If humanity were judged solely by the contents of social-media comment streams, one could assume that civil society is in rapid decline.
Insults and name-calling are common. Bullying commenters hurl slurs and threats. People who challenge them become prey in an instant.
The anonymity of the online world can bring out the worst in people. Still, our descent toward a Hobbesian state of nature may not be quite as imminent as it appears.
That’s because a good deal of online hostility — especially the kind that circulates around high-stakes health issues — may originate with people paid to stir up public vitriol.
“Astroturf” is the term used to describe fake grassroots movements generated by special interests and public-relations firms. This covert and increasingly popular form of PR now infiltrates social media and major media outlets alike, and it’s often responsible, directly or indirectly, for the explicitly nasty tone in online forums.
“The food and agricultural industries have well-funded, aggressive, multifront PR campaigns, full of false messages and unfair attacks that are designed to reshape the narrative about our food system,” says Stacy Malkan of U.S. Right to Know, a food advocacy group that supports GMO labeling. And the newest PR platform is social media.
Astroturfing has its roots in the tobacco-industry campaigns designed to convince consumers that smoking was harmless by publicly dismissing any science to the contrary. It has since become a common, if clandestine, ploy of corporations, political campaigns, and wealthy ideologues promoting causes and shaping public opinions from behind the scenes.
These campaigns are designed to make it appear that an issue has widespread public support (or public opposition) even if it doesn’t. If a campaign sows enough doubt, excitement, or skepticism about a contentious issue or individual, it can shape the opinions of real people. And that’s the primary goal.
We’re social animals, and the theory of groupthink suggests that perceived community support for a patently false “fact” is often all it takes to win over real supporters. Public ridicule and censure also works to cow, silence, or discredit critics who offer dissenting views.
As a result, astroturf efforts can have a profound influence on how we understand and advocate for many critical health-related issues. This is why it’s so important to understand how it works.
Anatomy of a Takedown
You might recall the fracas in April 2015 around celebrity physician Mehmet Oz. While Oz is no stranger to controversy (he was called before Congress to testify about promoting supplements for “miracle” weight loss on his popular TV program in 2014), this time the hubbub had nothing to do with sensationalist weight-loss claims.
An episode of Oz’s show had focused on the World Health Organization’s announcement that glyphosate — the key ingredient in the Monsanto herbicide Roundup — was “probably carcinogenic.” A pediatrician and a representative of the Environmental Working Group appeared as expert guests.
Although the topic had raised concerns covered previously by respected scientific journals, the melee that ensued could not have been greater if Oz had spent the episode praising the weight-loss benefits of powdered unicorn horn.
Social media exploded, and mainstream media picked up the thread, particularly after 10 “prominent” physicians signed a letter demanding Oz’s dismissal from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he serves as vice-chair of the surgery department.
Harsh quotes from that publicly circulated letter — accusing Oz of quackery, a “disdain for science,” and “egregious lack of integrity” — were picked up and widely broadcast by the Associated Press, the Washington Post, USA Today, and National Public Radio.
As the controversy trended on Twitter and Facebook, expressing “pro-science” criticism of Oz became a sort of national sport. And yet, in all that coverage and viral chatter, almost no actual science was reviewed, evaluated, or thoughtfully discussed.
Few media outlets or online commenters addressed the evidence of glyphosate’s carcinogenic potential (for more on that, see “The Dark Side of Food Science”), or dug into the research from which the World Health Organization — hardly a bastion of junk science — drew its conclusions.
The media also largely ignored the fact that the letter had little practical impact. Columbia supported Oz throughout the conflict.
Observing a familiar pattern, the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch investigated the 10 doctors who signed the petition for Oz’s dismissal. The organization discovered that several of the doctors had close ties to PR firms tasked with promoting the safety of agricultural chemicals, including Roundup.
The top signature belonged to Henry Miller, MD, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He had previously served as spokesman for the 2012 campaign opposing Proposition 37, a ballot initiative in California calling for the mandatory labeling of GMO foods. Monsanto contributed to the $41 million campaign. (Prop 37 lost.)
Miller had also helped found The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition in the 1990s, a tobacco-industry front group that aimed to dispute the link between cigarettes and cancer.
Another signatory, Gilbert Ross, MD, is the acting president and executive director of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), which represents itself as an independent, “pro-science” organization.
According to 2013 tax documents, ACSH received substantial donations from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a multimillion-dollar trade group representing Monsanto, Kraft Foods, ConAgra Foods, Cargill, and other major GMO proponents. Other funders of ACSH include Bayer CropScience, the Personal Care Products Council (an industry trade group), and Procter & Gamble.
Here’s the connection: These companies all sell products that affect human health. They require a reputation for safety to stay in business. Front groups like ACSH help create and protect those reputations by engaging doctors and scientists to speak on their behalf.
These hired scientists don’t explicitly defend industries in their statements to the media. Instead, they speak in loftier, more general terms, claiming to defend science itself — while casting aspersions on those who question the safety of, say, a petrochemical-based pesticide, drug, mining method, or toxic-waste byproduct.
Then they let the media (and, increasingly, social media) do their dirty work for them.
This is exactly what the letter calling for Oz’s resignation accomplished. It created a public stage for a special-interest view, stimulating a broad-ranging public discussion across media platforms, which then put Columbia University leaders in the position of either appearing to endorse “quackery” (should they decline to dismiss Oz) or as duly chastised codefenders of science, thereby lending credence to the attackers’ accusations.
This is all standard strategy, according to Sharyl Attkisson, a former CBS reporter who delivered a TEDx Talk on the topic of astroturfing earlier this year. She says that astroturfers often go after institutions affiliated with individual targets as a way of bringing media interest (and more public pressure) to their effort.
While Oz’s critics consistently repeated their accusations of junk science, they didn’t specifically address the warning issued by the World Health Organization about glyphosate. The conversation on social and conventional-media outlets was all about Oz.
It was a masterful redirect. And a not-too-subtle warning to any other health advocates who might be inclined to challenge the safety of Monsanto’s products in public.
Which means, by astroturf standards, the campaign was a terrific success.
The Making of a Troll
Astroturf campaigns don’t limit their targets to media figures on the scale of Mehmet Oz. Journalists, bloggers, and Facebook-page hosts are all fair game, especially those who raise awareness about the safety of particular foods, bodycare products, or environmental toxins.
As such, they often find themselves the target of online “trolls,” the colloquial name for commenters who perniciously fire off inflammatory remarks and personal insults in online forums with the goal of seeding hostile online exchanges.
Some trolls troll for the fun of it. Others do it to intimidate, discredit, or silence opponents. They also do it to sow doubt, build rancor, and shift -public opinion — sometimes for pay.
“The average person will think all of these commenters are real people,” says Malkan. And some of them are, she notes. But a surprising percentage could originate from fake accounts created and controlled by PR firms.
Think this sounds far-fetched? It’s not. Anyone can create a fake Facebook or Twitter identity. (See how easy it is at www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Fake-Facebook-Page-Seem-Real.)
The ease with which virtual identities can be created and multiplied makes the Internet an ideal forum for special interests to create the illusion of majority opinion.
“[Astroturfers] try to fool you into thinking an independent or grassroots movement is speaking,” Attkisson explains. “The whole point of astroturf is to try to give the impression that there’s widespread support for or against an agenda when there’s not.”
British journalist George Monbiot, who began to research astroturfing after noticing a pattern of bullying in the comments on his articles in The Guardian, has reported that “companies now use ‘persona-management software’” to multiply the reach of an astroturf campaign.
This practice enables a user to generate multiple online personas, also known as “social bots,” complete with pre-aged profiles (including hobbies and pets) and a variety of social-media accounts that make each persona indistinguishable from a real account. It generates online activity to give the fake user a social history.
A social bot can enable a single user to look like numerous different people who all support the same point of view, and make it appear as if a flurry of activity is taking place on social media when it’s all coming from one source.
These personas also greatly amplify the power of organized groups, where each individual member can multiply her or his identity many times over.
This technology can make a hashtag rocket to instant popularity on Twitter, cause an article or video trend on Facebook, and make a position, policy, or piece of legislation look far more popular or unpopular than it really is.
It can also make it frighteningly easy to discredit a targeted individual’s blog, site, or community forum by creating the impression of an outraged mob. This mob might aggressively dispute the issue the site promotes, or descend into violent name-calling and physical threats. Most important, though, they take over the conversation.
When a flood of hostile comments pollutes a previously civil comment stream, the space becomes both confusing and repellent to just about anyone but trolls. The astroturfers win the floor.
In media-speak, this is called controlling the message.
How Targets Get Treated
Many hosts of health sites are so accustomed to astroturf and troll slander, they’ve come to view it as the detritus on the sidewalk in front of the shop that needs a daily sweeping.
“It’s almost a full-time job dealing with all the fake profiles that come in slandering or throwing around derogatory terms like ‘quackery’ or ‘woo.’ We deal with it every day,” says Sayer Ji, founder and publisher of GreenMedInfo, a research-based integrative-medicine information site.
The fake posts have some distinctive characteristics, he says, and it’s not just their tone: “If you delete them, they come back five minutes later.”
For some targets, especially women, the attacks are more personal — and aggressive. Studies show women are more likely to experience extreme forms of online aggression, like sexual harassment or stalking. Racist and gender slurs and threats of sexual violence are also par for the course.
Whether or not we’re aware of it, seeing a source called a “slut,” “quack,” “liar,” or “idiot” in a comment stream affects our perception of the target’s legitimacy. “There are scientific studies that show that vicious comments sway the conversation and sway opinion,” notes Malkan.
They can also influence the decisions of mass-media outlets — who increasingly decide which topics, experts, and perspectives get airtime based on social-media trends.
In some cases, astroturfing efforts generate third-party coverage, getting conventional-media outlets to lend legitimacy to their efforts by running stories that characterize the astroturfers’ carefully orchestrated campaigns as “grassroots backlashes,” “public outcries,” or “storms of protest.”
How Journalists Get Snowed
While astroturfing has emerged as a force to be reckoned with, overt PR has not disappeared. On the contrary, the two tend to work best together.
In 2014, Monsanto hired 30-something Vance Crowe as its director of millennial engagement to promote positive relationships with an increasingly skeptical public.
When Crowe speaks to the media, he does so openly on behalf of the company, while wearing jeans instead of a suit. He’s also dispatched to attend parties and conferences (like SXSW Eco) with the express intention of encouraging young people to view the company more favorably.
Still, reporters recognize that a quote from Crowe is less valuable than a quote from an “objective” third party. This is why companies pay intermediary organizations, like ACSH, to provide handpicked “expert sources” for reporters to interview about contentious issues.
Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right to Know, calls these “rent-a-scientists.”
Reporters might also take a rented quote, however inadvertently, from a “man-on-the-street.” Ryan Chittum, a reporter who writes about astroturfing for the Columbia Journalism Review, points to one such source named Joe Olivo, a New Jersey small-business owner who has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press, and on National Public Radio and Fox News.
In each case Olivo provided the news outlet with a “man-on-the-street” perspective about how healthcare reform was going to ruin his small business. And not one outlet disclosed at the time that Olivo was vice-chairman of the New Jersey chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, a lobbying organization that was the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case against the Affordable Care Act.
So how do biased sources get such great media coverage? They make things easy for reporters on tight deadlines by offering up nicely packaged quotes from scientists, or from spokespeople with authoritative-sounding groups like the American Council on Science and Health.
Then another busy journalist sees that great quote in a piece and reaches out to the same source for a fresh quote, not realizing he or she has inadvertently spread paid-for propaganda.
Though it’s tempting to blame the infiltration of the media strictly on reporters’ lack of vigilance, that’s only part of the problem.
Jonathan Latham, executive director of the Bioscience Research Project, and a fierce critic of poor science reporting, frames the problem this way: “The fundamental driver behind scientific misreporting . . . is not intellectually lazy journalists (though they do help). It is that for agribusinesses and other powerful corporations, everything is at stake in science journalism.”
Perhaps the most troubling consequence of astroturfing campaigns is their influence on our perception of key issues and their impact on the arenas where those issues are discussed.
Astroturfing dumbs down the public conversation by reducing it to an exchange of insults rather than ideas. It turns civil exchanges into shouting matches. And when emotional buttons are pushed, thought ceases — along with careful consideration and exploration of the issues at hand.
If the climate on a page is too hostile, a reader with a different viewpoint will just leave the conversation. (See “When the Internet Turns Ugly”.) Meaningful discourse and debate end. Nobody learns anything new.
Astroturfing works, ironically, because it appeals to our desire to be savvy, skeptical news consumers (the kind who don’t fall for BS pseudoscience and who won’t give in to fearmongering), and because it also appeals to our good faith. It works because a lot of us still believe that reporters check their sources for conflicts of interest, that scientists and other expert sources are not for hire, that most people on the Internet are who they say they are, and that people don’t level outraged accusations without some reason.
It works because few of us have the time, energy, or expertise it would take to solidly verify or dispute suspect claims in news media, or to investigate suspect social-media campaigns.
The best way to respond to this new media climate may be to pay more attention to our own cautious judgment and less to the loudest voices online. Just because they’re shouting doesn’t mean we have to listen. In fact, there may be no better reason to tune them out.
More On Astroturfing: Articles, Videos, Reporters, and More
“Astroturf and Manipulation of Media Messages” | Sharyl Attkisson’s TEDX Talk at the University of Nevada
"Physicians Want Dr. Oz Gone From Columbia Medical Faculty” | New York Times article
"These astroturf libertarians are the real threat to internet democracy" | George Monbiot’s article in The Guardian
Ryan Chittum | Reporter who writes about astrotrufing for the Columbia Journalism Review
"Monsanto Hired This Guys to Help It Win Over Millenials" | An NPR "The Salt" blog post on Vance Crowe, the director of millenial engagement for Monsanto
GreenMedInfo | A research-based integrative-medicine information site