Astroturfing: the (fake) grass that is not greener

Astroturf is a kind of fake grass that was originally developed by Monsanto. It is also the slang name of a political phenomenon, subject of a very interesting article at The Guardian, These astroturf libertarians are the real threat to internet democracy.

The article describes astroturfing succinctly:

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 instance, is likely to be bombarded with abuse by people purporting to be ordinary citizens, upset by the slurs against their country.

And then it goes on to explain how astroturfing is executed. It traces the genealogy to the first case discovered which, amusingly enough, involved Monsanto (tracing the IP addresses of the posters doing the smearing to company servers in Monsanto headquarters):

I first came across 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. They had launched ferocious attacks, across several internet forums, against a scientist whose research suggested that Mexican corn had been widely contaminated by GM pollen

Apparently, The Guardian articles are not immune to the tactics (emphasis mine):

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.

Lest anyone thinks that this is a spontaneous occurrence, someone has actually filmed the training tactics, which are not only transparent but chilling in their intentions:

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 dialogue and give our ideas a fighting chance.

The thing that I did find disappointing in the article is that The Guardian does have a set of IP addresses used by those who leave disruptive comments. Why didn’t they expose them in plain view? It would take a couple of hours (at max, and that is for someone doing the reverse DNS checks by hand) to go through any particularly bitter article or comment thread, find those holding the most extreme positions and then check out where they are posting from. Why would they eschew the possibility to expose them for the world to see?

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