Blog Post

Astroturfing

According to Wikipedia, the term "astroturfing" was coined by Senator Lloyd Bentsen way back in 1985, but I hadn't been aware of it until the current health care reform debates when extremists carrying provocative signs and sometimes wielding AK-47's or pistols strapped to the thigh began turning up at Town Halls hosted by elected officials, including the president.  When you wear a gun to an event with the president, you make the news.   That is the point of astroturfing.  You skirt the line between "being" the news (you don't really want to do anything) and "being on" the news.  Of course, the scary part is that anyone nutty enough to perform oneself in that way cannot necessarily be counted on to behave responsibly.  If you're walking a fine line, it's easy to stray in the wrong direction off it.

 

Here's how Wikipedia defines astrotufing: 

"Astroturfing is a word in English describing formal political, advertising, or public relations campaigns seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous "grassroots" behavior, hence the reference to the artifical grass, AstroTurf. 

The goal of such a campaign is to disguise the efforts of a political or commercial entity as an independent public reaction to some political entitya politician, political group, product, service or event. Astroturfers attempt to orchestrate the actions of apparently diverse and geographically distributed individuals, by both overt ("outreach", "awareness", etc.) and covert (disinformation) means. Astroturfing may be undertaken by an individual pushing a personal agenda or highly organized professional groups with financial backing from large corporations, non-profits, or activist organizations. Very often the efforts are conducted by political consultants who also specialize in opposition research."

 

Since HASTAC (I'll say it once again) is not and cannot be a political organization, I'll be overt here that my interest in this post is not in the politics of anti-health care reform activism but in the scattered response to astroturfing.  Like the terrorist who shows the kidnapped victim on camera in order to draw maximum attention to the cause, the astroturfers are staging an extreme event to bring attention that they would not normally garner.  In this, the media are co-conspirators, but so is the public.  And what I find fascinating about astroturfing is it works.  Up to a point, that is.  It inspires the worst impulses of those who agree, creates doubt in those on the fence, and engenders fear in those who may have an opposite point of view.  It, like terrorism more generally, helps to make a major feel like a minority--uncomfortable, under surveillance, defensive.  It changes the positions of majority and minority by claiming a disproportiionate amount of airtime to the actual number of people it represents.  And, probably most importantly, by making gun-toting public citizen-protestors a daily feature of the tv news, it creates an elevated state of panic that, in and of itself, puts people in a frightened mood that tends to make the status quo seem safe and appealing.  

 

Bentsen coined this term before there was an active Internet.  AstroTurf was created to look good on tv, especially during those really muddy, ugly football seasons.  Does YouTube--or the Huffington Post (as I'm increasingly finding)--exacerbate the ability to perform for the cameras?  It's a truism of viral social media that "the crowd" can smell a fake immediately, that faked videos rarely go viral.   "Jill and Kevin's Wedding Video," where Minnesotans in a relatively humble church hip hop down the aisle to Chris Brown's "Forever," ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-94JhLEiN0 ) can go viral and be seen by over 20 million viewers because it is so clearly and obviously not made to go viral.  It represents the unpretentious delight of this couple on their "Big Day"--and it is a joy to watch. 

 

But if YouTube viewers can smell a fake, why is tv so prone to astroturfing?    Possibly, one might note, because television stations and newspapers are also owned and run by the same "highly organized professional groups with financial backing from large corporations, non-profits, or activist organizations."   Astroturfing's purpose is to look good on tv; it only works if those who control what is on tv put it there.  (If you don't think that's true, imagine what the tv coverage would look like if, instead of AK-47 wielding anti-health reform activists, congresspeople and presidents were confronted by gun-toting gay activists protesting the administration's unwillingness to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.   They would get on tv . . . but not represented as a "grassroots uprising" that represented untold millions of other Americans.) 

 

Astroturfing allows a few, orchestrated by corporations and political organizations, to capture the attention of the many.  It is not only hierarchical but uses the hierarchy of conventional media to solidify its own power.   That is the opposite of what the Internet purports to be. And, to complete the circuit of media complicity, the same media sources constructed polls worded to guarantee certain responses and then give them to the same pool of respondents who watch the tv on news.  Those polls then are used to shape further opinion since, well, sometimes we really are lemmings . . .   

 

But the Internet is supposed to be different.  The non-hierarchical structure of the Internet is supposed to allow for multiplicities of opinion without filtering.  For that to work, we need responsible public Internet citizens whose opinion and communication is not astroturfed from start to finish and who know when to raise the alarm when something starts seeming fake.  The magic of the Internet is that, in its inception (thank you again Tim Berners-Lee and the W3C), it was structured as a non-hierarchical medium, a many-to-many platform that would make astroturfing far less possible because the sources of contradiction were plentiful and the sources of control minimal relative to other media.   Of course, that structure erodes every day.   And that is another question.   But it is still much freer and more open than tv or traditional journalism.   Are we users/consumers/producers/prosumers up to the task? 

 

Has the Internet fulfilled that promise?  Are we informed citizens able to expose astroturfing lies the same way we can smell a fake YouTube video?    What skillset do we need to ensure that the medium is not the message, to take back the medium and therefore the message?  If Iranian Tweeters can call for help worldwide, isn't there a way for ordinary citizens to suss out fraudulent astroturfing--wherever it may occur--and expose it, even if the corporate, traditional news media is not willing to do this?

 

This is not to say that the Internet isn't full of frauds who get their fifteen seconds of fame . . . but is there a way that the smart mobs and wise crowds can discredit astroturfing as a method of media manipulation? 

 

 

 

 

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3 comments

Here's an interesting post by Clay Spinuzzi on the town-hall protests. Examining them from the lens of network theory, he sees these protests, in the words of Howard Rheingold, as "a hybrid of top-down and grassroots organization."

According to Spinuzzi, "They are an evolution of the netwar tactics that Castells describes, tactics that temporarily tie together groups with little ideological coherence in order to counter proposed change. In that sense, they are decentralized, reactionary and counterstrategic, even though some represented groups have longer-term strategic objectives. They're going to become more prevalent, I think, since we are encountering such structures in business and leisure as well. And they're going to continue changing form over time as people leverage more information technologies."

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Very wise comment, John.   And I agree that we'll see more of this.  And the "Statistics of Opposition" post I wrote a few days ago extends to astroturfing.  The two things go together and are also a part of the "long tail" of democratic action and voice.   Here's the url for that earlier post:   http://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/statistics-opposition

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I missed your earlier article; thanks for the link. I'll check it out.

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