Greeted with a round of applause, five-time Emmy Award-winning journalist and reporter Sharyl Attkisson steps into the spotlight on the stage at the University of Nevada.
Today she’s come to give a TEDx talk on a controversial but timely subject: astroturf and media manipulation.
This author of the New York Times bestselling book The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote, comes with a strong warning and admonition to the audience to carefully consider and question everything they see and hear, and even the sources they consider trustworthy.
She begins with a simple example: suppose you were to read a glowing report about a new drug. Wanting to do a little investigation before you jump on the bandwagon, you do a Google search which turns up a non-profit organization endorsing the product. You check WebMD, Twitter and Facebook, and do some reading on Wikipedia. Everything looks good. You may have come across an article or study linking this new drug to cancer, however you choose to dismiss it because all the “trustworthy” sources scoff at the concerns.
She then asks,
But what if all isn’t as it seems? What if the reality that you found is false—a carefully-constructed narrative by unseen special interests designed to manipulate your opinion?
Here she begins to explain what’s going on.
What is astroturf? It’s a perversion of grassroots, as in fake grassroots. Astroturf is when political, corporate, or other special interests disguise themselves and publish blogs, start Facebook and Twitter accounts, publish ads and letters to the editor, or simply post comments online to try to fool you into thinking an independent or grassroots movement is speaking.
The whole point of astroturf is to try to give the impression there’s widespread support for or against an agenda when there’s not. Astroturf seeks to manipulate you into changing your opinion by making you feel you’re an out-lier, when you’re not…
…Astroturfers seek to controversialize those who disagree with them. They attack news organizations that publish stories they don’t like, whistleblowers who tell the truth, politicians who dare to ask the tough questions, and journalists who have the audacity to report on all of it.
Sometimes astroturfers simply shove—intentionally—so much confusing and conflicting information into the mix, that you’re left to throw up your hands and disregard all of it, including the truth.
She goes on to expose Wikipedia—which she describes as “astroturf’s dream come true”—for the sham information site it is: controlling information, reversing edits, deleting truthful data.
…[T]here was a huge scandal when Wikipedia officials got caught offering a PR service to skew and edit information on behalf of paid publicity-seeking clients, in utter opposition to Wikipedia’s supposed policies. All of this may be why, when a medical study looked at medical conditions described in Wikipedia pages and compared it to actual peer-reviewed published research, Wikipedia contradicted medical research 90% of the time.
(This article explains how Wikipedia has skewed the Intelligent Design discussion on their pages. The Discovery Institute itself named them “Censor of the Year.”
Attkisson explains that when you come across that non-profit organization (which Google has conveniently placed at the top of the page) promoting that new drug, it may be an organization that’s actually funded by the very pharmaceutical company selling the drug. When you read the Facebook page that gives a glowing description of the drug, it may have been started by a member of a PR group for the very purpose of advertising and promotion while dishonestly pretending to be an “independent” source. And when you consult Wikipedia, you may be reading a rosy review written and paid for by the pharmaceutical company promoting the drug. Your attempts to correct blatant misinformation on these monitored pages may be thwarted, and your edit reversed/deleted within minutes.
Now this doesn’t just apply to drugs, of course. Many political and corporate interests use these exact same techniques (and many others) to skew public opinion, smear their opposition, and dishonestly promote their own agenda. Even government operatives engage in this (see How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations). Attkisson explains that special interests now consider astroturfing even more important than lobbying Congress.
That’s a big deal—especially if you consider that billions of dollars are spent on lobbying every year (for a look at who’s lobbying Congress and how much they’re spending, check OpenSecrets.org).
Awhile back I ran into a perfect case study of astroturf when I came across a recently-created Facebook page promoting Big Ag propaganda. On the surface it looked so sweet and innocent: a non-profit seeking to educate people on food. But readers were blowing their cover in the comments section as they pointed out that this newly-created “organization” was a PR front paid for by a major Big Ag corporation (and incidentally, one reputed for dishonesty, unethical practices, and bullying of whistleblowers).
In the comments section I began to post the links to scientific studies and news articles that contradicted the information they were publishing. I was never rude, and sometimes simply posted the article with little to no commentary.
I soon found myself banned from commenting on the page: they weren’t looking to educate, to discuss, to debate in an unbiased manner; they were controlling the narrative and silencing dissent.
I also noticed that at least one other person commenting with the truth (pointing out that the organization was a paid PR group for Big Ag) disappeared as well. I’ve had to wonder if they also were banned.
That’s a classic hallmark of astroturf.
Major news networks are often complicit in all of this, only reporting stories special interest groups want to hear. Whistleblowers and journalists who tell the truth are often punished rather than commended.
I remember another time crafting a careful response in the comments section to a news piece NPR ran.
They never published the comment. Every time I checked on it it said it was awaiting the moderator’s approval.
Which it never received.
This is the kind of thing that happens to people all the time. If what you have to say might threaten a narrative or agenda you are shut down, shut out, banned…or mercilessly trolled by paid astroturfers pretending to be consumers with “independent” opinions. Many of the major and well-trusted information sources out there are bought, paid for, and controlled by special interests, and are therefore carefully censored.
So how do we recognize astroturfing? Attkisson gives us a few tips:
First, hallmarks of astroturf include use of inflammatory language such as “crank,” “quack,” “nutty,” “lies,” “paranoid,” “pseudo,” and “conspiracy.” Astroturfers often claim to debunk myths that aren’t myths at all. Use of the charged language tests well: people hear something’s a myth—maybe they find it on Snopes—and they instantly declare themselves too smart to fall for it. But what if the whole notion of the myth is itself a myth, and you and Snopes fell for that?
Beware when interests attack an issue by contoversializing or attacking the people, personalities, and organizations surrounding it rather than addressing the facts—that could be astroturf.
And most of all, astroturfers tend to reserve all of their public skepticism for those exposing wrong-doing, rather than the wrong-doers. In other words, instead of questioning authority, they question those who question authority.
That’s some good information there. I’ve come across many examples of all of these things, but I’ll briefly give you just a couple.
“Quackbusters” are often paid astroturfers. Oftentimes their own credentials are hyped or outright fake. Conflicts of interest are not revealed.
Take Dr. Stephen Barrett for instance, who started Quackwatch, a site dedicated to attacking natural health therapies, treatments, and doctors while promoting all things allopathy, every article being a “strenuous exercise in confirmation bias,” as it’s been aptly put.
But “Doctor” Barrett turns out to be a “quack” himself. He lied in court about his credentials, as he never actually passed examinations to become Board Certified—he failed the medical board exam to become a psychiatrist, and while he claimed to be a “legal expert,” he had no formal training.
Nevertheless, he’s made a pretty penny by “quack-busting” rather than practicing medicine (he let his M.D. license lapse years ago). This, despite the fact that out of over 40 lawsuits he filed against those involved with non-allopathic treatments and products, he never won a single one.
It was reported that,
In a Canadian lawsuit…Barrett admitted to the following:
“The sole purpose of the activities of Barrett & Baratz are to discredit and cause damage and harm to health care practitioners, businesses that make alternative health therapies or products available, and advocates of non-allopathic therapies and health freedom.”
The U.S. Court system ruled that Barrett and Wallace Sampson, M.D. (another “quackwatcher”) were heavily “biased,” and that based on their conflicts of interest, the money they stood to gain if they won the case, and their lack of actual knowledge of the homeopathic products they were attacking, their testimony “should be accorded little, if any, credibility,” after a California court ruled in favor of a homeopathic company they were trying to sue.
So there’s our Dr. Barrett.
You’ll find a whole slew of “professionals” with similar careers, making their money by trying to tear down and discredit special interests’ competition.
And how about Snopes?
While trying to pawn themselves off as unbiased investigators of facts, the husband and wife team who run this website have no journalistic credentials to their credit, and it’s obvious by reading through their articles that they are anything but unbiased. Their work is often very “colored” towards certain unspoken agendas.
While doing some research into a certain political subject one day, I came across one of their articles “debunking” a certain “myth.” (Despite my skepticism of this site and others, I often read from sites and people I disagree with, simply because I truly want to hear all sides of the story before I make up my own mind about things; I don’t confine myself to an echo-chamber of confirmation bias by exclusively reading sites I like/agree with.)
But looking further into the subject, I soon realized that their whole article was a poorly-conceived line to protect certain interests. I later discovered plenty of evidence to “debunk” their “debunking.” In fact, if their conclusion was simply an honest error, they certainly can’t be trusted to tell us what the facts are—they didn’t look far for them. Because it wasn’t hard to find the truth. But they failed to report the facts surrounding the case; it wasn’t so much what they said as what they didn’t say. Had they actually reported the case facts—available by doing a little more thorough research—it would have turned their conclusion on its head.
Beware the mythbusters and quackwatchers—professional propagandists. Just dig around a little to see who’s buttering their bread…
Adding to the confusion is the fact that there certainly are myths and quacks running around out there—and sometimes the “mythbusters” and “quackwatchers” do nail them (even a broken clock is right twice a day).
Finding the truth in this matrix of alternate reality created by the media is no easy task!
* * * * *
Why is any of this relevant or of interest to me as a simple wife and mom?
Because I have to make a variety of decisions for my family on a regular basis, and as a consumer I rely on research to help me make those choices. The problem is trying to differentiate between fact and fiction: information and disinformation is readily available everywhere we turn. This affects all of us.
The term “fake news” was nauseatingly misused, abused, and overused in 2017…but that doesn’t mean it has ceased to exist. In fact it can still be found in the unlikeliest of places.
I think Attkisson is encouraging us to be open-minded skeptics–of both mainstream and alternative news and views, to never feel ashamed for questioning “authority,” and to be aware of our times and of the manipulative tactics of those who pull the strings behind the media curtains, but not paranoid or paralyzed so that we’re unable to make sound decisions.
And yeah, it’s probably okay to check Wikipedia for a definition of “skeptic.” 😉