A news consumer’s guide to ‘astroturf’ sources

A news consumer’s guide to ‘astroturf’ sources
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Never before have there been so many political and corporate interests with so many tools at their disposal to manipulate our opinions. Thanks to the internet and a changing news landscape, “astroturf” tactics surround us every day.

Astroturf, in this case, means “fake grassroots.” In other words, entities deploy surreptitious methods to make us believe ordinary people in grassroots efforts are speaking to an issue when, in fact, organized, paid corporate and political interests are pulling the strings. It’s cloaked propaganda.

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Astroturf aims to shape public opinion through a wide variety of tactics involving social media, news, popular culture, magazines, advocacy campaigns, ads, entertainment, charitable causes, polls, letters to the editor, universities, comedy programs, published studies and the Internet.  

No single political or corporate interest holds a monopoly on astroturf. It’s a multibillion-dollar global industry whose participants include crisis management firms, lobby groups, strategic communications groups, corporate law firms, global PR firms, think tanks, LLCs, advocacy groups, nonprofits and charities, websites, superPACs and media outlets acting on behalf of donors or paid clients.

Think of astroturf as the grownup version of high school peer pressure. The goal is to make you feel like you’re an outlier — when you’re not — so that you’ll keep certain thoughts and opinions to yourself. Astroturf seeks to control information and change your mind by making you believe “everybody else” feels a certain way.

Here’s how “astroturfers” work:

Six Hallmarks of Astroturf

  1. Use of inflammatory language such as “crank,” “quack,” “nutty,” “liar,” “paranoid,” “pseudo,” “denier,” “myth,” “debunked,” “discredited” and “conspiracy.” This language tests as effective in influencing people to form the desired opinion.

  2. Frequent use of phrases such as “everyone knows,” “everyone agrees” and “settled science” — even though “everyone,” in fact, does not “know” or “agree,” and the science may be far from “settled.”

  3. Claiming damaging information to be a “myth” that has been “debunked” — even though the information may not be mythical at all. The strategy works well in changing minds: People hear something’s a “myth” and instantly declare themselves too smart to fall for it.

  4. Labeling of facts that are detrimental to their paid interests as “old news” or agenda-driven.

  5. Attaching politics to a topic they wish to squelch. That effectively “controversializes” the issue and divides public opinion so that no more than half of people will typically believe or pay attention to the offending information.

  6. Attempts to convince people that there’s only one legitimate side of a controversy and that any contrary information should be censored entirely from the public because it’s harmful or discredited, and so people shouldn’t be allowed to consider it.

Ten Common Astroturf Tactics

  1. Flooding social media with comments and content under multiple pseudonyms, sometimes with assistance from specially designed software. One astroturfer, a former military officer, told me “an entire movement can be started with 140 characters and a handful of fake Twitter accounts.”

  2. Organized posting of comments on the Federal Register, as if by ordinary Americans, to influence public policy.

  3. Around-the-clock monitoring of influencers in media, news and public policy to deploy rapid response countermeasures intended to controversialize all work that threatens the paid agenda.

  4. Controlling topics and pages on Wikipedia on behalf of paid interests; reverting or disallowing edits on topics they seek to control.

  5. Training armies of analysts to appear on news programs, be quoted in articles, pitch “stories” and research to reporters, and “leak” to the press.

  6. Writing and placing of “news articles,” blogs and ghostwritten letters to the editor in national publications.

  7. Facilitating and placing “scientific” studies to confuse the information landscape on issues they seek to control or controversialize.

  8. Hiring of scientists, doctors and university researchers to speak out, write letters or conduct studies with the desired results, often without disclosing the financial interests who are behind them.

  9. Boycotts that aren’t driven by ordinary consumers but are organized by linked advocacy groups and nonprofits.

  10. Assuming the identity of the opposition to conduct controversial or outrageous acts, then publicly blame the acts on the opponent.

What to Watch For

You can suspect organized efforts to influence opinion when you see the same few stories reported in the news, similar descriptions being used and the same people being quoted. After all, there are thousands of legitimate news stories that could be reported on a given day; when so many are on the same topic, it might be the result of successful astroturf campaigns.

Astroturfers tend to controversialize the people, personalities and organizations surrounding an issue. When you see personal attacks that don’t have much to do with the facts of the matter, it could be an astroturf campaign.

Interests who seek to manipulate public opinion have acknowledged that, at times, their only goal is to introduce so much confusing information into the mix that people end up not knowing what to believe and tune everything out. That serves the purpose of deflecting attention from true information that’s damaging to the paid interests.

Efforts to “curate” or “fact check” information often are backed by interests who seek to censor particular views and facts. 

Initiatives to promote “media literacy” and anti-“fake news” laws and curricula in schools are sometimes backed by paid interests who seek to control narratives rather than promote critical thinking or the truth.

Finally, astroturfers tend to reserve all of their public skepticism for those exposing wrongdoing rather than the wrongdoers. In other words, instead of questioning authority, they question those who question authority — such as whistleblowers and reporters.

It’s more important than ever to seek diverse information sources. Make up your own mind. Do your own research. Think for yourself.

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times bestsellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”