Keyword Squatting

Keyword squatting is the tactic of creating online content — including social media accounts — around a specific search-engine-optimized term so as to determine the search results of that term. Since future searches around that term will return the squatted accounts and content, manipulators are able to direct online traffic to their pages and to influence (to varying success) the narrative around the term.1

The term keyword squatting is adapted from “domain squatting,” which is the process of anticipating which domain names will become popular, buying them, and selling them for a profit when they become sought-after URLs. Both keyword and domain squatting can be methods of online impersonation: by acquiring “misleading account names, URLs, or keywords,” manipulators can appear online as their opponents or as the people/groups that they target.

Through search engine optimization, manipulators can make it so that their hashtags and content tags appear before authentic accounts in search results lists. This tactic can be particularly useful in cases of data voids and hidden virality, where a paucity of authoritative information on a keyword may be missing but there is growing interest in the term outside the mainstream view. 2 Keyword squatting allows manipulators to appropriate keywords around breaking news events, social movements, celebrities, and wedge issues. From there, they can use the accounts they created to flood conversations on the given topic with inaccurate or malicious information. Keyword squatting is a tactic manipulators use to instigate media coverage and shape trending conversations on social media.

A Casebook example of keyword squatting can be found in “Targeted Harassment: The Ukraine Whistleblower,” where manipulators encouraged participants to share the name and photos of an alleged whistleblower before platforms intervened. In this case, a media blackout and asymmetry within the media ecosystem created the perfect conditions for successful keyword squatting by motivated manipulators. The strategic domination of keywords on a social media platform or search engine that will return search results and content aligned with the campaign operators’ goals.

Keyword Squatting is a Casebook value under the "Tactics" variable in the code book.

  • 1. Joan Donovan and Brian Friedberg, “Source Hacking: Media Manipulation in Practice” (Data and Society Research Institute, September 4, 2019), https://datasociety.net/library/source-hacking-media-manipulation-in-practice/.
  • 2. Brian Friedberg, “The Dark Virality of a Hollywood Blood-Harvesting Conspiracy,” Wired, July 31, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/opinion-the-dark-virality-of-a-hollywood-blood-harvesting-conspiracy/.

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