Debate Magazine

Astroturf

Posted on the 31 August 2011 by Mikeb302000
A while back, I had a post that I had sitting around as a draft on this topic. Then George Monbiot wrote a piece on the topic in a way that was really close to how I would have written the piece.

George and I are pretty much in agreement about most things. I guess great minds think alike. And I concede that George is much more plugged in, but his post Reclaim the Cyber-Commons is pretty close to something I've had sitting around as a draft. But I have to tell him his tag line:
Tell people something they know already and they will thank you for it.
Tell them something new and they will hate you for it.
is a little off in this case. I totally agree with him when he makes this point and would have started my post the same way:
The weapon used by both state and corporate players is a technique known as astroturfing. An astroturf campaign is one that mimics spontaneous grassroots mobilisations, but which has in reality been organised. Anyone writing a comment piece in Mandarin critical of the Chinese government, for example, is likely to be bombarded with abuse by people purporting to be ordinary citizens, upset by the slurs against their country.

But many of them aren’t upset: they are members of the 50 Cent Party, so-called because one Chinese government agency pays 5 mao (half a yuan) for every post its tame commenters write. Teams of these sock-puppets are hired by party leaders to drown out critical voices and derail intelligent debates.

George learned about online astroturfing in 2002, when the investigators Andy Rowell and Jonathan Matthews looked into a series of comments made by two people calling themselves Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek. These two people had launched ferocious attacks, across several internet forums, against a scientist whose research suggested that Mexican corn had been widely contaminated by GM pollen. Rowell and Matthews found that one of the messages Mary Murphy had sent came from a domain owned by the Bivings Group, a PR company specialising in internet lobbying.

And anyone who blogs about unpopular topics such as Palestinian Rights or Gun Control knows, you will be inundated by comments challenging your beliefs. George points out that:
Reading comment threads on the Guardian’s sites and elsewhere on the web, two patterns jump out at me. The first is that discussions of issues in which there’s little money at stake tend to be a lot more civilised than debates about issues where companies stand to lose or gain

billions: such as climate change, public health and corporate tax avoidance. These are often characterised by amazing levels of abuse and disruption.

Articles about the environment are hit harder by such tactics than any others. I love debate, and I often wade into the threads beneath my columns. But it’s a depressing experience, as instead of contesting the issues I raise, many of those who disagree bombard me with infantile abuse, or just keep repeating a fiction, however often you discredit it. This ensures that an intelligent discussion is almost impossible - which appears to be the point.

The second pattern is the strong association between this tactic and a certain set of views: pro-corporate, anti-tax, anti-regulation. Both traditional conservatives and traditional progressives tend be more willing to discuss an issue than these right-wing libertarians, many of whom seek instead to shut down debate.

So what’s going on? I’m not suggesting that most of the people trying to derail these discussions are paid to do so, though I would be surprised if none were. I’m suggesting that some of the efforts to prevent intelligence from blooming seem to be organised, and that neither website hosts nor other commenters know how to respond.

I have to admit that if I had written my piece on Astroturf, I would have also borrowed from George where he talks about the people who aren't paid, but who are willing to shill for the PR firms that do the internet astroturfing by repeating their messages. They are the committed, although, I do wonder as to how many are truly concerned individuals since they rarely bother me after I started posting IP addresses! So, I am in agreement with you that the keyboard warriors who do post here are truly individual, but rare.

But, since you beat me to it, George, I'm going to borrow from you. Especially since you mention this:
For his film (Astro)Turf Wars, Taki Oldham secretly recorded a training session organised by a rightwing libertarian group called American Majority. The trainer, Austin James, was instructing Tea Party members on how to “manipulate the medium”. This is what he told them:

“Here’s what I do. I get on Amazon; I type in “Liberal Books”. I go through and I say “one star, one star, one star”. The flipside is you go to a conservative/ libertarian whatever, go to their products and give them five stars. … This is where your kids get information: Rotten Tomatoes, Flixster. These are places where you can rate movies. So when you type in “Movies on Healthcare”, I don’t want Michael Moore’s to come up, so I always give it bad ratings. I spend about 30 minutes a day, just click, click, click, click. … If there’s a place to comment, a place to rate, a place to share information, you have to do it. That’s how you control the online dialog and give our ideas a fighting chance.”

Over 75% of the funding for American Majority, which hosted this training session, comes from the Sam Adams Alliance. In 2008, the year in which American Majority was founded, 88% of the alliance’s money came from a single donation, of $3.7m. A group which trains rightwing libertarians to distort online democratic processes, in other words, was set up with funding from a person or company with a very large wallet.

I wish that George would allow for comments since I want to give him a hand for putting out something that I will admit is a much better version than what I had written. More importantly, I think that what George has written needs to be published so that more people are aware of how debate is being stifled: especially since he neglect subjects where this practice is widespread (non-inclusive list of where I add the issues of Palestinian rights, gun control to the ones George mentions).

George, this is the exception that proves the rule. So, a grudging thank you for telling me something I knew already and saving me a lot of work in actually writing it by beating me to the punch here. I hope you don't mind me passing it on with my own comments (he doesn't).

OK, George, I borrowed from you. I hope that you will borrow from my post The Centre for Alternative Technology is in financial straits. After all, they are in your neck of the woods.

I think you can get the proper audience for that message.

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