India: Cyberturfing – Shrouded Perils It Poses And The Applicable Law

Last Updated: 26 June 2019
Article by Seema Jhingan and Parul Parmar

'Cyberturfing' is the online equivalent of the off-line 'astroturfing', a term said to be coined by a US Senator back in 1985 and is understood to be a type of deceptive marketing or practice designed by marketers to create a false impression that a campaign has developed authentically and organically but in reality is powered by someone else behind the scenes1. Classic astroturfing involves the use of paid agents to falsely represent popular sentiment surrounding a product or a service2. As a result, consumers 'follow the herd'3 as against the authentic grass root movements which operate at local level with community volunteers having a primary goal to support a local or a global cause considered good for the society or environment4.

Emergence of Cyberturfing in the Digital Age

Cyberturfing has become a powerful and efficient strategy of many organizations. Internet has offered a broader arena to practice Cyberturfing which has a larger impact on consumers' behavioral pattern in general and upon organizations in specific, thereby diminishing authentic opinion in the consumers' ecosystem and promoting unfair trade practices in the market. On the one hand, cyberturfing threatens the reputation, image and authenticity of the organizations including private businesses, since there are many organizations that have been caught cyberturfing. On the other hand, organizations can find themselves at the receiving end of cyberturfing and can significantly suffer from cyberturfing practices, when for instance, false information is being spread by competitors about them. Astroturfing/cyberturfing campaigns usually involve spreading legally grey, or illegal content, which can be defamatory and false advertising5. The focus has largely shifted to online actions, such as false online reviews.

There have been instances in the USA, where organizations were caught cyberturfing. When Microsoft was planning an astroturfing campaign, the company hired one of the largest PR companies in the USA to run the campaign. The campaign, however, did not go as planned as the prepared documents were leaked to a leading publishing newspaper in Los Angeles even before the campaign could even begin6. Wal-Mart and their PR firm also used this method and created a blog called "Working Families for Wal-Mart" in order to counter the negative press Wal-Mart had received online7.

Related Emerging Concepts

Various concepts related to astroturfing have come to the fore such as sock puppets (sock puppets are fake online identities created solely to support an argument, used for deception, are typically untraceable and are essentially paid PR agents), 50 Cent party (a special group operating in China, refers to people who are called "50 Cent bloggers" to post "Government-defending posts" on their blogs and get paid 50 Cents per blog by the governmental authorities), online water army (Chinese people who are paid to post content online, also called as hidden paid posters, who aim to flood the internet with their comments and articles), social bots (social bots are user profiles controlled by software that algorithmically produce and disseminate content having fake origination). Another emerging concept is Crowdturfing, which is a combination of crowd sourcing and astroturfing8.

Overview of Law

The acts amounting to cyberturfing or astroturfing may not seem per se illegal and may go undetected in general, but they are inherently unethical, running the risk of damaging the very foundation of public opinion qua a service or a product and promote a false sense of genuineness. The aspects of law which may get involved include the consumer protection laws, advertising laws and competition laws as such practices eventually impact the consumers at large on the one hand and/or private businesses on the other. The position of law on this issue is still largely unregulated.

For instance, the Canadian Competition Bureau defines astroturfing, when used in the context of advertising as referring to the practice of creating commercial representations that masquerade as the authentic experiences and opinions of impartial consumers, such as fake consumer reviews and testimonials9. The Bureau also observed that if the practice of astroturfing continues unchecked, it will seriously erode consumer confidence in the authenticity of online reviews, at a cost to both customers and business. The 'misleading advertising' provisions of the (Canadian) Competition Act, 1985, prohibits the advertisers from making a representation, by any means whatsoever, that is false or misleading in a material respect. In a 2015 Canadian case, while imposing a first of its kind penalty in response to deceptive online reviews, the Competition Commission Bureau of Canada imposed a $1.25-million penalty upon a telecommunications giant, Bell Canada (BCE Inc.) after the company's staffers wrote online reviews of Bell products and services without disclosing their ties to Bell.10

In USA, the Federal Trade Commission ("FTC", the statutory authority for regulation of advertising) introduced the Federal Trade Commission and Endorsement Guides, 2009 ("Guides", further updated vide the Revised Endorsement and Testimonials Guides, 2018), which inter alia, provide the basis for voluntary compliance with the law by advertisers and endorsers. Practices inconsistent with these Guides may result in corrective action by the FTC under the Federal Trade Commission Act, 1914. Interestingly, in 2015 Amazon sued four websites to stop them from selling fake, positive product reviews claiming that these "reviews threaten to undermine the trust that consumers, and the vast majority of sellers and manufactures place in Amazon, thereby tarnishing Amazon's brand."11 In a fairly recent and first of its kind action pursuant to a complaint by FTC, Cure Encapsulations, Inc. and its owner, Naftula Jacobowitz (defendants), who paid a third party website to create and post fake reviews on Amazon of their products, were fined to the tune of $12.8 million, which was suspended upon payment of $50,000 to FTC and the payment of certain unpaid income tax obligations. But it was ruled that if the defendants are later found to have misrepresented their financial condition to FTC, the full amount of the judgment will immediately become due.12

In India, Consumer Protection Act, 1986 ("Act") is the applicable law from the standpoint of protection of consumers and Section 6 of the said Act obligates the Central Consumer Protection Council to promote and protect the rights of consumers to be informed about the quality, quantity, potency, purity, price and standard of goods and services, as the case may be, to protect the consumers from unfair trade practices. The definition of "unfair trade practice" under the Act covers the gamut of unfair and deceptive practices and methods including misrepresentations, misleading assertions and false allurements about a product or service. Redress against such unfair trade practices pertaining to false claims or misleading representations, which could possibly include cyberturf campaigns, may be sought by consumers under the Act against organizations caught cyberturfing/astroturfing. However, it is yet to be seen if this Act will be an efficient and effective tool for redressal against the acts of cyberturfing or the legislature will need to bring new guidelines to deal with the nuisance of cyberturfing.

Private businesses or organizations which run the risk of being impacted adversely can also have recourse in law in cases where a statement made is untruthful, damaging, infringing the intellectual property rights or other proprietary rights, etc. Possibly an action for defamation lies where the reputation of a business has been tarnished due to the disparaging false statements or a suit for injunction and damages can be initiated seeking prohibition of publication of statements having a negative effect on trademark, copyright, brand value, image, etc. of a business. Further, possible action can also lie against the intermediaries (including telecom service providers, network service providers, internet service providers etc.) under the Information Technology Act, 2000. However, legal sustainability of these actions and the ability to reasonably establish the connection between the acts of cyberturfing and the organization alleged to have engaged in such behind the scenes campaigns, will largely depend on the strength of the evidence adduced.

Suffice it to say that the international as well as Indian laws are still evolving qua the negative onslaught of cyberturfing and it would be interesting to watch how the governments across the world will step up to deal with its growing challenges from legal, social and technology standpoint. Nevertheless, increasing social awareness of such acts among public at large and its potential negative impacts is the first step towards dealing with the challenges and misrepresentations of cyberturfing.


[1] Astroturfing, 'Cyberturfing' and other Online Persuasion Campaigns, Mark Leiser, 2016

[2] Astroturfing, 'Cyberturfing' and other Online Persuasion Campaigns, Mark Leiser, 2016

[3] Celen, B. & Kariv, S. (2004), Distinguishing informational cascades from herd behavior in the laboratory, American Economic Review, 484-498

[4] Astroturfing, 'Cyberturfing' and other Online Persuasion Campaigns, Mark Leiser, 2016

[5] Wang, G., Wilson, C., Zhao, Y., Mohanlal, M., Zheng, H. & Zhao, B. Y. 2011. Serf and Turf: Crowdturfing for Fun and Profit. WWW 2012, April 16–20, 2012, Lyon, France.

[6] Gillmor, D. 1998. 'Astroturf' PR campaign exposes Microsoft goals

[7] Pfister, D. S. 2011, The logos of the blogosphere: flooding the zone, invention, and attention in the Lott Imbroglio, Argumentation and advocacy. 47. 141–162;

[8] Disguised Propaganda from Digital to Social Media

[9] The Deceptive Marketing Practices Digest

[10] Bell to pay $1.25 Million penalty for fake reviews



LexCounsel provides this e-update on a complimentary basis solely for informational purposes. It is not intended to constitute, and should not be taken as, legal advice, or a communication intended to solicit or establish any attorney-client relationship between LexCounsel and the reader(s). LexCounsel shall not have any obligations or liabilities towards any acts or omission of any reader(s) consequent to any information contained in this e-newsletter. The readers are advised to consult competent professionals in their own judgment before acting on the basis of any information provided hereby.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions