As a member of the Ohio University Speech and Debate Team, my first question when someone tells me a barely believable fact is, "what's the source?" Last year, my mother tried to ban Pepsi in our home because she read a story on Facebook that Pepsi had printed the National Anthem on its cans, but left out "under God." A quick Google search quickly debunked the myth and all was well in my home.
However, what happens when false or misleading news stories aren't easily debunked by a Google search? Worse--what if these stories come from traditionally reputable sources? In speech, a citation from the Huffington Post or CNN is much more credible than a blog or twitter post, but with the rise of astroturfing, we may need to reexamine our sources.
Astroturfing occurs when sponsors of a message are hidden to make the message appear as though it was spawned from a grassroots organization. Astroturfing has been around for decades, but appears to grow even more during election season when campaigns are forming for and against certain ballot issues.
As the San Francisco Examiner explains, Proposition 1 has been placed on the ballot to prevent the building of luxury homes so that the city can create more affordable housing for residents. However, a group called SF Real Housing Solutions has sprung up to fight the measure and is being funded by wealthy members of the California Association of Realtors who will directly benefit from this legislation being voted down.
We may be tempted to overlook this issue since it is happening in one area of the country. However, rather than sighing over who this benefits, we need to get angry about who this hurts. Rent in San Francisco is astoundingly high--the LA Times mentions that a one-bedroom apartment goes for $3,500 per month on average. People are losing their homes and a measure intended to halt rising rent will likely be defeated because they have the resources to organize and outspend.
This is not an issue exclusive to the West Coast, but affects the entire nation--even our health. Thanks to astroturfing, the climate change movement has been set back by at least a decade, says The Guardian. Energy, gas, and even tobacco companies have come together to attack what they call "junk science" and make people believe that climate change isn't a real issue. What's worse--this is a campaign that has been widely successful. We all know at least one person who firmly believes that climate change isn't real, so we know this has been an extremely effective message.
Similar to the San Francisco problem, we may be inclined to dismiss this, as many people are starting to come around to the fact that climate change is actually a real problem. However, what happens when the next successful campaign directly impacts our health? What if the next campaign encourages us not to get vaccinated, to eat more fast food, or avoid going to the hospital?
We as consumers must become more educated on the organizations we support. Not only must we become informed on the issues, but we must also know where the groups we follow originated. Sources such as the Huffington Post, CNN, and NBC are still known as reputable news organizations to gather information from, but as astroturfing continues to rise, we must be more critical of all news we consume. In the future, debunking a myth or discovering a fake organization may not be a quick Google search away.