Baseball and Monsanto gave us AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass. But now the term has been re-branded for a much more cynical purpose.
In the political and corporate world astroturfing is a form of advocacy in support of an agenda designed to give the appearance of a “grassroots” movement. The practice is used widely by corporations to hide their agenda from the public and convince observers that “it’s the people” clamoring for an outcome.
The Tea Party, if not originating as such, was usurped by corporate interests to help recapture Congress and legislatures for the Republican Party. The Tea Party is now under the control of Americans for Prosperity, a front group started by oil billionaire David Koch and Richard Fink (a member of the board of directors of Koch Industries).
Money and an absence of moral principles have allowed organizations to develop highly sophisticated efforts. Covert and overt operations are typically organized by political consultants and often in coordination with opposition research, which is usually undertaken to uncover information that can be used to damage an individual or group opponent.
A new form of astroturfing is now taking hold. Not only commercial entities, but also governments, participate in this exceptionally technical Internet activity.
After writing about astroturfing, George Monbiot, of The Guardian (UK), was contacted by a whistleblower. This individual “was part of a commercial team employed to infest internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients, promoting their causes and arguing with anyone who opposed them.” What he and Monbiot revealed is a shocking eye opener. It shows how far corporations, and governments, will go in their propaganda wars.
Political hackers obtained emails from HB Gary Federal, a US cyber-security firm. Free Range Longmont has written about them in connection with a U.S. Chamber of Commerce surreptitious sabotage campaign.
“The emails show that:
— companies now use ‘persona management software’, which multiplies the efforts of the astroturfers working for them, creating the impression that there’s major support for what a corporation or government is trying to do.
— this software creates all the online furniture a real person would possess: a name, email accounts, web pages and social media. In other words, it automatically generates what look like authentic profiles, making it hard to tell the difference between a virtual robot and a real commentator.
— fake accounts can be kept updated by automatically re-posting or linking to content generated elsewhere, reinforcing the impression that the account holders are real and active.
— human astroturfers can then be assigned these ‘pre-aged’ accounts to create a back story, suggesting that they’ve been busy linking and re-tweeting for months. No one would suspect that they came onto the scene for the first time a moment ago, for the sole purpose of attacking an article on climate science or arguing against new controls on salt in junk food.
— with some clever use of social media, astroturfers can, in the security firm’s words, make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise … There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personas.’”
The U.S. government, through the U.S. Air Force, has tendered companies to supply this software requiring that it 1) appear to originate in nearly any part of the word, 2) provide its astroturfers with “randomly selected IP addresses that can be changed daily and mixed with traffic from users outside the organization, and 3) enable different astroturfers to look like the same person over time.
At the corporate and government level, this software creates armies of organized trolls whose intentions are to misinform, mislead and propagandize readers.
But amateurs, without benefit of sophisticated software, have found ways to accomplish similar objectives at the local level. Local astroturfers need only multiple email addresses and multiple screen names and they are off and running.
The Longmont Times-Call comment streams to its online articles reveal that local conservative radicals are also trolling with the intention of communicating that Longmont is a homogeneous community of rightwing fundamentalists. Analysis of writing styles, frequently appearing phrases, obsessions with certain expressions and areas of concern make it abundantly clear that only a few are posting, but under many screen names.
Even in the absence of computer-assisted astroturfing, there are organizations who train their adherents in blogging the pre-determined political objectives and their “talking points.” In fact, it was one of the stated purposes of Denver’s Coalition for a Conservative Majority.
So if you are inclined to read the online comments to published articles, use a healthy dose of skepticism. What you think are many, may be only a few. What you think is spontaneous, is likely pre-planned.
Astroblogging, I’m afraid, is here to stay, and will probably become more commonplace. However, there’s nothing that can replace true grassroots activity for legitimacy. There, at least, you know that you are talking to a natural person.