These astroturf libertarians are the real threat to internet democracy
December 20, 2010 12:14 AM   Subscribe

Right Wing astroturfing A non-scientific analysis of the patterns in forum board discussions on a variety of topics. The gist: discussions of issues in which there's money at stake (like climate change, public health and corporate tax avoidance) are often characterised by amazing levels of abuse and disruption by rightwing libertarians who are pro-corporate, anti-tax, anti-regulation. 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.
posted by novenator (79 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
As a regular on many social media websites, this pattern is quite obvious to me as well, particularly on discussion threads about climate change, where petty insults are hurled with great frequency at scientists and science advocates. Although I have heard that Breitbart and Americans for Prosperity often pay some people to be disruptive, I cannot corroborate this with any evidence.
posted by novenator at 12:16 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Don't worry, the market forces will naturally self-correct the problem!

...provided you have the money and resources to buy sufficient counterbalancing PR town criers to put your message out there. Don't oppress our free speech to shout you down into silence!
posted by yeloson at 12:27 AM on December 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


non-scientific analysis

So it's someone's opinion?

characterised by amazing levels of abuse and disruption by rightwing blah blah blah...

Words fail me. Reminds me of the Ronald Reagan = Adolph Hitler "scientific" study from Berkeley.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:29 AM on December 20, 2010


Reminds me of the Ronald Reagan = Adolph Hitler "scientific" study from Berkeley.

Yeah, because that's what it says.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:32 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Struck a nerve, George?

OK. I'll link exactly what the article says:

In a study that ponders the similarities between former President Ronald Reagan, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Rush Limbaugh, four American university researchers say they now have a better understanding of what makes political conservatives tick.

Tell me that doesn't sound like a The Onion article. Laughs all 'round.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:38 AM on December 20, 2010


The thought occurs that psychologists believe that about 1% of the population is sociopathic, utterly out for themselves with no consideration for others whatsoever, willing to do anything necessary to get ahead. And the thought also occurs that our current financial system provides a way for that 1% to gain absolutely insane amounts of money if they get into the right place at the right time, giving them an incredible amount of power both in the real world and online.

Given those two observations, this sort of behavior would seem almost inevitable. Poison the well, and keep a coherent opinion from forming, and you prevent action by your opponents. This is something that sociopaths are really, really good at.

FWIW, while I'm rather out of the MeFi mainstream on a number of issues, and I've been known to get downright rude to people that I think are misleading the public for their own benefit, my opinions are entirely my own. If you see me arguing a libertarian line of thought, it's not because anyone is paying me, it's because I really believe it. I think libertarianism as a whole is deeply flawed, but it has many things to teach. Parts of it are profoundly correct and should become more mainstream.

Failing to regulate the powerful to protect the weak is NOT one of those areas, however. That's very probably where libertarianism gets it most wrong; they think that invisible market forces will correct abuses. But the only power consumers have in a producer-consumer relationship is that of choice. If no producer offers them the choice they want, they're powerless. Which is exactly what the powerful want, of course, but it's not a recipe for long-term health.

The biggest problem I see on probably ALL sides of the political equation is that people just don't think far enough ahead. We're trying to build a society that our grandchildren can grow up in. We appear hard-pressed to respond to more than the most immediate of problems, when we should be trying to think fifty and a hundred years ahead.

It is certain that, in many areas, we cannot keep doing what we are doing, that disaster is inevitable if we don't change behavior. Two examples that come to mind: conservatives fight tooth and nail against regulation to prevent environmental damage, and BOTH parties fight savagely to keep us from being fiscally responsible, going deeply into debt to fund today's consumption at the expense of our children and grandchildren. They will have to pay those debts down and somehow find room for their own consumption spending too, and a sharply lower living standard is the inevitable outcome. There are many paths that we can take to get there, but the endpoint is guaranteed. If you consume more than you produce for long enough, you will become poor, and no fiscal fiction will let you avoid that truth in the long haul.

But we just don't talk properly about this stuff. It always gets hijacked.
posted by Malor at 12:42 AM on December 20, 2010 [52 favorites]


I fucking hate articles like this, because you could write the exact same piece, with all its cherry picked "facts", about liberal/progressive/Democratic blogs instead of libertarians. Argue against right-wing extremism on its merits, and you'll win every time. Whine about right-wing blogs undermining the democratic process, and you look like a jackass.

The internet is a remarkable gift, which has granted us one of the greatest democratic opportunities since universal suffrage. We're in danger of losing this global commons as it comes under assault from an army of trolls and flacks, many of them covertly organised or trained.

This sentence, taken from the last paragraph of the article, could just as well have been written by a right wing hack. Let's elevate the discourse here, people.

Also, WTFOpEd.
posted by auto-correct at 12:48 AM on December 20, 2010 [9 favorites]


uncanny hengeman: I'll link exactly what the article says

What the study did:
sought patterns among 88 samples, involving 22,818 participants, taken from journal articles, books and conference papers. The material originating from 12 countries included speeches and interviews given by politicians, opinions and verdicts rendered by judges, as well as experimental, field and survey studies.
What WorldNet Daily said it did:
ponder[ed] the similarities between former President Ronald Reagan, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Rush Limbaugh...
I don't know if that study is worth a damn, but neither do you if you get all your information from that trainwreck of a site.
posted by robcorr at 12:54 AM on December 20, 2010 [15 favorites]


Struck a nerve, George?

Gee, I wonder why that that phrase would occur to you. It would only apply to me if I'd written the Berkeley article. In fact I'd never seen it before you linked it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:55 AM on December 20, 2010


World Net Daily?

Seriously?
posted by bardic at 1:00 AM on December 20, 2010


Cool, so we all agree ["struck a nerve" was out of order, George. I take that back].

ps: What auto-correct said.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 1:01 AM on December 20, 2010


Tell me that doesn't sound like a The Onion article. Laughs all 'round.
It's not too far off -- the article you linked to is from WorldNetDaily. We're talking about a web site that my mother in law prints out to deliver to my house by hand, warning me that Obama is going to make it illegal to slap rapists.

I'm usually inclined to take random college psychology studies with a couple fistfuls of salt, but knowing WND spent the time to rag on that one? Yeah, it must be worth a second look.
posted by verb at 1:07 AM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Tell me that doesn't sound like a The Onion article.

It sounds like an Onion article because it's a World Net Daily article.
posted by dirigibleman at 1:08 AM on December 20, 2010 [19 favorites]


Argue against right-wing extremism on its merits, and you'll win every time. Whine about right-wing blogs undermining the democratic process, and you look like a jackass.

He doesn't seem to be doing that. I can't claim to have checked his references but he appears to describe a reasonably well supported set of astroturfing programs aimed at shouting down forums where the status quo is being questioned. His citations or his representation of them may or may not be valid (as I said, I haven't checked them) but the article is not as you're describing it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:16 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


And here I thought I was tired of US Amurrhicun shitpants whack-a-doodle conservaloon retards.

Congratulations. Your green card is in the mail.
posted by trondant at 1:18 AM on December 20, 2010


uncanny hengeman, I'm a regular on the Guardian's comment boards, and I don't doubt for a second that there is a degree of astroturfing going on there. The first comments out of the box (especially on articles by high-profile commentators like Monbiot and Polly Toynbee) are usually extremely hostile, and they appear very early on. There's certainly a pattern there that indicates a degree of systematic and organized behaviour. Also, certain (always right-wing) comments will suddenly, over the course of a few minutes, sometimes get hundreds of "recommends," while the rest of the comments page remains largely static. It's clear when these runs take place, because their results are so glaringly out of keeping with normal comment-recommendation patterns.

Knowing what we do now about the way Digg was manipulated for years, why is it so unlikely that similar things are happening on other social media news sites?
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:21 AM on December 20, 2010 [16 favorites]


Yeah, I was just coming in to mention the Digg Patriots.
posted by XMLicious at 1:33 AM on December 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


Remembering something I first read on Metafilter, Googling reagan hitler berkeley, choosing the first ranked: GUILTY AS CHARGED.

Never heard of this WND site, but your criticisms are moot. Did this study happen or not? Were these four people mentioned? What's the problem?

Reagan Hitler Mussolini Limbaugh. It reads like a heads-animated-in-jars scene from Futurama. I bet I could cherry pick "facts" from past speeches and slot any Left Wing deity in there. If you believe that study carries any more weight than the book of Mormon, you've got rocks for brains.

Same goes for this non-scientific analysis. Not wanting to play Me-Too to his Big Dog, but scrap my posts all together if you want. Read what auto-correct said.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 1:51 AM on December 20, 2010


There's certainly a pattern there that indicates a degree of systematic and organized behaviour.

What you say may be right -- it's the sort of thing you expect to happen when there's money at stake -- but wouldn't you get similar results from some high-readership blogger simply linking to an article he doesn't like and steering all of his like-minded readers to it? From a simple "Can you believe what the Guardian Knots are saying about X this morning?! I'm going over there to poo in their pool. Anyone coming with me?" you could get dozens of people, all with the same political goals, favoriting his comment and leaving slippery puddles of their own froth.
posted by pracowity at 1:58 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Knowing what we do now about the way Digg was manipulated for years, why is it so unlikely that similar things are happening on other social media news sites?

BECAUSE HITLER

(592 people liked this)
posted by Sebmojo at 2:03 AM on December 20, 2010


Here's the fucking study. (PDF link).

Three seconds of googling the studies' name, from the Berkeley press release which robcorr linked to above, but is also the first link if you Google the much more reasonable berkeley conservative study.

And, as a bonus, if you search the actual study, rather than the shitty press release that some publicist has crafted, or the sub-tabloid screed of the most infamous right-wing website (based on the press release alone), guess which two words never appear? Reagan and Limbaugh.

(FWIW, Hitler and Mussolini are mentioned together (with Pinochet) once as "right wing revolutionaries" who "seem to advocate social change in the direction of decreased egalitarianism", and once in the metaphorical sense of persons with a high respect for authority being more willing to follow "the next Hitler or Mussolini". Hitler gets a third mention in a note that he shared some political beliefs with Stalin who, "identified with several right-wing causes (including anti-Semitism)".)
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:17 AM on December 20, 2010 [20 favorites]


Never heard of this WND site, but your criticisms are moot. Did this study happen or not? Were these four people mentioned? What's the problem?

Reagan Hitler Mussolini Limbaugh. It reads like a heads-animated-in-jars scene from Futurama. I bet I could cherry pick "facts" from past speeches and slot any Left Wing deity in there. If you believe that study carries any more weight than the book of Mormon, you've got rocks for brains.


Uh, but the point people were making was that it was WND that singled out those four names. Out of more than 22,000 in the original study. And that maybe, just maybe, this disingenous way of reporting the study (along with the source being best known for insisting that Barack Obama is not a natural-born citizen, in the face of all evidence), meant that maybe you shouldn't be citing their reporting of the study as your main argument.
posted by kagredon at 2:20 AM on December 20, 2010


guess which two words never appear? Reagan and Limbaugh

Sorry, sizzlechest.

I clicked on the BETTER, ALTERNATIVE link Rob Corr supplied. Both names were mentioned in Rob Corr's BETTER ALTERNATIVE, and both names were mentioned by the authors of the study.

That's as far as I'm willing to take it. I'm not gonna cross check every bloody link to see if it's from a hivemind-approved site or if the guys they talked about in their press conference are different to the ones in the study. Ain't gonna happen.

Plus, you're arguing about a non-issue and I'm going over old ground. Don't read my posts. Read what auto-correct said.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 2:28 AM on December 20, 2010


Uh, but the point people were making was that it was WND that singled out those four names.

The Berkeley media release singles out those names, too.

Zing! Nothing but net.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 2:34 AM on December 20, 2010


Don't read my posts. Read what auto-correct said.
Why? It's a standard-issue, fact-free tu quoque argument. Which rather sidesteps around the actually documented instances of covertly funded, right-wing astroturfing on the internet that Monbiot cites in his article.

And you think you've won this argument with your press-release-reading-comprehension-FAIL swat at the scientific method from World Net Daily, of all places? Could you be losing this thread any more comprehensively?
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:39 AM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


from World Net Daily, of all places?

Give me strength.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 2:42 AM on December 20, 2010


Metafilter: googling reagan hitler berkeley, choosing the first ranked, GUILTY AS CHARGED.
posted by mek at 2:45 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


from World Net Daily, of all places?

Give me strength.
Well, considering that you linked to it—twice, in fact—I don't think you need any help from me.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:46 AM on December 20, 2010


The Berkeley media release singles out those names, too.

Well, not just those names:

The researchers conceded cases of left-wing ideologues, such as Stalin, Khrushchev or Castro, who, once in power, steadfastly resisted change, allegedly in the name of egalitarianism.

But I'm guessing you didn't read that far.
posted by kagredon at 2:47 AM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think we're being astroturfed, ironically of course.
posted by mek at 3:14 AM on December 20, 2010 [15 favorites]


This thread is a performance art piece, right? A second act to the first act OP? Because it's beautiful.
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:43 AM on December 20, 2010 [20 favorites]


I think we're being astroturfed, ironically of course.

I was noticing that, too. Derail as Exhibit 1, Your Honor.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:05 AM on December 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


One thing I've noticed recently is a lot of heat in the Net Neutrality debate. There are a bunch of people who seem vaguely well informed, but completely wrong. They basically argue that the law, and FCC regulation should stay as it is, rather then "regulate" the internet.

The problem is that there is zero legal or regulatory protection for net neutrality right now. Which means unless new laws are passed, the phone companies can do whatever they want.

Yet, a bunch of people come online and basically say the exact opposite, and are very passionate about it. It's just bizarre and honestly, I really do think they are paid "social media" operatives. It's no secret that there people doing Social Media P.R, why wouldn't there be "black hat" social media stuff? Historically the powers that be have put in agent provocateurs in all kinds of movements. And the net neutrality fight had a lot of grass roots, online mobilization.

In the broader political arena people do get taken in by bad arguments, listen to Rush Limbaugh or whatever... There's no real popular source of misinformation about net neutrality. So where else could this stuff be coming from?

---

With regards to overall astroturfing, the sad thing is when people hear bad arguments they repeat them a lot. So even if people are just repeating nonsense, it doesn't mean they're getting paid to do it. But it's always possible. The right is pouring tons of money into politics, and they've never been shy about astroturfing. But I think the odds that any random commenter would be a paid operative is low.
posted by delmoi at 4:11 AM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


This article is hogwash. You could just as easily pick out facts to corroborate your argument and say nearly the same if you were bent against left wing/liberal groups as well.

"Astroturfing" is a 21st century term for flame wars. Ever stepped into a discussion about different car makes over at The Car Lounge, or get yourself into a Mac vs. PC debate?

But, somewhat on point, repeating a meme that you are particularly disposed to is not necessarily a sign that there is some organization actively funding some form of 'turfing'. It just means that people are repeating something they heard and you disagree with - whether or not it is factually correct.
posted by tgrundke at 4:45 AM on December 20, 2010


Holy derail. Of what import to right wing astroturfing of online discussion forums is it that WND posted an outrage-baiting oversimplified summary of a psychology study from Berkeley? Why is the thread about this now?
posted by Hello, Revelers! I am Captain Lavender! at 4:59 AM on December 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


Flagged as "case in point"
posted by briank at 5:13 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The thread is about the study of Berkeley because uncanny_hengeman wanted to prove the point of the articles in the post. It's all about hijacking a thread, early.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:15 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Flagged as "case in point"

From now on I'll consider the following Mefites to be right-wing trolls...

...you know who you are.
posted by T.D. Strange at 5:28 AM on December 20, 2010


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.

who would have thunk it? thank goodness we have science to reveal these matters.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 5:40 AM on December 20, 2010


Yahoo News just had a story about how Lady Gaga's concert in Paris was cancelled due to inclement weather.

The comments section was filled with hateful invective against Lady Gaga, liberals, climate scientists and environmentalists. I was blown away. There is nothing in the article that mentions climate change, nothing that mentions environmentalism. It's just a fluff blurb about how angry Lady Gaga is because she got snowed in -- but somehow it managed to become a referendum on the falseness of climate change and the perfidy of environmentalism.

There is no way that hundreds of conservative bloggers are following Lady Gaga just to post bullshit in her Yahoo News updates. There is something more at work here.
posted by Avenger at 5:46 AM on December 20, 2010 [14 favorites]


This is why we can't have nice things
posted by crayz at 6:16 AM on December 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


This thread is so very postmodern.
posted by schmod at 6:37 AM on December 20, 2010


Monbiot actually nails it without realizing.

The Guardian's Op-Ed site is called "Comment is Free".

But what if commenting wasn't free? What if you had a to pay a token, but non-trivial fee, to comment on an article/s?

The barrier to entry for passing trolls and the margins of organizations that seek to direct mass trollspams to blogs and so forth would sharply change.

I have no idea where I got the idea for a $5 fee to enable commenting from. Sometimes I just wake up and these strokes of genius just come to me, as if by magic.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:38 AM on December 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


But we just don't talk properly about this stuff. It always gets hijacked.

Amen.

respect_for_malor++
posted by eriko at 6:46 AM on December 20, 2010


It's Astroturfing if it's paid for. And I absolutely believe there are some right wing trolls who get paid to surf the net and behave abusively to any comment they disagree with. And you could go through and cherry pick left wingers on right wing sites, I suppose, but I'd be amazed if you could make a convincing case. I haven't seen any evidence that left wingers, as a whole, are as aggressive or dismissive, or spend nearly the same sort of time on right wing sites, or engage issues so consistency and with such deliberately proactive tactics. There's not a left-leaning site that doesn't have its resident right wing trolls, and they are marked by an insistence and determination that is positively breathtaking, and I can't figure out how they have the time to do it, since all the seem to do is lurk on the site waiting to launch into another angry, dismissive, counterfactual tirade the moment a story is posted. I have experienced it on sites I have worked on -- where I get paid to write a column every day, and couldn't do it otherwise. They easily outstrip me in the amount of words they put on the site per day. And how do they afford it?

I expect sooner or later it will come out that they were paid to do it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:08 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


If the point of the derail is to claim that astroturfing doesn't exist, that's laughable.

Bivings calls it "campaign management" but it's obviously the creation of fraudulent public opinion. But then, the public always needs its opinions managed, since the poor little darlings are incapable of forming opinions by themselves.
posted by warbaby at 7:11 AM on December 20, 2010


And I absolutely believe there are some right wing trolls who get paid to surf the net and behave abusively to any comment they disagree with.

I have a hard time believing that the 4:15AM comments posted daily on my newspaper websites are from actual, local, concerned citizens and not someone paid to get up that early to be the first to post on environmental/social/political stores. Or even if they aren't getting paid, they're just white knighting their party.
posted by SirOmega at 7:26 AM on December 20, 2010


There is something more at work here.

Yeah, a volunteer army of unpaid suckers goes around doing the same thing, parroting what they heard from Rush Limbaugh or WND. The astroturfing is but a small part, perhaps leading the charge or introducing new arguments.
posted by callmejay at 7:31 AM on December 20, 2010



I fucking hate articles like this, because you could write the exact same piece, with all its cherry picked "facts", about liberal/progressive/Democratic blogs instead of libertarians. Argue against right-wing extremism on its merits, and you'll win every time. Whine about right-wing blogs undermining the democratic process, and you look like a jackass.


Yep because right wing arguments are almost always pro corporate and generally bad for most of the world.
posted by Liquidwolf at 7:34 AM on December 20, 2010


Yeah, a volunteer army of unpaid suckers goes around doing the same thing, parroting what they heard from Rush Limbaugh or WND.

It could be. But, then, the right wing troll on the site I work for always seems to have talking points and whisper campaigns a few days before everybody, rather than after.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:44 AM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


But what if commenting wasn't free? What if you had a to pay a token, but non-trivial fee, to comment on an article/s?

Citizens United. Money is precisely the advantage the plutocrats have. If they're paying people to make noise and drown out things they don't like, they'll just pay them enough to do it.
posted by Naberius at 8:02 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I constantly hear the argument that if you just went through left wing/progressive/etc. blogs and comments you'd find the same thing. I have never seen a shred of proof to back this up. For those who make the assertion, I'd like to see some proof.

As to the cause of this, I think it simply boils down to the fact that, as a whole, and I'm not entirely sure why, progressives are shitty ratfuckers.
posted by Hactar at 8:03 AM on December 20, 2010


progressives are shitty ratfuckers.

Are you saying progressives aren't as good a fucking rats?
posted by Liquidwolf at 8:12 AM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


The internet is a remarkable gift, which has granted us one of the greatest democratic opportunities since universal suffrage. We're in danger of losing this global commons as it comes under assault from an army of trolls and flacks, many of them covertly organised or trained.

I feel like the person making this comment has never actually been to a public meeting or participated in an organization that was democratically run. In my experience, democracy is frustrating and often upsetting largely because you have to deal with trolls, crazy-people, lackeys and shills in person.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:14 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't figure out how they have the time to do it ... And how do they afford it? I expect sooner or later it will come out that they were paid to do it.


Or it could be an unorganized group of retired angry old white men. They have the time, the anger, and nothing else to do.

I see a lot of angry comments in the Seattle Times comments section. Other local papers have the same problem. Usually you can tell ahead of time which articles are going to be cesspools. Some of the user accounts have hundreds or thousands of comments associated with them. But I doubt very highly they are getting paid to do it.

Part of my skepticism comes from the rampant racism visible by these posters. Is the article about local crime? Chances are you're going to see a lot of comments about the "thugs". And it goes downhill from there. These accounts also usually post pro-business comments in the political articles.

Maybe I'm just not cynical enough, and there are paid operatives using race-baiting on a mass-scale. I know, "they're called Republicans!", the joke goes, but a lot of the comments just have the feel of normal people not liking the changes occurring around them.

I'm sure there are some paid operatives on the larger sites. It's what PR companies do. But don't underestimate the American publics ignorance and fury.
posted by formless at 8:18 AM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I constantly hear the argument that if you just went through left wing/progressive/etc. blogs and comments you'd find the same thing.

The fundamental rule of the right-wing press machine is never defend.

Period. The proper answer to an accusation is another accusation. The proper answer to a demand for proof is to repeat the accusation louder.

Never explain. Never defend. Most importantly, people who defend lose the initiative and the lede on the story.

The reason that the progressives in this country now have absolutely zero voice in politics is that they kept defending against the attacks. Wait, I said that wrong. The reason liberals in this country now have absolutely zero voice in politics is that they kept defending against the attacks, rather than fighting back.

Which is why the word "liberal" is now a condemnation in US politics.

Why does the right wing keep doing this? Because it's working.
posted by eriko at 8:26 AM on December 20, 2010 [12 favorites]



The fundamental rule of the right-wing press machine is never defend.

Period. The proper answer to an accusation is another accusation. The proper answer to a demand for proof is to repeat the accusation louder.

Never explain. Never defend. Most importantly, people who defend lose the initiative and the lede on the story.


You can't win an emotional argument with reason, and most right wing arguments are based on reactionary emotion (not to mention self centered and short sighted).
posted by Liquidwolf at 8:36 AM on December 20, 2010


> It's Astroturfing if it's paid for.

I recall both Krugman and Pelosi (just to pick two big left-liberal names) saying the Tea Party was just astroturf, back before the midterm. Re-thinking that now, both of 'em are (and everyone who smugly linked their comments at the time) after it's more than a bit too late to retain control of the House. It strikes me that Monbiot is making the same gross error: anyone disagreeing with moi MUST be inauthentic.

George, there is certainly astroturf out there but it's not a drop in the ocean compared to the effect of the Someone Is Wrong On The Internet syndrome. Not to mention plain old trolling. Nobody has to pay trolls, trolling is its own reward.


> 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

George has never been to livejournal.
posted by jfuller at 9:09 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


But what if commenting wasn't free? What if you had a to pay a token, but non-trivial fee, to comment on an article/s?

See above, and many other threads; a $5 membership fee does not prevent trolling and suchlike. But it does make it harder to just boot someone because now they can make an argument that they paid you good money and then you just up and changed your mind one day.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:06 AM on December 20, 2010


The FPP's main asertion -- Monbiot's from his OpEd, that there are astro-turf libertarians thriving in patterned ways in discussion boards and comment sections of Net discourse is obvious to a trivial and unremarkable degree (The entire anti-TSA campaign comes to mind: fish in rain barrel, but still) It wouldn't be difficult to demonstrate either, only time and sound method. Some statistical textual analysis, some id sleuthing of the sort that untangled the Digg Patroits enterprise. I have long thought of these people as professional trolls, for lack of any other way to think about them. A year ago I had the benighted idea that I could get on top of the Global Warming debate by paying close attention to the comments section of Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog. It became obvious quickly that there were people running under a number of Nom de Guerre's whose job it was to squat there (and at other sites) and attack the discussion with the aim of reducing the column to fruitlessness.
posted by Akaky at 10:16 AM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


anyone disagreeing with moi MUST be inauthentic.

In the case of the Tea Party, this has been demonstrated. The right flushed a lot of money into the Tea Party and exerted a great deal of control. This has been repeatedly documented, so I am not clear on what you're point is. It's not "anyone disagreeing must be inauthentic," it's "here's the paper trail," and it's there for anybody to follow.

But I guess it's easier to claim the other guy is being paranoid than actually check out whether there's some dirty pool afoot. They mocked Hillary Clinton for using the term "A vast right-wing conspiracy," and it turned out the very people mocking her were part of a vast right-wing conspiracy against the Clintons.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:40 AM on December 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


You can't win an emotional argument with reason,

That's because it's not an argument, it's shouting. Emotional people aren't going to become convinced unless you counter with an even more emotional argument, which isn't pretty to watch (although sometimes funny to imagine).
posted by JHarris at 12:20 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Discussions of issues in which there's little money at stake tend to be a lot more civilised

Like abortion, gay marriage and such?
posted by philipy at 12:35 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


auto-correct: "I fucking hate articles like this, because you could write the exact same piece, with all its cherry picked "facts", about liberal/progressive/Democratic blogs instead of libertarians. Argue against right-wing extremism on its merits, and you'll win every time. Whine about right-wing blogs undermining the democratic process, and you look like a jackass democrat.""

FTFY. (well, then again, i guess there's a reason their animal's the donkey, eh?)
posted by symbioid at 1:22 PM on December 20, 2010


Astroturfing exists. Fact. It's insidious, vile and designed to twist, hide and/or pervert the truth. It's not random, it targets opinion formers first and the rest later. Monbiot is right, we need to fight it. I've experienced it exactly as he describes it. Any time my blog mentions global warming or any other commercially sensitive topic, up they pop.

By the way, it's basically just an extreme form of PR, and if you're a journalist you recognise it instantly. Oh and I was actually asked once to help with an astroturfing project concerning a financial issue, which I turned down instantly. Really nasty stuff (because normal people don't recognise it, just like they don't recognise PR).
posted by Duug at 1:50 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The thread is about the study of Berkeley because uncanny_hengeman wanted to prove the point of the articles in the post. It's all about hijacking a thread, early.

Everyone's so cut up about the Berkeley "study." Embarrassing, huh? Do you want it to go away?

Listen folks, I mentioned it once, and then the usual gaggle of screaming dweebies replied with a derail [ie: "it doesn't count because it was summarised on a non Left Wing approved web site"]. I made an attempt to explain myself but gave up and told the screaming dweebies to JUST IGNORE MY POSTS. What happened? More of the idiots lining up to say the same thing.

Yet somehow this is my derail? I'm astroturfing? You lot sound like Hillary Clinton. Delusional.

>>Discussions of issues in which there's little money at stake tend to be a lot more civilised

>Like abortion, gay marriage and such?


Exactly. Have you guys thought about this for one second? One of the most vitriolic, batshitinsane "debates" I've seen was in the scientific community by a bunch of Left leaning academics over the colour of orange in the dark.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 3:50 PM on December 20, 2010


Astroturfing exists. Fact.

Woops. Forget everything I said. Thread over.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 3:52 PM on December 20, 2010


> The right flushed a lot of money into the Tea Party and exerted a great deal of control. This has been repeatedly
> documented, so I am not clear on what you're point is. It's not "anyone disagreeing must be inauthentic," it's
> "here's the paper trail," and it's there for anybody to follow.

That same trail exists for both major parties. If receiving large institutional donations (and going to conferences and parties paid for by rich guys, and having rich guys in your party hierarchy or having your party bigwigs' private numbers on speed dial) is enough to make a party astroturf then the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are equally astroturf. So if you're saying "The Tea Party and the Republicans and the Democrats are astroturf" then fine, but if you want to say the Tea Party is different and worse on the astroturf axis you pretty much have to claim it's exclusively astroturf with no true grass-roots participation at all. That would certainly be a difference, but it doesn't happen to be so. Or anyway the Center for Responsive Politics (which is to say opensecrets.org) says it isn't so. Or are you just contrasting the TP's financing with the successful small-donations campaign our current President ran? Well, here's what our friends at Socialist Action had to say about that.
posted by jfuller at 4:03 PM on December 20, 2010


It must be so nice to be able to dismiss any voices of dissent as simply "astroturfing". It's pretty reminiscent of certain authoritarian despots like Castro dismissing any criticism as the work of capitalists, imperialists, and/or Americans.
posted by gyc at 4:17 PM on December 20, 2010


That same trail exists for both major parties

Nobody said it didn't.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:27 PM on December 20, 2010


There is no good reason to defend the idea of astro-turfing or to downplay its polluting effect on the political climate, regardless of which side of any issue you are on.

Defensive postures are usually taken by people defending something, not by disinterested parties. There seem to be a lot of people in this thread who would like the subject to be anything but right wing astro-turfing. If you don't do it or support it, then what's it to you? If you do, just say so, and move on.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:53 PM on December 20, 2010


OK, AZ. The spambot is satisfied.
posted by jfuller at 6:57 PM on December 20, 2010



Well, it looks like various right-wing political causes mentioned above have lots of funding and support from the business community, Republican organizations and supporters like the Koch brothers. I wouldn't call those the "voices of dissent". I don't see the same level of self-reflective support and raw bales of cash on the Democratic side. Does George Soros count? I don't know.
posted by sneebler at 10:28 PM on December 20, 2010


The other thing that right-wing PR is spending money on is just more sites, more namespace, particularly around climate change denial. There is a proliferation of anti-climate change invective on sites that claim some other interest - I'm thinking of mensnewsdaily.com, which claims to have something to do with men's advocacy, but lately focuses on a series of anti-environmental screeds. But there are lots of others, mostly flimsy shells linking to each other and trying to collect click-throughs as they link to and support each other's claims. I know these are hardly mainstream news sites, but there are enough of them that they appear to represent a collective wisdom on this subject, and are in turn used as a source by more high-profile right-wing bloggers.

My take on this is that if there were paid trolls on MSM comment sites in the past, they're being outbid by web site operators who can show reams of web pages and visits for their master's PR dollar. Or maybe it's a cottage industry for disaffected business journalists.
posted by sneebler at 10:45 PM on December 20, 2010


Any time there's a blog post that supports investment in transit, it will almost inevitably attract just this kind of astroturfer. They go by different handles on different blogs, but each time it follows the same logic: private cars are superior to other modes of travel, sprawl represents the ultimate in human achievement (which explains the policies that have resulted in sprawl), roads are all paid through gas taxes (and those that aren't don't matter), and transit is a complete waste of money. Ad nauseam. Often with cherry picked or sometimes false stats. Quite similar to professional oil shills Wendell Cox and Randal O'Toole, actually.

Some examples are Watson and Adams at Human Transit, garyg at Streetsblog, Mixner at The Bellows (also seen denying climate change), and Gordy at The Transport Politic. When a blog post of mine got picked up in a few places, sure enough I got my own visit from the sprawl lobby.

It's interesting to see the response to calling out astroturfing in this case: there isn't one. They just ignore it and keep doing what they're paid to do.
posted by parudox at 12:48 AM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Obviously there's a continuum of astroturfing and astroturfing-like behavior that runs between paid astroturfing, organized volunteer astroturfing, independent concern trolling, and just people who have strong opinions about something.

Paid astroturfers would mostly work for companies, promoting their brands and products, attacking competitors, and defending their interests (There is no global warming! Food additives are good for you!). Volunteer political astroturfers, like the Tea Party astroturfers Monbiot mentioned in the article, or the Digg Patriots, are closer to ordinary opinionated people, because they are basically opinionated people, just organized and fed talking points on particular topics.

Astroturfing is an interesting problem. I'm wondering if it wouldn't be possible to create an astroturfing filter modeled on spam filters and the bots Wikipedia uses to detect vandalism. Astroturfers certainly have patterns. They only comment on certain topics. They repeat talking points and misinformation. Sometimes they're traceable to IP addresses where they work. There are environments where astroturfers are easy to spot - say, when obscure personal blogs that normally have five or six regular commenters that flooded with comments and misinformation when they happen to post on certain topics.
posted by nangar at 8:03 AM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


[few comments removed - back it up folks or take it to metatalk, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 9:32 PM on December 21, 2010


Food additives are good for you!

I've actually seen that happen right here on MeFi.... when I was talking about my horrible experiences with aspartame and MSG, I was savagely attacked by someone who claimed that it was certain that both I and my doctors were wrong, wrong, wrong.

I strongly believe that, for at least some of the population, aspartame is very dangerous, but his absolute insistence that that couldn't happen smells strongly of Monsanto astroturfing.

After all, it's known for certain that aspartame causes severe to lethal brain damage to PKU babies... is it really so hard to imagine that some of us may have recessive PKU genes or some other genetic variant that make it somewhat dangerous to us?

But he was stridently insistent that I was full of shit, and I should have realized and pointed out at the time that anyone who claims absolute certainty about anything in the medical field is wrong.
posted by Malor at 6:32 AM on December 26, 2010


So, who is this astroturfer?

Astroturfers on MeFi. I'm still laughing.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:25 PM on December 26, 2010


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