1. Twitter Astroturf and Manipulation
In 2015, Twitter made plans for an #AskPOTUS town hall with President Obama to compete with rivals like Reddit, which was drawing a lot of attention for its interactive Q&A sessions with well- known people. But the Twitter session was not the freewheeling event some might have expected. According to a former Twitter senior employee who spoke to BuzzFeed, the head of Twitter, Dick Costolo, had ordered employees to build an algorithm to filter out any abusive tweets that might be directed at Obama. A source said Twitter also manually censored the #AskPOTUS tweets because the automated system was inconsistent. The decision to control the message was kept secret from some senior employ- ees for fear they would object. Some who did find out were said to be upset because they believed the censorship defied Twitter’s supposed com- mitment to free speech. All this subterfuge from a company that had once boasted of itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.”
2. Facebook News Curating
Former insiders at Facebook claim some news there is presented or withheld for biased reasons. In May 2016, an ex–Facebook employee was anony- mously quoted on Gizmodo, a design, technology, and science fiction web- site, saying he was part of a project that “routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential ‘trending’ news section.” Several people who were reportedly employed at Facebook as “news curators” told Gizmodo they were “instructed to arti- ficially ‘inject’ selected stories into the trending news module, even if they weren’t popular enough to warrant inclusion. . . . Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending.” One former curator said suppressed topics included former IRS official Lois Lerner, who took the fifth before Congress after being accused of targeting conservative groups, and popular conservative news aggregator the Drudge Report. Facebook denied the allegations.
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3. Movie Criticism by News and Quasi-News
Online manipulation can be found on news and quasi-news sites as well. In January 2016, there was an Internet smear directed against a Holly- wood film based on a true-life story. The film is 13 Hours: The Secret Sol- diers of Benghazi. It tells the personal stories of three CIA operators who heroically helped fight off Islamic extremist attackers on September 11, 2012. This is a movie that supporters of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, by necessity, must smear. Clinton was secretary of state during that night’s tragic events. Dozens of Americans in Benghazi had waited for an outside U.S. military rescue that never came. Obama was missing in action. The military blamed Hillary’s State Department for not giving the green light to launch a rescue option. Four Americans, including U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed.
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It will be difficult for the administration and Hillary Clinton interests to directly impeach the heroes in the film. So some seek to controversialize the movie itself. To try to keep people from seeing it. Convince the po- tential audience that it’s boring. Tedious. A flop. And so, even before the movie’s release, there’s a suspicious stampede of negative reviews. Whether intentional or not, they lead to an astroturf smear campaign.
Vox, the left-wing website headed by a liberal blogger named Ezra Klein, pans 13 Hours in an extensive blog based solely on the trailer, if you can believe it, not the actual film.
“Even the trailer for Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie is patronizing and dishonest,” writes Vox’s Max Fisher. He then goes on to incorrectly portray as a “myth” the idea that military rescuers were prevented from quickly helping.
On the website Deadline Hollywood, Anthony D’Alessandro claims that 13 Hours opened “lower than expected.” Gary Susman of Moviefone claims it “struck out at the box office.” The Hill agrees in a blog post titled “Benghazi Film Flops at the Box Office.” Salon’s hit job is titled “Audiences Reject ‘13 Hours’: Big Blow for the Right’s Desperate Quest for Clinton’s Benghazi Smoking Gun—It’s Just Not There.” (Yes, that’s the actual headline.) Alyssa Rosenberg, a left-wing culture blogger for the Washington Post, portrays 13 Hours as “boring” and sprinkles her review with tried-and-true astroturf language such as “conspiracy theories” and “obsessed,” suggesting she’s spreading propaganda. Flavorwire, too, claims the film “tanked.”
Washington Post gossip blogger Erik Wemple also advances the nar- rative of 13 Hours as a conservative movie—apparently hoping the label will discourage viewers from wanting to see it, or at least from admitting publicly how much they like it. Proving the effectiveness of Media Matters’ nonpartisan veneer, Wemple even quotes Media Matters in his blog without disclosing its conflict of interest: it’s a liberal smear group tied to Hillary Clinton.
4. Personal Smear Campaigns
In October 2016, Scott Adams, creator of the office humor comic strip Dilbert, wrote a very serious blog post titled “The Week I Became a Target.” In it, he claimed he’d been targeted by Hillary Clinton interests because of his support for Donald Trump. The campaign against him employed classic facets of astroturf, including attacks against him on social media, in the news, and even on a book review site.
“This weekend I got ‘shadowbanned’ on Twitter,” Adams writes. “It lasted until my followers noticed and protested. Shadowbanning prevents my followers from seeing my tweets and replies, but in a way that is not obvious until you do some digging. Why did I get shadowbanned? Beats me. But it was probably because I asked people to tweet me examples of Clinton supporters being violent against peaceful Trump supporters in public. I got a lot of them. It was chilling.”
Adams reveals that the week before his “shadowban,” his Twitter feed “was invaded by an army of Clinton trolls leaving sarcastic insults and not much else on my feed. There was an obvious similarity to them, meaning it was organized.” At around the same time, coincidentally, liberal website Slate published a hit piece on Adams. “It was so lame that I retweeted it myself,” he says. “The timing of the hit piece might be a coincidence, but I stopped believing in coincidences this year.”
Adams mentioned two more “coincidences” in his blog. The one and only speaking engagement he’d booked for 2017 was suddenly canceled, the host citing a desire to “go in a different direction.” Then people began posting negative reviews of one of his books on Amazon.
“I wouldn’t want to buy anything from an author who feels he’s too rich and gets taxed too much,” writes one of the reviewers. Another adds, “Adams thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. SPOILER: He isn’t. Not by a long shot. Adams also believes he pays too much in taxes. And Donald Trump is a genius. Save your money and save Scott Adams the grief of paying more taxes.”
5. Op-eds for Hire
If you think there’s more transparency over at the op-ed pages of major news publications, then you haven’t been paying attention.
“I write op-eds in the name of other people,” a noted player in the field confesses to me. “I’m advocating for large clients. Communicating some- body else’s idea. I’ve written five of them in four days on different topics I know little about.”
His signature is never at the bottom of his work; it’s always somebody else’s. Someone who’s paid for use of their name. Maybe a university doctor, physician, or economist. A current or retired public notable. It’s like money laundering, only instead of hiding the origin of ill-gotten gains, it masks the source of paid opinions. The ghostwriter never gets credit. He gets a paycheck.
Another player who dabbles in this business is a trial lawyer and Democrat activist.
“I get letters published in newspapers all the time for my clients. And you know what? No newspaper editor ever asks if the client really wrote it,” he tells me incredulously. “Can you believe that? They don’t even ask.”
An internal memo written by the Clinton super PAC Correct The Record boasts that between May 15, 2015, and December 1, 2015, it “helped write and place 36 op-eds across the country in a number of publications including Politico, Times Union, Huffington Post, CNN, Washington Blade, and New Jersey’s Bergen Record.”
6. Comments for Hire
Comments on the Internet are also prime astroturf real estate. Paid interests disguised as ordinary people troll assigned topics, news sites, re- porters, blogs, and social media for the purpose of posting comments that spin and confuse. You already knew that. But there’s another comment arena that’s being manipulated under the noses of ordinary Americans: the Federal Register.
The Federal Register is where federal agencies publish proposed regu- lations so the public can comment on them before they’re enacted. It’s a process required by a law called the Administrative Procedure Act. Agen- cies are supposed to respond to the public feedback.
As I write this, I’m betting most of you have never submitted a single official comment about any of the millions of federal regulations enacted over the years. So who is filling up these comment sections? You guessed it: insiders and paid interests. Those who want to stop regulations or have them passed or amended in their favor. One player in the field tells me that he spends a great deal of time and effort filing comments on behalf of paid clients.
“I do a lot of work in beating back bad regulations by using the com- ment period, by driving comments into the government,” he says. It’s effective and it doesn’t cost a penny.
As you can see, complacency in the media combined with incredibly powerful propaganda and publicity forces means the public sometimes gets a lot of spin, and a little of the truth.