The Mean, Green Astroturf Machine

First there was planking, then there was dabbing. From fidget spinners to tide pods, the term ‘Astroturfing’ sure sounds like the name of the next zany teen trend. Unfortunately, the picture it paints is far from that of some teenagers, scrambling to catch a sick wave on a strip of glorified “grass carpet”.

Astroturfing is in fact, the practice of corporations or political groups, disguising themselves as spontaneous and authentic popular movements. In other words, it’s the manufacturing of grassroots campaigns that are totally fake – hence the name ‘astroturfing’ – it’s actually quite clever!

Pun appreciation aside, you may be familiar with this concept from seeing ads by generic and populist sounding groups like ‘Americans Against Food Taxes’ (AAFT) that promote weirdly specific messages like ‘fight the soda tax’. Unsurprisingly, this message was not the result of everyday Americans banding together against the impending soft drink tax. Rather, AAFT is a front group funded by the food and beverage industry, and this campaign was carefully devised to further their own industry agenda, by creating the illusion of widespread support for the cause.

And while you may be thinking you’d never fall for such underhanded tactics – don’t be quite so sure. Modern astroturf techniques are becoming even more sophisticated, subtle and effective. Today, they can range from fake app reviews, to entire events, rallies or protests attended solely by paid actors. Heck, even the President of America, the living meme himself – Donald Trump – paid actors to clap and cheer during his initial presidential campaign announcement in June 2015.

Yet despite its somewhat laughable absurdity, the existence of astroturfing is extremely problematic. Not only does it corrode the very foundations of democracy, which depend on transparency and freedom of information, it also contributes to the circulation of misinformation, propaganda and fake news.

Welcome to the Post-Truth Era!

Today, the rise of social media has taken the world by storm and forever transformed the way we both produce and consume content. The ability to convey a message or viewpoint to a global audience is now literally at our fingertips. However, with such a saturated public sphere, the rise of sensationalist content and ‘clickbait’ in a bid to gain viewer attention has seen a steep decline in the perceived credibility of the media – once considered the “watchdog of society”.

This fading trust in the media is the root of the modern astroturf problem. With a shift towards issue-based politics and emotional appeals over factual rebuttals, it is harder than ever to separate the fact from the fiction. Front groups recognise this opportunity and are knowingly exploiting the mistrust to further their agendas.

Thankfully, news organisations are now fighting back against the ‘Fake News’ movement with 350 editorials published in August, condemning Trump’s attack on the #FreePress. The New York Times has even committed to a new brand campaign, highlighting that “the truth is more important now than ever.”

A Cure for Ignorance

Ultimately, Astroturfing is merely a symptom of a disease, one that is empowered by the decentralisation of mass media that we are yet to remedy. Nonetheless, there are steps we can take to minimise the inflammation.

Firstly, try to consider the following hallmarks of astroturf next time you’re researching or browsing content:

  1. Significant use of inflammatory language such as “crank”, “quack”, “lies”, “paranoid”, “pseudo” and “conspiracy”
  2. Astroturfers often claim to debunk myths that are in fact not myths at all.
  3. Discourse may attack an issue by controversialising or attacking the people, personalities and organisations surrounding it rather than addressing the facts.

These are usually key, initial indicators that the content in question is in fact astroturf. Therefore, by adopting a critical approach to new information, veteran investigative journalist, Sharyl Attkisson, suggests you might start thinking more clearly:

“It’s like taking off your glasses, wiping them, putting them back on, and realising for the first time just how foggy they’ve been all along.”

Alternatively, First Draft’s verification training course is an excellent, free resource that can help you identify fabricated sources more easily!

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