The Bizarre World of Astroturfing (And No, Not the Kind On the Football Field)

By Samantha O’Connell

What is Astroturfing? 

Let’s extend our best wishes to all the fact-checkers hard at work this November, desperately trying to keep up with the president’s relentless onslaught of ridiculous lies regarding the election. How bizarre to see this naked emperor standing before us all each day and having to constantly reiterate in a thousand different ways that he, in fact, has no clothes. With so much blatant but easily refuted dishonesty coming from the political mainstage, it might be easy for us to overlook the spread of misinformation in subtler but arguably more insidious forms — in ways that won’t be absolutely laughed out of court by judges or slapped with a “This claim about election fraud is disputed” warning. One such tactic has plagued politics for decades, quickly adapting to the digital era in a relentless attempt to manipulate and mislead public opinion: astroturfing. 

First coined in 1985 by Texas Democratic senator Lloyd Bentsen, “astroturfing” refers to the practice of disguising the original sponsors of a campaign or message (typically a large corporation or powerful lobby group) in order to appear like an organic grassroots movement. By giving a false impression of significant public support or opposition to a cause, these astroturfing efforts can more easily drum up actual enthusiasm for an otherwise obscure movement. Astroturfing campaigns can also trick politicians into falsely believing that there is a clear, widespread consensus about a specific issue. Essentially, organizations who astroturf attempt to mislead originary voters and lawmakers into hopping on a largely fabricated and often corporate-funded bandwagon. 

Traditional Astroturfing Techniques 

When Bentsen first famously claimed, “A fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grass roots and Astroturf,” he was expressing frustration at the “mountains of cards and letters” flooding his office in support of insurance company interests. While these written complaints may have been presented as earnest individuals spontaneously taking up this oddly specific cause, it was quite obvious to Bentsen that the mail was generated by these companies themselves. This sneaky technique is absolutely nothing new.  Read Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar, for example, and you’ll discover the treasonous Caius Cassius planting fake letters from Roman citizens condemning Caesar at Brutus’s house, knowing that this perceived public support will help convince the loyal Brutus to ultimately betray his leader. 

And spamming politicians with fabricated letters, phone calls, or — more recently — online comments is just the tip of the iceberg. 

One of the more obvious, recognizable methods of astroturfing comes in the form of TV commercials, often sponsored by oddly generic sounding organizations concerned about suspiciously specific policy issues. In an episode of “Last Week Tonight” about this very topic, John Oliver highlights a particularly egregious example for a group called “Americans Against Food Taxes” where a woman claims that the pennies per person it would cost for DC to impose a soda tax is still too high a price to pay.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, as it turns out, “Americans Against Food Taxes” is just a front for the beverage industry and its lobbyists. As Oliver quips, the group, shockingly, “was not started by regular Americans pooling their resources together to take out a large ad buy on national TV about their number one problem priority: a proposed soda tax.” Unfortunately, astroturfing, especially as political organizations begin to master social media, is rarely so obtuse. 

It goes without saying that deception and disinformation for the sake of political gain hurts any democratic society; it’s absolutely antithetical to a well-informed citizenry and creates the chaos and alternative realities that allow authoritarians to flourish. But that confusion and manipulation of public opinion is precisely why organizations and companies continue to rely on the unethical practice anyways. Propaganda is useful even if it is clearly unethical. While a mailbox stuffed with fake letters or a heavy-handed TV ad might no longer pack the same punch, astroturfing has not faded away; it has simply adapted to keep up with the explosion of the internet. 

The Evolution of Astroturfing Online

Social media platforms like Twitter, for instance, provide particularly cheap and easy opportunities to astroturf online (in what is called “cyberturfing”)  by allowing users to create hundreds of fake accounts, thus mimicking independent citizens all galvanized around a specific problem. Such accounts can even be completely automated — known as Twitter bots or zombies — where they are programmed to interact with different accounts to seem real and fly under the radar, with the actual goal of quickly spreading often harmful or false information. In a recent study from Carnegie Mellon, researchers discovered that of the 200 million tweets discussing COVID-19 they amassed this year, 82% of the most influential retweeters on the platform were bots: a sobering statistic in a time where misinformation has resulted in so much unnecessary death. 

There are some key red flags to look out for online to help you spot a Twitter bot. One red flag is when the account releases many posts within a short period of time. These posts may look like identical messages coming from different accounts, all of which appear to be copy-and-pasted and coordinated with each other. Other red flags include using an account with a suspiciously recent creation date or a Twitter handle containing lots of numbers and an anonymous profile picture. If you don’t trust your gut instincts, researchers at Indiana University and the University of South Carolina have also created a handy online tool called the “Botometer” that crunches the numbers and analyzes all these tell-tale signs for you. 

Yet as our ability to target these malicious accounts improves, their programming naturally becomes more sophisticated. In case you needed another reason to lie awake at night, the AI technology behind the website is able to generate incredibly realistic headshots of individuals who are 100% imaginary. Each time you refresh the page, it generates a brand new human face that cannot be traced back to any person or name, making it a gold mine for astroturfers searching for profile pictures for fake accounts. 

Of course, not all astroturfers choose to let software automatically run these fake accounts, as anyone who saw Pennsylvania politician Dean Browning’s Twitter account on November 10 hilariously discovered. It was a story so bizarre that it even gave the Four Seasons Total Landscaping debacle a run for its money in the news cycle. Browning, a white Republican, tweeted out, “I’m a black gay guy and I can personally say that Obama did nothing for me, my life only changed a little bit and it was for the worse,” much to people’s amusement and confusion. Realizing that Browning must have forgotten to switch over to some burner account he runs, Twitter users were quick to hunt through his feed and find the account @DanPurdy322 who constantly interacted with Browning’s posts and seemed to always reiterate his allegiance to Trumpism as a black gay man. Each layer of story has added more complexity and absurdity as Browning went on to claim he had meant to repost a message sent to him by a Trump supporter but had forgot to include any context in his tweet. Regardless, it served as a wake-up call that demonstrated how simple it can be to construct some fake identity online and use it to promote a dishonest narrative. 

Please note that “cyberturfing” is also a phenomenon exploited by both sides of the aisle. As a Pew study from 2018 about bots attests, 41% of the automated accounts they identified posted links to primarily liberal sources and 44% to primarily conservative ones. 

Anyone who followed popular Instagram meme accounts like @tank.sinatra back in February might remember when these accounts posted screenshots of DM exchanges with Democratic primary candidate Mike Bloomberg. In these exchanges, Bloomberg offered to pay these accounts big money in exchange for posting a “meme that lets everyone know I’m the cool candidate.” Cringeworthy as it sounds, the New York billionaire had reached out to over a dozen of these IG meme accounts, each with millions of followers, as part of a campaign initiative called “Meme2020” — indicative of a movement powered not by genuine popular support but only by $1 billion from Mike Bloomberg. 

Astroturfing in the Time of Coronavirus

As anti-lockdown and anti-mask protests have sprung up across the country this year, there is reason to believe that this seemingly grassroots movement is primarily astroturf funded by major conservative politicians and lobbies. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have been quick to point out that FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Patriots, a law firm led by former Trump officials, and even Attorney General William Barr have backed these supposedly spontaneous protests. Although these relatively small gatherings gained widespread media attention, polling from that time in April found that nearly 60 percent of Americans were concerned that reopening the country would cause more deaths and further hurt the economy, suggesting the anti-quarantine (and quite frankly, anti-science) movement was simply a loud, angry minority. 

Now with masks and social distancing completely politicized and anti-quarantine Facebook groups across different states amassing millions of followers total, it seems that the astroturfing initiatives have done their job: fabricated opposition to COVID-19 restrictions seems to have risen the temperature of American politics and has ruffled enough feathers to generate actual public support.

Beyond American Politics

This specific type of propaganda is not exclusive to American political actors either, with the governments of China and Russia launching their own astroturfing campaigns as well. In 2019, Twitter and Facebook had no choice but to ban thousands of accounts that were linked to the Chinese government and designed to spread disinformation and discredit the pro-democracy protest movement of Hong Kong. Thousands of tweets portraying the Hong Kong movement as anarchist and violent were traced back to mainland China, which was particularly suspicious considering the social media platform is supposedly banned in the country to begin with.

And you have to have been sleeping under a rock for the past four years to have heard nothing about Russian interference in American politics and the invasion of Russian trolls on social media. The Mueller Report highlighted Russian efforts to pose online as everything from anti-immigration activists to Tea Party followers to African American supporters of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, all in an effort to sow chaos and hurt the reputations of actual grassroots movements. 

Learning about a whole new approach to misinformation may feel totally overwhelming, especially when, unlike blatant “fake news,” it is purposely designed to be more deceptive. No method is 100% percent effective at detecting astroturfing, but informing yourself about this phenomenon and keeping it in mind as you scroll through your timeline is an essential first step. As Americans trudge along through this continual “war on truth,” the solutions of “doing your own research” and “diversifying your news sources” are often frustratingly vague. But uncertainty in how to proceed is an inevitable consequence of lightning-speed technological progress that we are just now starting to think about introspectively. 

On the other hand, the alternative approach of assuming anything you disagree with is simply astroturf funded by dark money absolutely won’t work either. The appropriate reaction to an increased influx of manipulation online is not to simply tune it all out and lose the faith; individual citizens, of course, can still naturally organize around political causes they are passionate about. What is a democratic society without some element of trust?

John Oliver summarized it perfectly at the conclusion of his astroturfing breakdown: “While skepticism is healthy, cynicism — real cynicism — is toxic.” 

Title Image Source: Egan Jimenez, Princeton University 

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