A 5-minute introduction to Political Astroturfing.
At Wonk Bridge, among our broader ambitions is a fuller understanding of our “Network Society”. In today’s article, we’re aiming to connect several important nodes in that broader ambition. Our more seasoned readers will already see how Political Astroturfing simultaneously plays on both the online and offline to ultimately damage the individual’s ability to mindfully navigate in-between dimensions.
Political Astroturfing is a form of manufactured and deceptive activity initiated by political actors who seek to mimic bottom-up (or grassroots) activity by autonomous individuals.(slightly modified from Kovic et al. 2018’s definition which we found most accurate and concise)
While we will focus on astroturfing conducting exclusive by digital means, do keep in mind that this mischievous political practice remains as old as Human civilisation. People have always sought to “Manufacture Consent” through technologically-facilitated mimickry, and have good reason to continue resorting to the prevalent communications technologies of the Early Digital age to do so. And without belabouring the obvious, mimickry has always been a popular tactic in politics because people continue to distrust subjectivity from parties who are not friends/family/ “of the same tribe”.
Our America Correspondent and Policy-columnist Jackson Oliver Webster wrote a piece about how astroturfing was used to stir and then organise the real-life anti-COVID lockdown protests across the United States last April. Several actors began the astroturfing campaign by opening a series of “Re-open” website URLs and then connecting said URLs to “Operation Gridlock” type Groups on Facebook. Some of these Groups then organised real-life events calling for civil unrest in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota, and Iowa.
The #Re-Open protests are a great example of the unique place astroturfing has in our societal make-up. They work best when taking advantage of already volatile or divisive real-world situations (such as the Covid-19 lockdowns, which were controversial amongst a slice of the American population), but are initiated and sped-up by mischievous actors with intentions unaligned with those of the protesters themselves. In Re-open’s case, one family of conspirators — the Dorr Brothers — had used the websites to harvest data from and push anti-lockdown and pro-gun apparel to website visitors. The intentions of the astroturfers can thus be manifold, from a desire to stir-up action to fuelling political passions for financial gain.
The sharp-end of Fake news
Astroturfing will often find itself in the same conversational lexicon as Fake News. Both astroturfing and fake news are seen as ways to artificially shape peoples’ appreciation of “reality” via primarily digital means.
21st century citizenship, concerning medium/large scale political activity and discourse in North America and Europe, is supported by infrastructure on social networking sites. The beerhalls and market-squares have emptied, in favour of Facebook Groups, Twitter Feeds and interest-based fora where citizens can spread awareness of political issues and organise demonstrations. At the risk of igniting a philosophical debate in the comments, I would suggest that the controversy surrounding Fake news at the moment is deeply connected with the underlying belief that citizens today are unprepared/unable to critically appraise or reason with the information circulated on digital political infrastructure, as well as they might have been able to offline. Indeed the particularity of astroturfing lies in its manipulation of our in-built information filtration mechanism, or what Wait But Why refers to as a “Reason Bouncer”.
Our information filtration mechanism is a way of deciding which information from both virtual and real dimensions is worth considering as “fact” or “truth” and which should be discarded/invalidated. As described in “The Story of Us”, information that appeals to an individuals primal motivations, values or morals tend to be accepted more easily by the “Reason Bouncer”, just as information coming from “trustworthy sources” such as friends, family or other “in-group individuals”. Of course, just like how teenagers try to use fake-IDs to sneak into nightclubs, astroturfing seeks to get past your “Reason Bouncers” by mimicking the behaviour and appealing to the motivations of your “group”.
The effectiveness of this information filtration “exploit” can be seen in the 2016 Russian astroturfing attack in Houston, Texas. Russian actors, operating from thousands of kilometers away, created two conflicting communities on Facebook, one called “Heart of Texas” (right-wing, conservative, anti-Muslim) and the other called the “United Muslims of America” (Islamic). They then organised concurrent protests on the question of Islam in the same city: one called “Save Islamic Knowledge” and another called “Stop the Islamification of Texas” right in front of the Islamic Da’wah Center of Houston. The key point here is that the astroturfing campaign was conducted in two stages: infiltration and activation. Infiltration was key to get past the two Texan communities’ “Reason Bouncer”, by establishing credibility over several months with the creation, population and curation of the Facebook communities. and all that was required to “activate” both communities was the appropriate time, place and occasion.
The “Estonian Solution”
Several examinations of the astroturfing issue have pointed out that, rather than the government or military, ordinary citizens are often the targets of disinformation and disruption campaigns using the astroturfing technique. Steven L. Hall and Stephanie Hartell rightfully point out the Estonian experience with Russian disinformation campaigns as a possible starting point for improving society resilience to astroturfing campaigns.
As one of the first Western countries to have experience a coordinated disinformation campaign in 2007, the people of Estonia rallyed around the need for a coordinated Clausewitzian response (Government, Army, and People) to Russian aggression: “Not only government or military, but also citizens must be prepared”. Hall and Hartell note the amazing (by American standards) civilian response to Russian disinformation, including the creation of a popular volunteer-run fact-checking blog/website called PropaStop.org.
Since 2016, the anti-fake news and fact-checking industry in the United States is booming — with more than 200 fact-checking organisations active as of December 2019. The fight against disinformation and the methods that make astroturfing possible is indeed well and alive in the United States.
Where I disagree with Hall and Hartell, who recommend initiatives similar to those by Estonia in the USA, is that disinformation and astroturfing cannot meaningfully be reduced in the USA without addressing the internal political and social divisions which make the job all too easy and effective. The United States is a divided country, along both Governmental and popular lines. How can the united action of Estonia be replicated when two out of the three axes (Government, Military and People) are compromised?
This — possibly familiar — Pew Research data visualisation (click here for the research) shows just how much this division has exacerbated over time. Astroturfing campaigns like the ones in Houston in 2016 comfortably operate in tribal environments, where suspicion of the internal “Other” (along racial religious, political lines) trumps that of the true “Other” — found at the opposite end of the globe. In divided environments, fact-checking entreprises also suffer from weakened credibility and the suspicion of the very people they seek to protect.
In such environments, short of addressing the issues that divide a country, the best technologists can perhaps do is create new tools transparently and openly. So as to avoid suspicion and invite inspection. But to also seek as many opportunities to work in partnership with Government, the Military and all citizens, with the objective of arming the latter with the ability to critically evaluate information online and understand what digital tools and platforms actually do.
 A society where an individual interacts with a complex interplay of online and offline stimuli, to formulate his/her more holistic experience of the world we live in. The term was coined by Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells.