These are additional updates to my post, Further instances of astroturf in blogs.
Tsu Dho Nimh, writing in the f.i.a.b. comment thread, observed that
TDM provided a link to Blogophilia, whose proprietor both denounces and embraces cheap, small-time commercial astroturfing. She thinks the point of blogging is to make money fast, but doesn’t understand that other bloggers aren’t going to see it that way. Ms. Blogophilia links to one Sharon Hurley Hall, who describes how she works for an outfit called Blogitive, writing weblog comments for chump change.
Low-paid AMATEURS on are being paid to create product buzz … blogitive.com and others are paying a whopping $5 per post or less to game the search engines.
This Blogitive-style commercial astroturf is cheesy, low-grade stuff, but if enough people started doing it, things could get messy. For now I’ll console myself with the belief that anyone who has enough talent to make a go of writing plausible weblog comments that work in keywords from random press releases is good enough to get a better job doing something else.MoreWhat.com linked to my previous astroturf post, and gave additional information on the evil doings of the Rendon Group:
You don’t ask people to pay out a hundred million untraceable dollars without also giving them a very substantial sum to keep for their trouble. These projects have unreal budgets.
In 1991, prior to the first Gulf War, president George H W Bush signed an executive order directing the Central Intelligence Agency to create the conditions for Saddam Hussein’s removal. So the CIA hired a PR firm called the Rendon Group to run an anti-Saddam propaganda campaign
As part of that campaign, the group founded the Iraqi National Congress headed by Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi. Writing in The New Yorker magazine, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh said the Rendon Group paid “close to a hundred million dollars” of CIA money to the INC.
Which is also not a satisfactory general solution the problem.
I know the astroturfers are going to get better at covering their tracks, but now and for the foreseeable future, I trust my ability to spot them by ear. It’s not a satisfactory general solution, though.
Another mechanism that helps is the (view all by) link on every comment that lets you read that person’s other comments on Making Light. Until the day the astroturfers are willing to pay minions to post about fanfic, dubious saints, the taxonomic status of Pluto, bizarre video remakes of “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, literary pastiche in formal verse, and the problems of domesticating buffalo, just so they’ll have credibility when they post about the clients’ favorite issues, we’ll have a powerful if approximate tool for spotting ringers.
There’s an odd thought: Making Light is better defended against astroturf than weblogs that deal entirely in political issues. A significant percentage of our conversations are always going to be outside their areas of interest.
Here’s my current thinking on what to do: if I recognize a comment as astroturf, I delete it. If I think it sounds like astroturf, I delete it. If I mistakenly delete a real comment, I’ll apologize. I will not err on the side of caution.
This isn’t like spam, which costs its perpetrators an infinitesimal fraction of a cent per instance. Astroturf is written by human beings, and every piece of it has to be paid for. It’s a cheap delivery system if the comments function as PR, but it’s a bloody expensive way to buy invisible holes in the text where paid-for comments used to be.
Back to Ann Bartow. She links to a substantial article from the Guardian called The Fake Persuaders, about a massive disinformation campaign mounted by Monsanto. The site which reprinted the article, the Norfolk Genetic Information Network, also has an index page of their other stories involving astroturf.
The Center for Media and Democracy’s “PR Watch” maintains a more general index of astroturf-related stories.
One of their stories, about a couple of Australian PR bloggers who’ve started an anti-astroturfing campaign within the PR industry, led me to the Australians’ anti-astroturfing wiki page, which is useful. One of the Australians, Trevor Cook, wrote an excellent take-no-prisoners denunciation of the practice. In the course of it, he mentions a post by Paull Young about the disturbing implications of PRIA (Public Relations Institute of Australia) sponsoring an event where they flew in a speaker described as an “anti-activist activist.”
The incident alluded to by Paull Young was described in considerable detail by Katherine Wilson. Her account is the real prize. It’s also terrifying; but it’s better to know these things than merely suspect them.
(Wilson lists some of the other attendees, who are indeed a highly-placed bunch.)
There’s a man in Canada who thinks I’m a terrorist. He was in Australia this time last year, presenting workshops around the country. They were titled, ‘The best strategies to win against activists’. On his ad he called himself “Controversial Canadian PR consultant Ross Irvine”.
But a text scan of media around the world revealed no controversy surrounding any bloke named Ross Irvine. Not until he arrived in Australia, where the West Australian dubbed him “Rambo Ross” and ABC Melbourne’s Jon Faine called him “the anti-activist-activist”.
Still, I booked into Irvine’s Melbourne workshop. Held in a plush seminar room at a city business school, it cost A$595 for four hours, payable to the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA). In this workshop, I’d learn how to create bogus community groups, false statistics, and links with “far-right-wing nutso activists”. I’d learn to conflate “activist” with “terrorist” and “security threat”.
Controversial or not, Irvine had pulling power. Filing in to see him was a Who’s Who of powerful industry and government flacks.
Katherine Wilson knows what the real point is:
We’d all gathered to hear a man who claims that proportional representation is “a bizarre thing” and that “corporate responsibility is a weakness. Corporate responsibility is letting someone else set the agenda.” We’d learn that sustainability is “an extremist position”, that science’s ‘precautionary principal’ is “extreme”, and that maintaining biodiversity “turns back the evolutionary clock millions of years and eliminates humans from the face of the Earth! That’s extreme!” Animal protection bodies, we’d learn, really want to “sever all contact between humans and animals!”
Dealing in absolutes (health advocates are in fact ‘immoral!’ Conservationists are really ‘anticapitalist!’), when it comes to convictions, Irvine’s a relativist. Challenged earlier that day on ABC Radio, he admitted, “There’s a little bit of hyperbole in some of this. There’s also a bit of fun.”
You’d hope so for $595. By the time we’d registered, and eaten our roasted eggplant pides, it was clear most of us knew each other. There were twenty-nine of us here, and too many Daves. As well as those from the Coalition camp, there was David Hawkins from the PRIA, a bouncy man who introduced Ross Irvine. Irvine’s trip, he told the group, was funded by the IPA (the industry lobby group) and PACIA (the plastics and chemicals body). Irvine’s background, we learned, was as a PR adviser for the biotech (GM) crop industry.
“Public Relations is war,” Irvine announced, in his curly-r accent. He was wearing an elegant suit coat, a white shirt, and colourful tie. Trim, 50s, clean-shaven, with steel-rimmed spectacles and a pleasant, broad face, he flashed a boyish smile. “Don’t be afraid to attack,” he warned. “If you learn nothing else today, this is the message: ‘Fight networks with networks’.” …
To help us combat NGOs, Irvine referred us to the teachings of the Rand Corporation, a US national security think-tank. This was when ‘activist’ became confused with “terrorist”, “criminal”, “guerilla” and “security threat”. Don’t be fooled, he warned, when activists claim they’re about third world hunger or the environment or public health. “If you’re in business and you support biodiversity,” he said, “beware of what you’re really supporting … look beyond their immediate intentions. Their goal is a much larger concept that business, media and politicians must address!”
Some of us questioned Irvine’s generalisations. Why see activists as the ‘enemy’ (a word used many times today)? Can’t industry engage with moderate activists? Some people agreed, others shook their heads. No, warned Irvine. Once you cave to one demand, they’ll come up with “a whole bunch” of others. Which will eventually threaten capitalism itself. …
At the end of Irvine’s seminar, we split into groups for exercises. One was challenged to “assume the position of moral leadership”, a lesson from Irvine’s work with the biotech (GM crop) industry. When the GM crop industry faced health, environmental, economic, legal and social challenges, it mounted a higher moral ground campaign: GM crops will save third world children from malnutrition and starvation. The stratagem is to promote not with facts, said Irvine, but values. This, he claimed, is what activists do, and what industry must do better. “There are some real immoral people on the anti-biotech side,” he said. “Activists say, ‘let the kids starve’. That, to me, is totally immoral and amoral and everything. That, I’m sorry, that just brings out, I get really …” he inhaled and shook his head.
Another group was charged with finding ways to discredit activists. “Discredit the ideology and defeat the terrorist,” advised Irvine. The group came up with: “Call them suicide bombers … make them all look like terrorists … tree-hugging, dope-smoking, bloody university graduate, anti-progress …” and “Spot the flake. Find someone who would represent the enemy but clearly doesn’t know what the issue is … find a 16-year-old” and “distract the activist with side issues … and make enemies within the enemy camp so they spend all their time fighting and that helps to deepen their disorganisation.”
Our group was charged with ‘empowering others’ to support a cause. The cause was the Port of Melbourne channel-deepening. Once we had determined who we will ‘empower’ (unions, farmers’ groups, retailers), the PRIA’s David Hawkins suggested marginalising the environmental argument. This could be done with what Bush flacks call ‘the fire hose method’—bombarding the media with issues, information and press conferences so they don’t have the resources to interview alternative sources.
To the suggestion that the case for channel-deepening should be the voice of reason, Hawkins replied, “No, no, let’s be the voice of unreason. Let’s call them fruitcakes. Let’s call them nut—nutters. You know, let’s say they’re …”
“Environmental radicals,” suggested Darebin’s Shannon Walker.
“Exactly. You know … say they represent 0.1 per cent but they dominate, you know, let’s absolutely go for them.”
Our group discussed astroturfing. Named after a synthetic lawn, astroturfing is the creation of bogus community groups or independent authorities who endorse industry practice, recruit lesser-informed citizens, confuse the debate and make the real community groups appear extreme. The Guardian uncovered one case in which one of Monsanto’s public relations companies, Bivings Woodell, fabricated science ‘experts’ and online ‘scientific communities’ who successfully discredited genuine peer-reviewed science reports about the dangers of GM crops. Protest movements were also invented, including one at Johannesburg’s World Summit on Sustainable Development, widely reported as a demonstration by ‘third world’ farmers chanting “I don’t need white NGOs to speak for me”.
The University of Wollongong’s Professor Sharon Beder says ‘astroturf’ of this kind is rapidly propagating in Australia. “You need to know any particular issue very well to be able to distinguish the astroturf from the genuine grassroots groups,” she says. “For example, in mental health there are several front groups funded by pharmaceutical companies but they have a great deal of public credibility. Unless you know the issue well, you wouldn’t be able to pick them.”
Which is quite true.
[G]overnment employees—be they federal or local—have no place in a forum that promotes ways to stop citizens participating in the democratic process, says economist Clive Hamilton. Hamilton heads the Australia Institute, a public policy research body funded by grants from philanthropic trusts and staffed by economists. (The Institute claims to be neither left nor right wing.) Given an audio recording of the workshop, Hamilton responded, “Why a government agency would attend a seminar like this is beyond comprehension. These agencies are owned by the public, yet by attending seminars to learn how to beat citizens’ groups by means fair or foul they are turning on their owners. Only an organisation that has wholly alienated itself from the public would even consider attending an event like this.”
The article ends, “A version of this article was first commissioned by an Australian broadsheet newspaper and then killed. Those wishing to obtain an electronic recording of the Ross Irvine workshop held in April 2005 can email requests to email@example.com.”