Top 10 Astroturfers

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This article first posted in February of 2014

 

What’s most successful when it appears to be something it’s not? Astroturf. As in fake grassroots.

The many ways that corporations, special interests and political interests of all stripes exploit media and the Internet to perpetuate astroturf is ever-expanding. Surreptitious astroturf methods are now more important to these interests than traditional lobbying of Congress. There’s an entire PR industry built around it in Washington.

Below are the top ten astroturfers as viewed by respondents in an informal, non-scientific survey.*

TOP 10 ASTROTURFERS

1. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Everytown

2. Media Matters for America

3. University of California Hastings Professor Dorit Rubenstein Reiss and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Dr. Paul Offit

4. “Science” Blogs such as: Skeptic.com, Skepchick.org, Scienceblogs.com (Respectful Insolence), Popsci.com and SkepticalRaptors.com

5. Mother Jones

6. Salon.com and Vox.com

7. White House press briefings and press secretary Josh Earnest

8. Daily Kos and The Huffington Post

9. CNN, NBC, New York Times, Politico and Talking Points Memo (TPM)

10. MSNBC, Slate.com, Los Angeles Times and Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, MSNBC and Jon Stewart.

Astroturfers often disguise themselves and publish blogs, write letters to the editor, produce ads, start non-profits, establish Facebook and Twitter accounts, edit Wikipedia pages or simply post comments online to try to fool you into thinking an independent or grassroots movement is speaking. They use their partners in blogs and in the news media in an attempt to lend an air of legitimacy or impartiality to their efforts.

Astroturf’s biggest accomplishment is when it crosses over into semi-trusted news organizations that unquestioningly cite or copy it.

Watch my TEDx talk on astroturf at the University of Nevada, Reno

The whole point of astroturf is to try to convince you there’s widespread support for or against an agenda when there’s not.

The language of astroturfers and propagandists includes trademark inflammatory terms such as: anti, nutty, quack, crank, pseudo-science, debunking, conspiracy theory, deniers and junk science. Sometimes astroturfers claim to “debunk myths” that aren’t myths at all. They declare debates over that aren’t over. They claim that “everybody agrees” when everyone doesn’t agree. They aim to make you think you’re an outlier when you’re not.

Astroturfers and propagandists tend to attack and controversialize the news organizations, personalities and people surrounding an issue rather than sticking to the facts. They try to censor and silence topics and speakers rather than engage them. And most of all, they reserve all their expressed skepticism for those who expose wrongdoing rather than the wrongdoers. In other words, instead of questioning authority, they question those who question authority.

Much of this sounds familiar to many Americans. The results of an informal, non-scientific poll identify groups related to Gun Safety Action Fund, Inc. as top Astroturf efforts. These groups include Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Everytown, Everytown for Gun Safety, Gun Sense, It’s Time for Gun Sense in America, Gun Sense Voter, I’m a Gun Sense Voter, Moms Take the Hill and Stroller Jam.

The groups present themselves as grassroots organizations of “mayors, moms survivors and everyday Americans.” They are spearheaded by former New York Mayor and multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg, and former PR professional and mother Shannon Watts. Last year, they announced a $50 million political campaign to try to counter the efforts of the formidable gun rights lobby.

Second to the gun control groups in being identified as a top disseminator of astroturf and propaganda is the controversial, left wing blog Media Matters for America with the stated goal of waging “guerrilla warfare and sabotage” against FOX News. More broadly, Media Matters acts on behalf of the interests of Hillary Clinton and the Obama Administration, sometimes in direct consultation with Obama officials. It was founded by the troubled Democratic political operative David Brock, who formed the super-Political Action Committee (PAC) American Bridge that raised funds to help elect liberal Democrats to Congress. Brock also served on the board of the super-PAC Priorities USA, which announced support for Hillary Clinton’s potential run for president.

A close third is an array of blogs that use words such as “science” and “skeptic” in their titles or propaganda in an attempt to portray an image of neutrality and logic when they are often fighting established science and serving pro-pharmaceutical industry agendas. These include: ScienceBlogs.com (using the pseudonym “Orac”); vaccine inventor Dr. Paul Offit of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who earned an undisclosed fortune from Merck pharmaceuticals; and his apparent replacement in trolling blogs Dorit Rubenstein Reiss. She is a law professor at the University of California Hastings and a frequent contributor to SkepticalRaptors.com.

A final category frequently mentioned is quasi-news organizations that sometimes throw readers off the astroturf trail because they publish some legitimate news-type or pop-culture stories, but mix in propaganda or astroturf. These sources tend to be highly-cited by the unquestioning traditional news media either to advance an agenda, or in the media’s attempt to be hip and edgy or “get clicks.”

Sometimes, astroturf is in the eye of the beholder. But no matter how you see it, there is no short supply.

Honorable Mention Astorturfers as identified by respondents:

ABC, CBS, FOX, Townhall.com, Daily Caller, Think Progress, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Global Warming, The National Rifle Association, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, “Republicans making us believe Jeb Bush is strongly favored as the next Republican candidate for president,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, Benghazi, Obama describing ISIS as “JV team,” George Soros, the Koch Brothers, Washington Post blogger Erik Wemple, Rush Limbaugh, “Too Big to Fail” Banks, US Treasury, Federal Housing Finance Agency, Al Sharpton, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, hashtags, Saturday Night Live Weekend Update, the Kennedy Family, Rolling Stone, Ezekiel Emmanuel, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow producer Steve Benen, National Public Radio (NPR), Bill Moyers, Occupy Wall Street, Moveon.org, Wikipedia, Center for American Progress, Snopes, Every Child by Two, American Academy of Pediatrics, Voices for Vaccines, BuzzFeed, Wired, The New Republic and Forbes.com.

*The results represent 169 Twitter respondents who answered a public query either directly or through direct message.

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40 Responses to “Top 10 Astroturfers”

  1. Finn Anderson
    September 18, 2015 at 1:37 am #

    So how would one go about finding out and proving that an organization is an astroturfer? I get what an astroturfer is, but that information isn’t pertinent if you can’t find out which organizations are masquerading as grassroots and which are really grassroots. Most organizations wouldn’t blatantly headline the fact that they are supported/started by a very biased party.

  2. Mark
    September 28, 2015 at 5:03 pm #

    It is interesting that pseudoskeptic organizations turned up in the list. (I refuse to call those people “skeptics” because they are not real skeptics.) Here’s some background, for people who don’t know. The pseudoskeptics hate paranormal phenomena, or anything else that goes against their belief system, like conspiracy theories or alternative medicine. Although there are some pseudoskeptical activities that happened prior, the organized pseudoskeptic movement is usually given credit as starting in the mid-seventies with the formation of the organization known as The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal, (CSICOP) although I think that they are known by a different name, now. Although the pseudoskeptic movement has changed its main focus to alternative health, they still can’t stand any ideas that conflict with their paradigm. Towards the beginning, the pseudoskeptics’ main goal was to try to harm astrology, which you can read about here:

    http://cura.free.fr/xv/14starbb.html

    It is sad to see how little has changed with respect to their main goal of harming anyone who even takes seriously the possibility that the pseudoskeptic paradigm is wrong. I would suggest that you do a story on this pseudoskeptic movement, Sharyl.

    • gary0k
      July 29, 2016 at 10:43 am #

      Your key word is Scientific. Science has replaced God and logic. Science and it’s use go back to Copernicus. 1200 plus years of cartography replaced with supposedly, Science. It’s all misdirection and illusion. As you said their belief system must stand so science is to remove what is not with the band.

  3. william baker
    October 13, 2015 at 11:59 am #

    where is alex jones on your list?
    is he the resistance, as he claims?
    are you part of that resistance?

    are you astroturfing for alex jones?

    im a big fan of gathering info and deciding….

    thanks for another source of material!

    • Lord Windemere
      July 23, 2016 at 3:02 am #

      Alex Jones is there for good reason. Please do some more research on Alex Jones and his employer.

  4. Hugh Rogers
    October 24, 2015 at 6:19 pm #

    Politico should be on the same line as the White House, since it is the unofficial press release printing shop for 1600 Penn.

  5. WarriorMama
    February 11, 2016 at 1:17 pm #

    Here is what I find whenever I comment on a news story or blog: the astroturfers (Dorit Rubenstein Reiss is always on and involved) begin by demanding you site ‘science’ and ‘your source’ whenever you make the claim that vaccines are harmful/not for everyone, or God forbid, you don’t vaccinate. They will say things like, ‘You’re harming/killing others’, ‘Your kid is going to die’, ‘You’re a terrible parent’, ‘You and your kids should be banished to an island’, ‘you’re a child abuser’, and ‘The science speaks for itself’. These are all common phrases designed to make you go away, leave the discussion. Dorit is not abusive, that I have seen, but rather robotic in her assertions that science is king; she keeps repeating it like a mantra, and she lets the others tear down and abuse, name call and the like. What strikes me is the profuse anger that comes out of these people over an issue (vaccine safety and mandating medical procedures) that has not been debunked, and is far from over.

    None of this should keep truthseekers from commenting on blogs and articles. If you have a vaccine injured child, no amount of badgering to ‘site your source’ will get you to change your mind, so stop siting the sources. DO keep showing up. They do. They get paid to. WE show up because our children’s lives are at stake. That’s the only skin we have in this game.

    And follow Sharyl. I have re-read this post a dozen times to remind me of what I am up against when I fight for the freedom to choose for myself and my family.

    • Lord Windemere
      July 23, 2016 at 2:56 am #

      Yeah. I got banned from scienceblogs/insolence. I think Dorit Reiss is OK compared to some of the others, but she may have a pseudonym or two as well.

      Some are downright psychopathic and try to act like they know everything:

      Chris
      Narad
      Dangerous Bacon
      Helianthis
      MI Dawn
      ect.

      Justatech is OK

      And SquirrelElite
      herr doktor bimler
      and few others are actually nice and helpful although biased

      many commenters have thier own blogs, and they kind of add comments to eachothers’ in a mutualistic agreement.

  6. WarriorMama
    February 11, 2016 at 1:26 pm #

    Another astroturfing red flag is that on February 17, 2015, Sharyl posted the above, and on February 19, this person/blog posted this, ‘debunking’ Sharyl:

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/2/19/1365569/-An-Astroturf-Reporter-s-Laughably-Inane-List-Of-The-Top-10-Astroturfers-Includes-DailyKos

    Notice how every comment was a) against Sharyl, and b) posted the same day (Feb 19), after which the comments were closed. Also note the tone of the article. There is no gray area here about how the author feels. He is spewing. This is what they do. Watch for it.

  7. Billy
    March 20, 2016 at 2:27 am #

    YouTube itself is a big mess stain of NOT free speech and lies. Yes they let people post videos but the views, likes and comments are highly manipulated. Our world sucks anymore…
    The earth is flat by the way or at the very least, definitely not what liars NASA claim it to be. How do I know? While he did not come right out and say it, the man responsible for pretty much all the technology we use today had some very interesting things to say. His name was Nikola Tesla.

  8. Jennifer
    April 3, 2016 at 3:24 am #

    Sharyl, listening to your TedTalk from U of Nevada re: Astroturfers. Do you think the hysteria about “anti-gay” legistlation (really about bathrooms, etc) is this? I’ve never seen so many news orgs use that type of wording almost uniformly. “Anti-gay”, etc. Every single one has misrepresented what’s happening and the piling on in places like Indiana and North Carolina is Democrats, big businesses, news orgs. Thoughts?

  9. Zorba
    April 8, 2016 at 12:12 pm #

    Thanks for the great work Sharyl, you’re outstanding! You should probably include in your list the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Federal Reserve and the financial news networks that continually spin how great everything is. Although, I guess you could say everything is great for their Banker masters.

  10. Daves Not Here
    April 28, 2016 at 9:46 pm #

    Interesting anecdote: I’m participating in a heated discussion in the comments section of a Media Matters article entitled “Fox Provides Platform For Discredited Doctor To Claim CDC Is Hiding Evidence That Vaccines Cause Autism.”

    I posted the link to this “Top 10 Astroturfers” article in a thread discussing Pharma shills, so it was hardly off-topic. Nevertheless, it was gone within minutes. My other posts still remain, are fairly polite, but I’m afraid my days on the site may be numbered.

    Does anyone know if Media Matters is selectively deleting comments relating to AstroTurfing or Sharyl Attkinson?

  11. Tysons Analytics
    June 24, 2016 at 10:50 am #

    We did the analysis in support of this story. Sharyl is not only correct, she is understating the amount of “astroturfing” that is currently being done. When this is being conducted on the Facebook page for the free world, we have a problem. Not to mention that the White House must be complicit in this, which would put them at odds with the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 prohibiting government propaganda; they are breaking the law to push their agenda, and odds are they are using your money to do it.

    http://dailycaller.com/2016/06/17/pro-obama-commenters-astroturf-white-house-facebook-page/

  12. denise ward
    July 17, 2016 at 7:45 pm #

    Sharyl, I am rather concerned about your inclusion of “Global Warming” in the list of astroturfers. What the heck is that supposed to mean? How can “Global Warming” be an astroturfer? It is a concept, not a person or group. Surely you know that? What is the meaning of your adding it into a list of astroturfers? I smell a rat…

  13. tom
    July 29, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

    Well, basically all MSM is now astroturf and zio-corporate propaganda

  14. anon
    August 28, 2016 at 9:42 pm #

    Hillary Clinton should be on this list, her super pac recently admitted to spending $1 million dollars on hiring people to leave fake positive comments online and disparaging comments regarding all other presidential candidates on websites like Quora

  15. Miss E
    September 13, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

    “*The results represent 169 Twitter respondents who answered a public query either directly or through direct message.”

    When I got to this point here ^^^ I realized I’d wasted a valuable 5 minutes reading this article.

    Twitter is one of the richest treasure troves of sock puppets, bots and astroturfers in the entire known Universe AFAIK (okay, maybe Universe is an exaggeration. But still.)

    Website peekyou.com once found that only 8 percent of Newt Gingrinch’s 1.3 million twitter followers were actual live human beings. That means MORE THAN 1 MILLION fake accounts were found tweeting, commenting, discussing and arguing with real live people (and probably with other bots too) on a single presidential candidate’s account.

    Nuff said. Basing ANYTHING on the replies of 169 followers who are following your own site is already quite biased since it’s a self-selected respondent base, but it also reveals quite a bit of ignorance of the extent of the astroturf problem on Twitter itself.

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