four days of sales to get to No 1 (with his song only being released midweek).

Ward headlined with the "fact" that his song would sell more than the Live 8 single in its first week of release; headlined again when it emerged that "customer inquiries have contributed to a massive shipment of more than 700,000 copies of his single to stores around the country"; and headlined again due to the apparent "neck-and-neck" battle he was having with rival acts.

This is not to suggest that Shayne Ward and those who work with him did anything wrong or improper. You don't have to with a sophisticated use of astroturfing - that's the beauty of it.

It's happening also with Arctic Monkeys. They haven't even released an album yet, but they're already the most important new band of the last 10 years. We know this to be true because everyone says so. Even if the album never comes out, we'll still have to give them an award.

At least you used to have a choice: believe the hype or don't believe the hype. But when it comes to hyping the belief . . .