Mar 03 2015

The Problem with Astroturfing

In a recent TEDx talk, Sharyl Attkisson nicely demonstrates the deep problem with astroturfing, although part of her demonstration was inadvertent. The problem is actually deeper than she stated, because she herself has fallen victim to part of the deception.

Astroturfing is essentially fake grassroots activism. Companies and special interests create non-profits, Facebook pages, social media persona, write letters to the editor, and essentially exploit social and traditional media to create the false impression that there is a grassroots movement supporting some issue. The key to astroturfing is that they conceal who is truly behind these fronts.

Attkisson, a journalist for CBS news, points to several examples in which pharmaceutical companies, for example, secretly promote their drug and marginalize criticism. She correctly points out how campaigns of doubt and confusion can work, by generating so much controversy that the public loses confidence in the science (and in fact science itself) and throws the baby out with the bath water.

This is all part of the same phenomenon I discussed in yesterday’s post about Google ranking websites by their factual accuracy. There is power in information, and there is essentially a war going on over control of information, which increasingly is fought on the battleground of the internet and social media.

Attkisson, however, gets some things profoundly wrong, falling victim to astroturfing herself without realizing it. At one point she uses as an example of doubt and confusion burying the evidence that there is a link between vaccines and autism with fake studies and fake opinions.  I had to go back and listen to it again to make sure I heard it right, but then remembered that Attkisson is a known anti-vaxxer.

This is what I think Attkisson missed – once information itself is called into question because of bias, astroturfing, denialism, and pseudoscience, it then becomes easier to see reality through the lens of your preferred narratives. One person’s astroturfing is another person’s skepticism. Accusations of astroturfing and conflicts of interest can easily be used as a witch hunt to deny any science or opinion that contradicts your own narrative.

It’s like the movie Inception – once you cannot trust reality, there is no way to confidently know how many layers deep you are in the dream.

This is why scientists and skeptics who are just trying to communicate controversial science to the public are so frequently met with the shill card. It’s now a common game on Facebook, blogs, and other social media outlets to count how many comments go by on a post about a controversial topic before someone plays the shill card. The answer is always – not many.

If you are, for example, an anti-vaxxer, then it is part of your narrative that any scientist or opinion writer who expresses a pro-vaccine opinion or counters any of the misinformation generated by the anti-vaccine movement, is by definition a shill and part of an astroturf campaign. The existence of real astroturf campaigns just makes the accusation seem more plausible.

Similarly, the existence of real but small conspiracies lends fuel to the conspiracy theorists who weave outlandish grand conspiracies.

Attkisson ends with her advice for the public on how to recognize an astroturf campaign. To paraphrase, she says that the use of words such as quack, crank, pseudoscientist, or conspiracy are all red flags for an astroturf campaign, as is voicing skepticism toward those who criticize authority. This advice, however, paints with such an absurdly broad brush that she covers essentially the entire skeptical community.

Perhaps this is intentional on her part. She has been criticized for her anti-vaccine views, and now she has a plausible-sounding reason to dismiss all of this criticism – she is just a victim of alleged astroturfing.

This is especially disappointing for a journalist. Investigative journalists should know that stories are often not what they appear, and that this can cut both ways, not just covering up a real conspiracy. Sometimes what might seem like a conspiracy is just circumstantial evidence combined with the human penchant  for pattern recognition and confirmation bias.

There is no easy answer for how, as an individual, to deal with astroturfing. It takes digging. But first you have to realize that Attkisson framed the question as a false dichotomy: is it real or astroturfing. The real choice is between real science, astroturfing, or pseudoscience. When you add the third possibility you have a better chance of digging deep enough to know which side of a controversy has the solid evidence and arguments.

While you should not assume that an apparent grassroots movement is what it appears, and may in fact be a front for a corporation or ideological group, you also should not assume that accusations of being astroturf or a shill are legitimate.

For example, the modern skeptical movement as a whole has a history that goes back at least to the 1960s. Many of the current organizations have been in existence for years or decades. They are led by people who have very public lives.

It should be a trivial matter for anyone with investigative skills to find out that I am a real person with an academic appointment who has been a science and critical thinking advocate for decades. Further, there isn’t the tiniest shred of evidence that I am a shill for anyone, because I’m not. Anyone dropping the shill card on me is doing it thoughtlessly, as a knee-jerk, because it serves their narrative (or deliberately because they care more about their ideology than the truth).

Attkisson has now fed the shill narrative without providing the real insight necessary to truly separate fact from fiction. I think that is because she lacks such insight, as is evidenced by her anti-vaccine views (or at least she compartmentalizes).

At the same time I think we need to vigorously expose and oppose real astroturf campaigns. Such deception poisons the public conversation, reducing everyone’s confidence in science and experts. This is a tricky area, but it might be worth exploring laws to make it more difficult to run an astroturf campaign.

For example, political ads in the US now have to be completely transparent. They have to say who paid for the ad, and the candidate has to say that hey approve the message. They cannot hide behind astroturf campaigns to promote them or attack their opponents.

Perhaps similar laws could apply to corporations and other institutions – they would have to disclose their connections to any campaigns whose purpose is to alter public opinion. I don’t see this as a restriction of free speech, rather just requiring transparency.

But as I said, this can be tricky and I am not advocating any specific solution or regulation. All the unintended consequences have to be worked through. I just think we need to consider ways of requiring transparency to restore a higher level of public confidence in scientific information and the objectivity of experts.

Meanwhile, the public is mostly on its own. The best solution for now is to apply a high degree of critical thinking and skepticism to any issue. This is not easy, but it is necessary.

Of course, Attkisson and others can just argue that this blog post is an astroturfing attempt to disguise astroturfing and criticize those who are trying to expose astroturfing. You can always argue that the dream goes one layer deeper.

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