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The Living Experiment: Astroturfing

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When powerful industries and political interests push fake “grassroots” movements, real people suffer. Here’s how to resist internet trolls.

In an era when so-called fake news may or may not be fake, and social-media bots pass for humans possessed of passionate opinions, it’s hard to know whom or what to believe.

 But one thing is certain: It’s easy to fool people. It’s even easier to fool them en masse — getting them to act, choose, think, buy, and vote the way you want, in part by convincing them that “lots of other people just like you are thinking or doing this thing!”

It’s a phenomenon known as astroturfing — the insidious and increasingly common strategy by which special interests create the illusion of “grassroots movements” in order to manipulate public opinion, promote unpopular policies, and even subvert elections.

So in this installment of The Living Experiment, we explain what astroturfing is — and how you can avoid being manipulated by it.

Manufactured Consent

  • Media doesn’t just report what’s going on; it shapes what’s going on — by influencing what people see, think, and believe.
  • Nowhere is this truer than on social-media platforms, which have at times become powerful delivery systems for disinformation campaigns. Our Facebook feeds, for instance, have been used to undermine our independent media and our democracy.
  • Astroturfing is a form of public brainwashing used to mess with our minds, influence our behavior, and subvert our common interests.
  • The first rule of propaganda: Repeat something often enough, and people will believe it. Rule No. 2: If you can get lots of other “real people” to repeat that thing, even more people will believe it, faster, and with more certainty.

The Power of Peer Pressure

  • It’s easy to create the illusion of “real people” on social media (or in the comments sections of online articles) by creating fake profiles and bots that post on their behalf. It’s also easy for ringleaders to disguise their true identities.
  • Once an astroturfing effort builds momentum from fake profiles and bots, it can pick up unsuspecting real people in droves, sometimes with exponential effects.
  • Astroturfing campaigns are often designed to get people to advocate against their own best interests or to take action against an imagined enemy by convincing them that a lot of people “just like them” think that is what they should do. 
  • This herd dynamic is what makes astroturfing so powerful (and so dangerous) — and why you owe it to yourself to understand how this form of propaganda works.

Avoiding  Manipulation

  • Keep in mind that astro­turfing, like virtually all propaganda, is based on an “us versus them” mentality. It tends to ridicule or demonize one side and glorify another. It uses emotion to ignite action.
  • Most astroturfing campaigns look and sound folksy, but they are engineered to advance the interests of powerful industries (Big Pharma, Big Food, Big Oil) or political groups that want popular opinion on their side and may not be able to win it by honest means.
  • While astroturfing campaigns are cleverly framed to seem focused on your best interests (e.g., keeping costs low, preserving consumer freedoms), the real benefits (the right to produce dangerous products, to pollute, etc.) accrue to someone else.
  • Not sure if what you’re seeing is astroturfing? When in doubt, delay. Give yourself time to investigate and reflect before committing your time, passion, energy, or money to a cause you can’t be sure is legitimate.

Experiments

Pilar suggests: Check out the resources in our show notes for this episode (at www.livingexperiment.com/astroturfing). Educate yourself about what astroturfing is and how it works. See if these new insights inspire you to become a more discerning media consumer, and to more easily spot an astroturfing effort when you see it. 

Dallas suggests: Pick a notable new thing you’ve learned online in the last year — some idea that really grabbed you or that changed your opinion. Think about how you came upon that new idea, whether you spent any time at all checking out its legitimacy, and if groupthink played any part in your perception of reality. 

Listen and Learn: Check out this and other episodes of The Living Experiment podcast at LivingExperiment.com. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, and Stitcher.

adapted this column from their top-rated podcast, The Living Experiment. Dallas is cofounder of Whole30 and the New York Times best-selling coauthor of The Whole30 and It Starts With Food. Pilar is an award-winning journalist, healthy-living advocate, and Experience Life’s founding editor.

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