“Astroturfing” refers to any shady public relations practice where one manufactures the appearance of “grass roots” support. I had never heard of the word until transitioning from news to public affairs (a mere six years, two months and twenty-two days ago, but who is counting?)
Journalists, by nature, are fairly good at playing the skeptic; and very cranky when they get played. When part of the story centers on public sentiment – like the case study I present to you now – they may get more than irate; they might just get even.
Particulars in a moment, but first the mother of all disclaimers:
The following post references events and issues of a political nature in the state of Alabama, and unlike most of what I write here is of a very time-sensitive nature.
This post is the work of me and me alone.
Because anything that is even remotely political ends up being blamed or framed on my employer (whether warranted or not,) let me state unequivocally that my employer, supervisor, nor anyone in my company knows I am writing this, nor am I under any directive, suggestion or hint that it would be worthwhile.
For the record, I have not taken a public position on the issues of gambling/gaming/bingo in the state of Alabama, and don’t care enough to research them.
Nobody has paid me for this post. I don’t even run ads on the site.
But I am interested in the process of communications, and how organizations attempt to persuade.
Are you hooked yet? Here we go…
It all started with a quick morning check of Twitter, just a few minutes after 6 o’clock on Tuesday. I saw a link to a Bingo story, with a killer tease line: “Alabama Senator Was Offered Money for Bingo Vote.” That certainly got my attention.
Chuck Dean’s piece (with able assistance from Kim Chandler) went live at 5 o’clock sharp. But here, in the dim morning light, I was already seeing more than two dozen comments. Don’t bother trying to look them up by time stamps, because the threading of comments has thrown it completely off, and many of the “participants” didn’t bother using the threading feature anyway.
More than thirty comments in the first hour-and-change since publication is impressive. Even more impressive is how one-sided they were.
Again, I have no stake in either outcome – but the strong polarity against Governor Bob Riley was quite apparent.
Also apparent was how these comments were all following a narrow set of talking points. They all had the very same tone, and as one who has written for a living I can tell you when there is a uniformity to the tone.
Let’s look at a few of these, in order, as they appear on the site:
Posted byÂ garlicrollsApril 06, 2010, 5:50AM
This is clearly just another attempt by Riley to defame the opposition. Sanford is decidedly making up stories just to scare the other legislators from voting yes, just as Riley called the FBI to lead an investigation into only voters who changed from no on one bill to yes on another bingo bill. The audacity of some people to try and discredit others is astounding in politics.Posted byÂ goinggreen6April 06, 2010, 11:49AMIt looks like Riley is pulling all the cards on this one. hes going to turn this whole ordeal around so it looks like its pro bingo’s fault when in actuality Riley is pulling all the strings with the Indian dollars backing him. cant you see were all victims to Riley.Posted byÂ bruno_brosApril 06, 2010, 11:51AMRiley is balls to the wall this time he will do anything to get his way and he has made that very clear. We need to stop him before he does any more damage.Posted byÂ beeflover1201April 06, 2010, 11:56AMi find it awfully suspicious that the governor also took 13 million from Indians as well don’t you?? and there is proof of that.Posted byÂ ramonsmoleApril 06, 2010, 11:57AMSo Sanford is saying that someone tried to bribe him to vote yes but every other time he has voted he has always been pro gambling…..Now he votes no isn’t that suspicious.Posted byÂ milehighrollerApril 06, 2010, 12:00PMSo when are they going to investigate the anti-bingo crowd they can make allegations against pro-bingo supporters and then they are investigated by the FBI but no one ever says the anti-bingo group is being investigated for anything. Is the Indian money that powerful?Posted byÂ SouthernAttiudeApril 06, 2010, 12:03PMThat’s all they do is attack the opposition. The anti bingo crowd continuously attacks the pro bingo crowds because they are threatened and they have nothing else to do but threaten and scare the House members from voting yes. Every voter who has switched has now been interrogated or questioned by the FBI.Posted byÂ sohood89April 06, 2010, 12:03PMonce again i find it suspicious that knowing this would bring great things to our state why Riley would try so HARD! to shut it down? I also find it odd it has been 7 years since these places have been running and one day Riley just said they are illegal shut them down? that’s like running a bakery and for 7 years and then one day saying its not a bakery because they don’t sell muffins. Its very suspicious.Posted byÂ angryamandaApril 06, 2010, 12:08PMIt’s clear that Riley is being paid or bribed by someone or something (ahem Mississippi Indians) to all of a sudden go after the casino halls in Alabama. It’s absurd to think that Riley woke up one day and decided he would go after a big tourist and economic boost in our state. Riley is just attacking people so as to put a cloud over this bill. The citizens need to vote and decide, NOT RILEY.
- Where are the short little digs at other commenters?
- Where are the digs at Birmingham’s ex-Mayor Larry Langford? If you have ever spent any time reading comments at AL.com, then you know what I am talking about.
- Where are the LOL’s and the idiot racist comments?
- Where is the dissent?
Truth is, I don’t have the patience to analyze all 336 comments, and neither do you. And that is the goal.
Someone wanted to create the impression of an impregnable groundswell of support for “a vote” to “let the people decide.”Â Astroturfers, by their nature, are like thieves. If they wanted to put in the hard work to cover their tracks, they’d probably have just done the ethical thing and tried, you know, persuading people with the power of their ideas and vision. But Astroturfers are all about taking shortcuts. In this case, I would venture a guess the appearance of a popular uprising would prevent the need to spend expensive ad dollars down the road.
Make the enemy feel like he’s already doomed to lose, Master Sun would say.
Actually, there are ways to parse through this clutter. It’s not DNA evidence, but if there is Astroturfing going on, there are digital fingerprints.
I would want to ask the following:
- How many of the commenters signed up around the same time? Is there a cluster that created accounts within a narrow window?
- How many of the comments are coming from the same range of IP addresses?
- How many of the comments are making the same grammar and spelling errors?
- How many of the accounts have email addresses with a similar syntax? FirstLastemail@example.com, for instance?
- Is there a “rhythm” to the comments? Do they come in at two-to-three minute intervals, as though someone is logging out and logging back in again?
- How active are these accounts on other topics?
Most of these questions are outside the realm of my answering, because I don’t have access to account information or server logs. But there are people who do — those working for the Birmingham News and AL.com, who have a vested interest in building a vibrant community of contributors and visitors. They want to make the site “sticky,” and participatory at the same time.
I would extend one more assumption… that if indeed there are agents seeding the illusion of grassroots support where none exists, there will be more than a few journalists who are unhappy with how they’ve been played.
Journalism isn’t the tonic that will save America. We’re best served by participation by people who are armed with information, and empowered to act on that information by expressing their desires.
Journalism is a valuable mechanism for connecting people with the information and perspective that enables them to execute their duties as citizens (or, more popularly, to abdicate them completely.)
Personally, I’m not much on gambling, but I wouldn’t place good odds on Journalists sitting idly by while special interests infest their forums and online architecture – all in the name of subverting public perception and eventual participation in issues that matter.
“Turf Merchants” Do Exist
In case you think I am imagining the evils, allow me to link back a couple of years to a post by Todd Defren, with Shift Communications. He found a pitch from a marketing firm that is downright scary in its implications:
After gaining a sense for the community at the blog/user forum, our rep (posing as a typical user)Â will begin to post up to 10 separate Comments over the course of a week or two, to achieve credibility â€“ leading up to the post that will be of-value to the client.
â€œThen, another of our reps (also posing as a typical user), will come in a day later â€“ using a different IP address â€“ to thank the original poster for the â€˜great find.â€™â€
Please spend a couple of minutes looking at a few random comments and tell me what you think.
Did I miss a glaring tell?
Or am I pounding away at perfectly good sod?
What do you see there?