But it’s a lesser known practice, known as “astroturfing,” that may end up causing much of the confusion and uncertainty this time around, ultimately shaping the 2020 election.
The Millennial Source spoke to a range of experts to investigate how astroturfing efforts are already affecting political discourse this year and what voters can do to recognize such efforts.
What is astroturfing?
Astroturfing refers to the practice of hiding the true source of a campaign – often a corporation or lobbying group – to give the impression that it’s an organic, grassroots movement. As such, the term refers to the fake grass product, AstroTurf, and was first used by Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen in 1985 to distinguish between grassroots activism and manipulated campaigns.
When such actions take place online, they are sometimes referred to as “cyberturfing,” though the original term is generally used to encompass any type of deceptive effort of this nature.
Astroturfing is a common political tactic, often used to persuade politicians that a particular cause or policy has more support than it really does. It can also be used to affect public opinion, both on political issues and for marketing purposes.
For instance, in 2008, McDonald’s paid 1,000 people to stand in line at a Japanese store to promote the release of the Quarter Pounder there.
The McDonald’s example was a mostly innocuous marketing stunt, but corporate uses of astroturfing can also have widespread health and social effects.
Tobacco is one of the most infamous industries for such manufactured campaigns. In 1993, the industry created the National Smokers Alliance (NSA), a supposed grassroots advocacy group of adult smokers speaking out against increased regulation of and taxes on tobacco products.
Relying on common public relation tactics, the NSA attempted to sway both public opinion and politicians throughout the 90s.
Political astroturfing in the Internet Age
In a 2011 study, “Detecting and Tracking Political Abuse in Social Media,” researchers at Indiana University explored the then relatively nascent practice of Twitter astroturfing. The paper analyzed “data obtained by a system designed to detect astroturfing campaigns on Twitter.”
The study pinpointed a specific hashtag (#ampat), user (@PeaceKaren_25) and website (gopleader.gov) that were either the generator of or focus of artificial campaigns designed to artificially boost memes for political purposes during the 2010 midterm election. The tactics discussed in that paper have now become common practice online.
The Millennial Source spoke with cybersecurity analyst Michael Murdoch, whose New York City-based Murdoch Partners performs cybersecurity, accessibility and educational technology consulting and training.
Murdoch explained that online astroturfing was used in the 2016 election and, though he hasn’t personally identified any campaigns using the tactic this year, said “I’d be shocked if there wasn’t such activity.”
Political astroturfing in America
Kris Parker, an attorney and political strategist with Hendry Parker, P.A., a law firm near Tampa Bay, Florida, discussed the concerning implications on astroturfing in American politics. Parker has years of experience as a legislative field director with multiple campaigns and causes, including the gun safety advocacy groups Everytown and Moms Demand Action.
“The political practice of astroturfing is extremely damaging to our democratic fabric,” Parker warned. “Astroturfing was created to deceive people into thinking that citizens feel so strongly about a topic that they are willing to self-organize their communities to make a political stand. When other citizens see this kind of uprising, they begin to gravitate towards it as a movement.
“Grassroots movements are the instrument for those who do not have the resources of a lobbyist or an expensive advertising campaign. Grassroot movements or community organizing are the purest form of any democracy because it evens the playing field in the fight for our leaders’ attention. It illustrates the power of the individual to collectively assemble and show it[s] strength.”
The Millennial Source also spoke with Robert Boatright, a political science professor at Clark University and chair of the Department of Political Science. Boatright expressed doubt that modern astroturfing efforts are successful in their original purpose, which is to convince politicians that a cause has strong, genuine support.
“[Astroturfing] is not very effective in swaying politicians,” Boatright stated. “Politicians can generally identify the difference between real activism and activism that has been orchestrated or faked in some way.”
Boatright believes that the practice likely has a different function now, saying, “Astroturf[ing] can sometimes inspire real activism, though.”
This has been especially apparent during the current pandemic.
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, multiple states have experienced anti-lockdown protests aimed at pressuring politicians into lifting social distancing measures. As reported in April, these protests appear to have been organized and pushed by political groups with ties to the gun lobby and even the administration of President Donald Trump.
“Even if some of the initial protests are staged,” Boatright said, “reading about them in the media may inspire some citizens to also protest – so it may create more authentic protest activity.”
Online astroturfing in the 2020 election
Cybersecurity analyst Michael Murdoch identified multiple online astroturfing methods that he would expect to see used in the 2020 election.
The first, grassroots marketing, “is simply ad buys and para-social communication (product placement with Instagram and YouTube influencers).”
This technique is common in modern marketing, Murdoch said, “but may not be permissible in some political dealings.”
This technique appeared in this year’s election cycle during the brief campaign of billionaire Michael Bloomberg. His campaign worked with Jerry Media, a social media marketing company, to create and disseminate memes through popular Instagram accounts. The effort forced Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, to change their policy related to political advertising on its platforms.
Those efforts presented an ironic twist on astroturfing, with the memes openly acknowledging that the Bloomberg campaign was attempting to build viral support. Ultimately, it was not effective enough for Bloomberg, who dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in March.
A more concealed form of online astroturfing, Murdoch explained, is when a political campaign or organization uses bots to promote positive content and bury negative content.
Murdoch referred to a story about the Hillary Clinton campaign that came out after the WikiLeaks email dump during the 2016 election. The leaked emails revealed a close – and possibly illegal – relationship between the Clinton campaign and the “Correct the Record”SuperPAC. Correct the Record used bots on platforms like Reddit to upvote positive content for the Clinton campaign.
“This method, while effective, was somewhat old fashioned, costly and lacked a personal touch,” Murdoch stated, noting the shortcomings of relying on bots and “shill postings.”
“These algorithms are better for mitigating negative press against the brand image than fostering a positive brand image.”
Bots can also be used on Twitter to “ratio” comments.
“Twitter has a mechanism that suppresses content with more comments than likes, colloquially referred to as ‘ratioing’ or ‘getting ratioed’,” says Murdoch. A tweet that is quickly inundated with comments may disappear just as quickly.
Professor Boatright isn’t sure that astroturfing is more common because of the Internet, just more visible.
“Earlier forms of astroturf[ing] were often directed at members of Congress – letter writing campaigns, phone calls and so on. These didn’t tend to get a lot of media coverage. Today, it is easier to use social media for this purpose, or to do something that will generate some media coverage.”
Nonetheless, it is important for informed users to be aware that astroturfing efforts are common and likely increasing.
“If anything, due to technological advances and increased prevalence of messaging apps,” Murdoch warned, “audiences are more susceptible and even less able to discern real people from chatbots and shill postings. It’s also easier to create bots, without any coding, so less tech savvy users have greater access to them by using something like ManyChat, MobileMonkey or Chatfuel.
“You could send the same message to thousands of people and some portion of them will take it to be personal communication. If the message is decently crafted by a native speaker of English (or the target language) you could easily hit over 5%. And then that person organically repeats the message, making it even more human.”
So what can you do to sniff out astroturfing campaigns online? Murdoch has some tips.
“Look at the account. Has it posted the same or similar message hundreds of times? Is it responding to all negative claims from a specific person who opposes its views? Is it upvoting/liking/etc. all positive claims?”
Murdoch says that these are all indications that the account is a bot designed to sway public opinion.
Murdoch recommends that Twitter users rely on Botometer or Botsentinal, both of which have browser extensions that will automatically detect likely bots. If you suspect an account is a bot, either by using a bot detector or by recognizing a pattern of suspicious posting, Murdoch recommends blocking it and moving on. There is no reason to engage.
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