History

Astroturfing, Roman style

Basilica Julia, RomeIt’s tempting, very tempting indeed, when new technologies come along to talk about how new they are and all the changes they will bring.

Better understanding, however, often comes from appreciating not only the new but also the old. Often the apparently novel lessons are simply old ones dressed up in modern clothes.

That’s why I think the Roman Acta Diurna provide a useful grounding in some of the principles of social media. Different technologies, centuries apart – yet common communications principles.

So no surprise that on my visit to Rome I’ve been particularly taken with the Basilica Julia, site of astroturfing Roman style.

Astroturfing's historic roots back in 4th century BC

Online astroturfing (or faking grassroots opinion) crops up at unfortunately regular intervals in discussions of both online PR and online politics. All the more so with the rise of fake news. more

Started by Julius Caesar and completed by his great-nephew (and posthumously adopted son) Augustus, the Basilica Julia housed the 180 magistrates who heard civil law cases. Normally they split into four courts of 45, sitting together as a body of 180 only for the trickiest of ones. (Though the idea of trying to get 180 magistrates to agree on even a simple case makes me wonder how well that worked…!)

Lawyers use to hire spectators to come and cheer their speeches, boo those of the opposing lawyers and all round try to create an impression that it was the right side which was winning the arguments by making the most persuasive case. If it all helped put off their opponents, all the better.

Nothing like whipping up some fake opinions to bolster your position is there?

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