• Fri. Mar 1st, 2024

Are we being Astroturfed?

Jun 10, 2023

Imagine this scenario based on a real-life experience. You’re watching the news and come across a story about a new dentist in town. The report highlights his exceptional skills in developing cutting-edge dental implants and mentions his prestigious certifications and recognition from dental associations and experts across the country. It all seems too good to be true, right? Being an astute individual, you decide to conduct your own research. You turn to Google, consult social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, explore sources like Wikipedia, WebMD, and nonprofit websites, and even delve into a long list of peer-reviewed dental journals. Surprisingly, everything you find confirms his expertise and reputation.

Sure, you stumble upon a few negative comments during your research, but you dismiss them, confident that you’ve thoroughly done your homework. However, what if the reality you uncovered is actually false? What if it’s a carefully constructed narrative crafted by hidden special interests to manipulate your opinion? Picture an alternate reality reminiscent of “The Truman Show,” where powerful propaganda and publicity forces combined with complacency in the news media shape a distorted version of the truth. These special interests have seemingly unlimited time and resources to invent new methods of swaying public opinion while disguising their intentions. One such method is known as astroturfing.

Astroturfing is a perversion of grassroots movements, wherein political, corporate, or other special interests masquerade themselves to create blogs, social media accounts, ads, letters to the editor, or online comments that mimic independent or grassroots movements. The objective is to deceive you into believing there is widespread support or opposition for a particular agenda when, in reality, there isn’t. Astroturfing aims to manipulate your opinions by making you feel like an outlier when, in fact, you are not.

Let’s consider the example of the Washington Redskins name controversy. If you solely relied on news media coverage or social media discussions, you might conclude that most Americans find the name offensive and believe it should be changed. However, what if I told you that 71% of Americans actually support keeping the name? This illustrates how astroturfers strategically create controversies and attack those who disagree with them. They target news organizations, whistleblowers, inquisitive politicians, and journalists who dare to report the truth. Sometimes, astroturfers bombard the discourse with conflicting information, making it difficult to discern the truth and causing individuals to disregard everything, including valid facts. For instance, they may flood discussions on the link between vaccines and autism with contradictory studies, surveys, and expert opinions, effectively obscuring the truth.

Then there’s Wikipedia, a platform cherished as the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” However, the reality behind Wikipedia is far from this ideal. Anonymous Wikipedia editors wield control and manipulate pages in alignment with special interests. They block or reverse edits that contradict their agenda, selectively delete or distort information, and violate Wikipedia’s established policies without facing consequences. The perception of Wikipedia as an open platform where anyone can contribute is shattered when individuals are prevented from correcting even the simplest factual inaccuracies. Notable author Philip Roth experienced this firsthand in 2012 when his attempts to rectify a significant factual error about a character in one of his books were repeatedly denied by Wikipedia’s editors. They deemed him an unreliable source about himself. Later, a scandal emerged when Wikipedia officials were exposed for offering a PR service that manipulated and biased information in favor of paying clients, contradicting Wikipedia’s supposed principles. Consequently, one may understandably lose trust in the information presented on Wikipedia.

Now, let’s revisit the fictional example of the dentist and the extensive research you conducted. It turns out that the positive Facebook and Twitter accounts you encountered were written by paid professionals employed by the dental implant manufacturer to promote their product. The Wikipedia page had been monitored and influenced by an agenda-driven editor, also on the payroll of the company. Additionally, the drug company manipulated Google search results to ensure you came across favorable nonprofit organizations with glowing comments. Unbeknownst to you, those nonprofits were secretly founded and funded by the very same drug company. They even financed a biased study while exercising editorial control to omit any mention of potential side effects such as cancer. Furthermore, every doctor who endorsed the product publicly or dismissed the cancer link as a myth was, in fact, a paid consultant for the drug company. Even your own doctor, who attended a medical lecture with positive evaluations, was likely influenced by the drug company’s sponsorship. Sadly, the news reports failed to disclose any of these conflicts of interest.

These examples are drawn from real-life experiences. A few years ago, CBS News requested my investigation into a story about a survey from the nonprofit National Sleep Foundation, claiming that we were a nation facing an epidemic of sleeplessness without our knowledge. I discovered two notable aspects about this. Firstly, the catchphrase “ask your doctor” was commonly used by the pharmaceutical industry to promote their drugs. Secondly, the study was sponsored, in part, by a new sleeping pill called Lunesta, which was about to be launched. At CBS News, we openly disclosed the sponsorship behind the nonprofit and the survey, allowing viewers to evaluate the information accordingly. However, other news outlets simply regurgitated the survey without delving deeper. The Columbia Journalism Review later commended our research, stating that we were the only ones who had taken the time to investigate and reveal the conflict of interest behind this widely reported survey.

Now, you might be wondering what you can do to navigate this complex landscape and distinguish fact from fiction. Although I cannot resolve these issues entirely, I can offer a few strategies to help you recognize signs of propaganda and astroturfing. Once you become familiar with these indicators, you’ll begin to identify them everywhere. Pay attention to the use of charged language, as those attempting to debunk actual truths often label them as myths. Don’t be swayed when interests attack an issue by discrediting the individuals, personalities, or organizations associated with it, rather than addressing the facts themselves. Most importantly, astroturfers typically direct their skepticism towards those exposing wrongdoing, rather than questioning the wrongdoers. By becoming more aware of these tactics, you’ll gain clarity and realize how clouded your perception has been. It’s akin to wiping off foggy glasses and seeing things clearly for the first time. Although it may be challenging, strive to be a discerning consumer of information in our increasingly artificial and manipulated reality.

Thank you.

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