"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.)
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.
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.