Going Astro: Astroturfing and the blogosphere

"Public debate in Australia has been shaped in a profound way by astroturfing", says advertising strategist Ravi Prasad. "If you look at the debate around the carbon tax, the debate around mining supertax, and the public debate around asylum seekers, the public debates in these major areas of policy are being shaped in meaningful ways by astroturfing."

In the UK the Guardian’s George Monbiot writes about a whistleblower who worked as "part of a commercial team employed to infest internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients." And in the US, a blogger at the Daily Kos wrote that US defence contractor planned to create an army of sock puppets using persona management software that makes it easy for a single user to manage multiple fake online identities.

Recently there have been rumours circulating in Australia about political astroturfing on blogs, Twitter and other social media. At Larvatus Prodeo, commenter Mr Demore suggests there are examples of astroturfing in comments at the ABC’s Drum website; "particularly in relation to mentions of climate change."

Is it just another internet conspiracy theory or is there something to it?

What is astroturfing?

With the phones running hot and angry letters pouring into congressional pigeonholes, US Senator Lloyd Bentsen urged his colleagues to stay cool and support President Clinton’s legislative agenda. "You know a lot of this is organised, not really the people talking" he said. Bentsen gave this kind of lobbying a name: "What you find after you’ve been in Congress for a while is that there is a great deal of difference between grass roots and Astroturf," he said on a CBS morning show.

Astroturfing is designed to create the appearance of spontaneous public support for a product or cause. According to Australian academic Sharon Beder, the aim of organised letter writing campaigns is to "get such a heavy, sudden outpouring of sentiment that lawmakers feel they are being besieged by a majority."

Along with letter writing campaigns, public relations companies and lobbyists have set up front groups, organised rallies and run ‘patch-through’ campaigns (where telemarketers find sympathetic voters, give them their client’s talking points and forward their calls through to a politician’s office). More recently, astroturfing has spread to social media with blogs, Facebook and Twitter now part of the toolkit.

In the US, a company called Advantage Consultants offers the services of "professional blog warriors ready for action". Their advertisement reads: "Why wait for the attack? Launch you attack with a battery of blog and forum comments aimed at all local media and blog sites in your district." (The story surfaced in 2007 on the web site of Mandate Media an internet strategy company that specialises in progressive candidates and advocacy organisations.)

"Persona management"

If Advantage Consultants’ blog warriors are as professional as its graphic designers, there’s probably not much to worry about. But recently bloggers and activists have become concerned that online astroturfing is becoming more organised and technically sophisticated. Earlier this year DeSmogBlog reported:

There appears to be an increasingly sophisticated and planned effort by conservatives and polluter front groups to use “persona management” software to pollute social media outlets and website comment forums with auto-generated sockpuppet swarms designed to mislead and misrepresent real people.

Persona management software caught the media’s attention when the US military revealed that it planned to create fake internet personas to "counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the U.S." It solicited for a tool that would "allow 10 personas per user, replete with background, history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent." The military’s solicitation for software suggests that similar tools may be available to non-government actors as well.

Of course plenty of people conceal their identities and IP addresses without relying on military-grade software. But environmental activists and others worry that the availability of new tools will make it easier for their opponents to turn money into political influence.

While rumours abound, there’s little evidence that political lobby groups are engaging in widespread sockpuppeting in Australia. And it’s not clear how commenting on blogs is likely to influence political decisions.

What’s the difference between astroturfing and ordinary campaigning?

If there was a room filled with paid professionals tweeting, commenting and writing blog posts filled with big-polluter talking points on climate change under multiple manufactured personas, then you’d have a clear case of online astroturfing. But in normal cases it’s not always clear where the line between ordinary campaigning and astroturfing lies.

In the US, Tea Party activism receives support from political groups with links to the Koch brothers — a pair of billionaire libertarian philanthropists. According to George Monbiot, that makes the Tea Party an astroturf outfit. But at Salon, Thomas Schaller isn’t so sure. With astroturfing: "Political professionals create the themes and messages, and recruit specific advocates because they have a compelling story". But it’s obvious that the Tea Party isn’t that tightly controlled.

According to Schaller, the Tea Party "pairs the slick coordination of elites coupled with the raw, unfiltered advocacy of the masses." He calls it "astroweeds" activism. It the kind of activism that produces "ugly signs, incoherent questions and blood-curdling screams about the coming end of America as we know it."

Julian Sanchez argues that the distinction between grassroots and astroturf is breaking down. Top-down campaigns try to inspire broad-based activism. They attempt to find, motivate and resource people who are already sympathetic to the cause. "And any genuinely spontaneous, bottom-up action that seems even moderately interesting and resonant with national issues is going to find a whole lot of political professionals eager to promote, guide, replicate, or co-opt it."

But not all top-down campaigns are astroturf. For example, supporters of groups like Greenpeace and Amnesty International can “donate a tweet per day" allowing these organisations to automatically send re-tweets from their personal account. On its web site the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand invites supporters to become online activists:

Sign up for email notifications about when political blogs mention our MPs names and Green issues! These timely notifications will enable you to respond quickly enough to be among the first commenters, ensuring high visibility for our views and perspectives.

When National Party supporter David Farrar accused the Greens of astroturfing, commenters were quick to point out that the Greens were just helping their supporters engage in online debate. There was no deception, nobody was getting paid and those posting comments were voicing their own concerns. Of course it’s a form of top-down organising but if people are speaking in their own names and voicing genuine beliefs, is it unethical?

Almost everyone who is trying to influence the political process wants their supporters to be more visible, speak louder and be heard more frequently than their opponents. That’s what campaigning is about. But what worries activists working on issues like climate change is that money makes both ethical and unethical campaigning techniques more effective. If you don’t have much money, you’d be right to be concerned.

Links

Here’s a short list of articles on astroturfing that I think are interesting. Inclusion on the list doesn’t mean I endorse the author’s views.

Don’t trust the web: "The internet is awash with misinformation, manipulated identities, fake reviews, and dishonest comments. Politicians use astroturfing. So do businesses and marketing firms. Beware—it’s infecting everyone." Hagar Cohen, Background Briefing, Radio National.

Sock Puppetry — Bloggers Must Be Vigilant Against Astroturf Comments: "While I have seen a lot of evidence pointing toward certain individuals who post time and again against Net neutrality, I haven’t found a ‘smoking gun’ that proves without a doubt that this campaign is paid for by telecom companies. But it does speak volumes that none of these individuals would respond to my queries or those of other bloggers interested in this topic. If they are not being paid, and are not working in a concerted effort as it appears, then why not at least deny it?" Mark Glaser, MediaShift, PBS.

Keep Off the Astroturf: "Generated mail is a pretty old idea. In Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar,’ Brutus is persuaded to assassinate Caesar in part by letters of support from the public — letters that were actually faked by Cassius ‘in several hands … as if they came from several citizens.’" Ryan Sager, New York Times. See also: The Brilliance of Astroturfing.

While data mining for political astroturfers, truthy.indiana.edu is hitting pay dirt: "Truthy.indiana.edu, the website created by researchers at Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Informatics and Computing to root out Twitter-based political astroturfing campaigns, is finding success." Media release.

The HB Gary Email That Should Concern Us All: According to a leaked email, a US defence contractor’s plans included "creating an army of sockpuppets, with sophisticated ‘persona management’ software that allows a small team of only a few people to appear to be many, while keeping the personas from accidentally cross-contaminating each other. Then, to top it off, the team can actually automate some functions so one persona can appear to be an entire Brooks Brothers riot online." Happy Rockefeller, Daily Kos.

Are Climate Deniers and Front Groups Polluting Online Conversation With Denier-Bots? "There appears to be an increasingly sophisticated and planned effort by conservatives and polluter front groups to use “persona management” software to pollute social media outlets and website comment forums with auto-generated sockpuppet swarms designed to mislead and misrepresent real people." TJ Skolnick, DeSmogBlog.

‘Scum’ attack on Greenpeace campaigner linked to paper company Solaris: "Days after Solaris took out full page ads claiming it wanted to engage constructively with Greenpeace over protecting Sumatran tigers, computers linked to the paper giant have been used to post abusive and personal comments about the campaigning organisation, Mumbrella can reveal." Mumbrella.

Astroturf – Artificial Grassroots: "Public relations firms are becoming proficient at helping their corporate clients convince key politicians that there is wide public support for their environmentally damaging activities or their demands for looser environmental regulations. Using specially tailored mailing lists, field officers, telephone banks and the latest in information technology, these firms are able to generate hundreds of telephone calls and/or thousands of pieces of mail to key politicians, creating the impression that there is wide public support for their client’s position." Sharon Beder, Business-Managed Democracy.

Blogged Down in the Past: An analysis of how the Obama and McCain campaigns related to the blogosphere. Interesting comments thread. Renee Felz, Columbia Journalism Review.

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42 Responses to Going Astro: Astroturfing and the blogosphere

  1. Yobbo says:

    So basically here’s the definition:

    Right-wing activism: “Astroturfing”
    Left-wing activism: “Grass Roots”

  2. Dan says:

    The cheque’s in the mail.

  3. Don Arthur says:

    Yobbo – Does all activism have to be one or the other?

  4. Yobbo says:

    You seem to think it is Don. Personally I think it’s possible for people to hold opinions on either side without being paid to do so by some shadowy organisation.

    The left uses “Astroturf” to describe any and all right-leaning think tanks and organisations, the implied slur being that left-wing activism is a “groundswell of public opinion”, whereas right-wing activism only occurs when evil corporations are organising it.

    And of course, being sponsored by left-leaning organisations such as unions doesn’t count as “Astroturfing”. Getup is an “independent political movement”, but Menzies House, which is essentially a group blog, is “Astroturf”.

  5. Don Arthur says:

    Yobbo – I think that a lot of politically engaged people assume that if the broader public would share their views if only it was properly informed and thought about the issues carefully. So when people disagree with them, they suspect something nefarious is going on (eg kids being brainwashed by lefty teachers, corporate propaganda etc).

    If you think like this you’ll tend to imagine there’s been some failure of democracy if a majority of people tell pollsters that they disagree with you.

  6. Dan says:

    Yobbo: are you convinced by your own arguments?

    GetUp is a a bunch of little people organising stances in favour of social justice and environmental sustainability – hardly the stuff of evil conspirators plotting world takeover.

    Astroturf operations such as Americans for Prosperity could be charitably described as having a more involved agenda. And billionaire funders.

    Occam’s Razor.

  7. murph the surf. says:

    This may seem slightly off topic but recently a surf journalist ( yes they exist) wrote that the major surf lifestyle corporations – Quiksilver , Billabong and RipCurl( now commonly referred to as RipaQickBong) were feed up with the negative reception they and the ASP ( the controlling and sanctioning body of professional surfing) felt that the average blog commentor subjected them to.
    What surprised readers was his statement that they would launch a campaign online to silence their critics.
    http://www.swellnet.com.au/members/nickcarroll
    He was soundly attacked and derided http://blasphemyrottmouth.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/the-carroll-chronicles-pt-i/
    The thinking he displayed seems very ignorant of the power of disseminated opinion on the internet but was also a rare moment of honesty.

  8. Yobbo says:

    Dan’s comment is exhibit A of what I was talking about in #4 Don.

    GetUp is a a bunch of little people

    A bunch of little people funded by Australia’s plucky little underdog union movement, which not only controls massive funds but also 1 of the 2 major parties.

  9. murph the surf. says:

    the comment that started the uproar-
    ” nickcarroll
    Mon 5th Sep ’11 Well here is a real story for youse if you want to chase it.

    I have heard from a well placed inside source at a large surf company that they’re sick of the vast piles of anonymous bullshit being chucked around surf and other comment sites/forums/etc to their corporate detriment and to that of their various athletes. And that in the near future, the companies will be employing actual staff to combat the trend — ie., go online in anonymous form and start tearing apart the babble, defending the faith, athletes, etc.

    Indeed they may already be doing this in one company’s case.

    So will this not be hilarious, trying to pick which anonymous babbling fuckwit is working for which surf company and which isn’t.

    You never know, perhaps it will become a de rigeur trend for people to actually use their REAL NAMES in online commentary in order to gain a fragment of fucken credibility for a change.”

  10. jtfsoon says:

    GetUp is a a bunch of little people

    GetItUp seems to be a conclave of retired public servants with some ‘yoof’ frontline promoters

    http://blogs.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/timblair/index.php/dailytelegraph/comments/getup

  11. desipis says:

    A bunch of little people funded by Australia’s plucky little underdog union movement, which not only controls massive funds but also 1 of the 2 major parties.

    Given the unions only have money and influence because of a large supporter base, any support from unions doesn’t exactly make GetUp astroturf. The union movement in general is pretty much an example of grass roots activism. GetUp is also pretty open about the funding they get, so it’s more or less the opposite of an anonymously funded and operated astroturfing operation.

  12. Dan says:

    Exactly.

    Type ‘george monbiot astroturf’ into Google and stand back. The guy’s done some great investigative journalism on the phenomenon.

  13. Ken Parish says:

    IMO GetUp possesses at least some of the characteristics of an astroturf operation. It was founded by ALP fellow travellers Jeremy Heimans and David Madden (the latter co-authored Re-Imagining Australia with current ALP MHR for Canberra Andrew Leigh), and overtly modelled on the US group MoveOn.org, which has even more close and overt links with the Democrats than GetUp has with the ALP.

    GetUp boasts that it “receives no money from any political party or the government”. However it conveniently doesn’t mention unions. The overwhelming majority of its big donations come from unions, including $1,120,000.00 from the CFMEU in August last year.

    GetUp has successfully recruited lots of individual members and supporters, thus giving it ex post facto some of the attributes of a “grass-roots” organisation, but in its inception and to a significant extent its continuing operation it’s basically an ALP/union front organisation.

  14. Patrick says:

    Surely the only things that count as ‘astroturfing’ is organised campaigns involving paid participants – whether demonstrators or callers or petitioners.

    I don’t like the PR companies example, but then again, if they are finding people who actually do care then is that such a bad thing?

  15. Yobbo says:

    Given the unions only have money and influence because of a large supporter base, any support from unions doesn’t exactly make GetUp astroturf.

    Exxon only have money and influence because of a large customer base too.

    The union movement in general is pretty much an example of grass roots activism.

    That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever read. Most people are not politically active. They join the union and pay union fees because they don’t want to get bullied and victimised in union-dominated industries. It’s a protection racket.

  16. Fyodor says:

    That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever read.

    Big call.

  17. hammygar says:

    People join unions because it’s the only way to support their living wage. Industrial action by unions is almost always enthuisatically welcomed by the bulk of members. Without unions, workers would be ground into the dust like waterside workers were in the late 90s by Reith and Howard. Of course unions support organisations that can influence the public, like Get-Up, an heroic organisation.

  18. Dan says:

    “They join the union and pay union fees because they don’t want to get bullied and victimised in union-dominated industries.”

    I joined the union because they negotiate my enterprise agreement year-in year-out, and I think free-riding is a bad thing to do.

  19. Pedro says:

    So you were ethically arm-twisted into it Dan?

    If the unions are grass-roots organisations then those roots are now just clinging to a few stray patches of dirt. But I think Dan’s last point shows it is just as likely that many of the members join because the unions just because they are there.

  20. KB Keynes says:

    No Pedro,
    it is as Yobbo said joining a union is to ensure you are not victimised. They give you protection against unscrupulous management practices.

    As Dan says also they negotiate (but cannot sign off ) on an EBA

  21. jtfsoon says:

    gee Homey
    I didn’t know I was being victimised all my life since I’ve never been a member of a union. Thanks for the heads up.

  22. jtfsoon says:

    and BTW way to misrepresent Yobbo – he meant being victimised by union bovver boys for *not* joining

  23. Dan says:

    The same way I’m ethically arm-twisted into not stealing.

    fyi – nobody ever, ever asked me to join, let alone bullied me into doing so.

  24. KB Keynes says:

    Soony if you could read the relevant words are to ensure.

    no worries I always like to help people who do not understand the English language.

    Being victimised by union bovver boys happened in the 70s not now and was mainly in the building industry.

    what a lot of people like soony and union officials do not seem to understand is that if Management start acting in theory Y fashion not Theory X then the reason for unions do not exist.
    Most but not all small businesses are like this. Unfortunately large businesses are not so

  25. Steve X says:

    Perhaps the massive decline in Union membership from 40% of the workforce to under 20% over the past 20 odd years is in part due to better management. It is lucky the Unions have increased their staffing levels at the same time.

    But regarding the topic at hand about astroturfing surely the question is why bother and is the return better than the return on spending money on real lobbyists?

    When it comes to climate skepticism the big popular climate skeptic blogs like Climate Audit, The Blackboard and so on are done by amateurs. Why even bother to pay people if others will do it for free?

    The conspiracy theory that the Koch Brothers run the US with their donations is farcical. In the context of multi-billion dollar presidential campaigns the idea that the Kochs created the Tea Party and so on with tens of millions of dollars of donations over years is laughable.

    The ‘evidence’ presented seems pretty circumspect that astroturfing is going on other than to defend a particular company against a particular accusation. To extend that further it would appear there is loads of small business ‘astroturfing’ all over the web. Search for ‘Reid Cycles’ as an example that comes to mind.

  26. desipis says:

    GetUp possesses at least some of the characteristics of an astroturf operation.

    I think the key difference is that they (afaik) simply coordinate actions of their members. They don’t pay individuals to go around acting as concerned citizens. Any time they spend donations, it’ll be advertisement or events explicitly marked as “GetUp”, not a funded internet campaign or rent-a-crowd. It’s no more “astroturfing” than any of the right wing shock jocks telling their listens to write letters/emails or show up to a rally, or the ads by the mining companies over the mining tax.

    Yes, GetUp should be more forth coming about the strong link with unions. However as long as they’re just leveraging existing concern in the community, and not paying to create a false impression of concern, I don’t think they deserve an ‘astroturfing’ label.

    Exxon only have money and influence because of a large customer base too.

    Exxon’s customers give the company money in exchange for goods/services. People join unions to give the organisation more influence. There’s a big difference between the two.

  27. Patrick says:

    Homesy, what’s a picket line if not intimidation by union bovver boys?

    Hammy-hungarian-whatsit, why don’t unions embrace secret ballots then? And if the troops are so enthusiastic then why are individual contracts so scary?

  28. KB Keynes says:

    Patrick,
    soony is saying that yobbo is saying that people are bullied into joining unions.

    As for picket lines they happen in industrial action as do lock outs.

  29. KB Keynes says:

    Patrick,

    individual contracts are/were mostly a myth.
    No company could afford to have different contracts for each individual.
    Rosters would be literally impassible to write up for example.

    Most ‘individual’ contracts were the same for all employees unless of course they were senior management.
    Mining which had the greatest takeup of AWAs had the worst productivity performance!!

  30. Yobbo says:

    Exxon’s customers give the company money in exchange for goods/services. People join unions to give the organisation more influence.

    Most people don’t join unions so that the union can then go and fund a campaign against poker machines or live exports. They join them in the hope that the union can get them a better paycheck.

  31. Dan says:

    Or because the union has already got a better paycheck not just for the worker concerned, but his/her workmates too.

    Collective bargaining – a big factor in the emergence of the middle class. Wonderful thing.

    (Incidentally if I asked for an individual contract I think my employer would think I was having them on. If I insisted, they’d say no.)

  32. Yobbo says:

    I don’t see how this relates to the CFMEU’s creation of astroturf organisations that campaign on issues completely unrelated to workplace relations. Is that what union members sign up and pay their dues for Dan? So that Getup can spend 1.5 million dollars campaigning for a carbon tax and a stop to live exports?

    At least when I give money to an oil company, I get the product I paid for.

  33. Dan says:

    My take is that my union membership represents extraordinary value for money in terms of the EA negotiations they do every year, and if they donate to causes that are ‘conservative’ in the true sense of the word (ie. conserving and promoting civil society) then that’s a reflection of their broader social (not profit-oriented) goals. Fine by me.

    If you disagree, feel free not to be part of a union – capitalism in action.

    (I’d imagine you’re probably free-riding – even if you’re on an individual contract, plenty of stuff in there will be a mere variation on the union-negotiated agreement, otherwise nobody would go that way. 40 hours a week, Mon-Fri, for wages well above subsistence; love it. Of course you probably justify free-riding to yourself on the grounds of some berk fantasy about making it on your own. You didn’t.)

  34. Yobbo says:

    I am self-employed Dan.

  35. Tel says:

    At least when I give money to an oil company, I get the product I paid for.

    Yup, product plus bonus added Exxon astroturf. Won’t somebody please think of the shareholders? Ohhh the little darling shareholders *SOB*.

    http://www.prisonplanet.com/oil-companies-support-global-warming-alarmists-not-skeptics.html

    Oh what that you say? Conspiracy theory huh?

    Well, well, that’s what they said about the Koch brothers. Have you personally seen the Koch brothers birth certificates? Either of them? Thought not. Told you they were dodgy. What about their social security numbers, hmmm?

    You think all those people are donating to Ron Paul’s campaign because they like him and want him to win? Ha, ha, joke’s on you… George Soros is secretly sending massive campaign donations to Ron Paul under a vast array of fake personas, knowing that eventually the temptation will build up to the point where Dr Paul (unable to resist the urge to make a skynormous profit) will rush out to buy the heaviest, chunkiest genuine gold bling imaginable, and then go for a swim in the ocean, just like Harold Holt did.

    Coincidence? There’s no such thing as coincidence.

  36. Dan says:

    [email protected]: Ah! Good on you (truly). So do you come here to pose for your own caricature?

  37. Pedro says:

    If you are paying people to protest, or using computers to pretend to be people then that is a form of fraud, no question. There is a difference between mobilising the base and mobilising the call centre. But I think that unions have largely become self-perpetuating institutions with more focus on power and patronage than the future of their members. They have long ceased to be self-organising.

  38. Dan says:

    Pedro: JK Galbraith observed similarly.

  39. Patrick says:

    Dan @33, feel free to use words to mean something that no-one else alive (or in this case, who ever lived) uses them to mean, but be aware that this works best with new words or if you are a corporate jargon-setter.

    Also, Dan, you have to acknowledge that this is self-evidently true of many members of some unions:

    Most people don’t join unions so that the union can then go and fund a campaign against poker machines or live exports.

    You can add to that the carbon tax; how does that poll at the AMWU or CFMEU these days?

    If you don’t believe me ask someone from the labor party!

  40. Dan says:

    I’m hardly the first to notice that conservatism has been dragged off the rails by neoconservatism/market fundamentalism. Ask Andrew Bacevich or some of the other writers at American Conservative. Ask Wendell Berry. Or John Ralston Saul.

    As for your second point: okay. And?

  41. observa says:

    Yobbo, you forgot to mention-
    Groupthink: GoodSkepticism: Baaaad

    As for-

    But what worries activists working on issues like climate change is that money makes both ethical and unethical campaigning techniques more effective. If you don’t have much money, you’d be right to be concerned.

    That’s what the critics of global warming Groupthink with their Global Gruesome Greasum have been rightly concerned about but money and power must ultimately withstand the lowliest and unfunded scrutiny. Astroturfing might get you to the commanding heights but it can’t guarantee you’ll stay there.

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