Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Astroturfing: Manipulation and Facades

Ashley Thomas

I had honestly never heard of the word astroturfing being used in the context of journalism before this class. As far as I knew, astroturf was the fake grass that I use to play soccer on in high school. But upon further reflection they are essentially one in the same.

According to The Guardian, astroturfs are "fake grassroots campaigns that create the impression that large numbers of people are demanding or opposing particular policies." And while the astroturf I'm use to does not do as such, it is fake grass trying to create the impression that it is real. Plus, both happen to leave some unsavory residue once you are exposed to them.

As Sharyl Attkisson discusses in her TED talk from earlier this year "astroturfs seek to manipulate you into changing your opinion by making you feel as if you are an outlier when you're not." I believe that this is a very important factor in not only understanding astroturfs and how they succeed but also in helping the everyday member of society in identifying when one exists. 

They simply exploit the human need to be included and they are not the only ones to do so. Public relations firms, marketing teams and a majority of commercial advertisers do the same as well but what truly separates astroturfs apart from the others is the facade they create.

The Tea Party is a perfect example of this. The movement that convinces people that they are fighting against the wealthy elite in America are actually a part of an fake organization founded by the same people they believe they are fighting against. They take these people who think they are the only ones not participating in a political movement and they give them a movement to fight for, even though it never actually existed in the first place. They create a facade to make people believe that they are real and that you will make a difference if you join them.

In her TED talk, Attkinson also brings up Wikipedia's astroturfing problem. Though the company has attempted to fix in the past, by putting forth new user regulations, the problem still exists. On the site, companies will pay anonymous editors to put up content on special interests groups in order to create a through and sourced facade for their false grassroots organization. Thus, this supports Attkinson's statement that the site is an "astroturfer's dream come true."

So just as the Education department paid reporter Armstrong Williams to regularly comment on the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind Act, companies are paying people to put forth information on one of the most commonly used search tools. This leads to inaccurate and tightly control information to be released to the public, thus prohibiting them from discovering the truth.

I am quite uncertain if us as a society will ever be able to identify these organizations let alone eliminate them from human consumption due to not only the complexity of their lies and facades but many other factors as well. One of these factors being their ability to adapt to the change in times. When there was an increase in people feeling the need to be involved in politics, the Tea Party showed up, and when there is a need for some other organization a new astroturf will pop up as well because that is how these companies and astroturfs work. We will simply never escape them.

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