Fake armies: A field guide to astroturfing

“There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions.”
― Edward L. Bernays

It sounds so Orwellian; the world’s opinions shaped by vast armies of bots, or by paid groups of teenagers in Macedonia. But far from being a 1984 nightmare come to life, this scenario has become reality; and not just in authoritarian states. Technology is now used to drown out the voices of real people, creating an alternate reality where fake opinions rule and the zeitgeist is based on myths.

What is astroturfing exactly?

Astroturfing is where paid groups or automated technologies (‘bots’) fool the public into believing that certain opinions are more popular or widespread than in reality. It’s used in many arenas, from political campaigning to Amazon reviews. With the increasing influence of social media it’s difficult to tell fake from fact. Astroturfing is especially likely to happen whenever the interests of big business come into conflict with those of the public, for example climate change and big oil, or lung cancer and tobacco companies. To challenge scientifically proven fact should be an impossible endeavour, as surely nothing is more sacred than fact? But in a world led by fake news and paid opinion, the word of experts has been cheapened. In fact, many people no longer trust experts at all. This was demonstrated to devastating effect this year during the EU referendum in the UK, and the presidential elections in the United States.

When did astroturfing begin?

Astroturfing is not a phenomenon of the digital age. It’s been going on since before social media began. Back in the days of print newspapers, so-called ‘concerned residents’ would send a barrage of letters to the editor, especially around election times, to protest against certain policies or candidates. Now that newspapers have gone online the armies of astroturfers have headed to the nearest obvious outlet: the comment sections. From there, it’s an easy step to create multiple identities and start posting comments. Forums are another prime target for astroturfers, along with blogs and of course, social media. Have you ever felt a sense of despair when reading the comments under a newspaper article posted on Facebook? They seem to bring out the worst of human nature, but some of them could be astroturfers. In our low moments, when we feel the world is doomed to a constant cycle of bigotry, xenophobia and fear, perhaps we’d do well to remind ourselves that the rabid anti-Muslim or anti-foreigner comments online could simply be the work of some bot army.

What’s the role of technology in all this?

As technology advances further, astroturfing gets more sophisticated. Russia has a particular talent for harnessing the power of fake opinion on a massive scale, using something called ‘persona management software’. This software creates bot armies that use fake IP addresses to hide their location, along with generating authentic-looking ‘aged’ profiles. There’s almost no way to tell bot from human – and that’s where the real danger lies. Fake opinion en masse can have alarming results; shifting the social and political mood and whipping people up into hysteria over issues minor or even non-existent.

Thanks to the online echo chambers that we live in these days, fake opinion can spread with ease once sown. It becomes further reinforced and legitimised by ongoing social sharing and discussion. Most social media users get their news from within a bubble, as algorithms do their utmost to show only the updates that the user is most likely to engage with. This means there’s less chance of people being shown opinions that challenge their existing worldview. That’s a recipe for disaster – and it’s one that we’ve only just begun to understand the significance of.

What are the implications of astroturfing?

Politics in 2016 is fishy business. In particular, the Trump election campaign is extremely suspicious. There have been claims that Russia used its cyber warfare prowess to interfere in the US elections; in the end putting Trump in command of the country. Notably, Russia has been accused of using its hackers to access Wikileaks to produce a leak of thousands of incriminating emails supposedly sent by Hillary Clinton. This move eroded public trust in Clinton and narrowed the gap between candidates by double digits. Again, like astroturfing, this technique is not new. Orchestrating the right conditions to encourage people to act in a certain way has been used for decades. The father of propaganda, Edward Bernays, used it to great effect in the early 20th century, to sell pianos and bacon, and cause regime change in Guatemala.

Having Trump in power is very much in Russia’s interests. Trump is inexperienced in politics, especially foreign policy, making him very much open to manipulation from afar. He has a reputation for being greedy, meaning he can be easily bought. He has already said publicly that he favours anon-interventionist military policy abroad. For the Kremlin, a Trump presidency is Russia’s very own puppet in the White House. It’s the Cold War revisited, with Russia scoring a massive coup against the US. Only this time Russia has technology on its side, propelling its influence all the way into the corridors of American power. The Soviets couldn’t have hoped for anything like it.

Controlling the zeitgeist via propaganda and astroturfing has reached new heights in this fundamentally connected age where the concept of ‘post-truth’ is rapidly gaining currency. That’s a serious concern; it makes a mockery of democracy and free speech, destroying the validity of the internet as a forum for useful online debate. Soon we won’t know what’s bot and what’s not. In this post-truth, Trump-tainted era, one could well argue that is already the case.

Shifting realities: The art of propaganda

“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
– Noam Chomsky

Reconfiguring reality

Edward Bernays, who some call the ‘father of propaganda’, had an approach to PR that was ground-breaking in his time. He didn’t just try to push the features of a product or an idea, as so many ad-men were doing in those days. Instead, Bernays created campaigns that attempted to shift society’s configuration of reality, to create fertile conditions and a perceived ‘need’ for the product or idea he’d been tasked to peddle.

For example, when Bernays was marketing bacon to the American public, via the ad vehicle of a ‘hearty breakfast’, he assembled a panel of doctors and persuaded them to give bacon their seal of approval. With expert approval of the product, a shift could now begin in the population’s perceptions of reality, eventually reaching the point where it would see bacon as the perfect breakfast item.

The foundations had been laid; now the selling could happen with ease. Bacon started to fly off the shelves, and soon became embedded in the American social psyche as the perfect, filling breakfast, where it remains to this day, despite much evidence to the contrary. Bernays’ aim was long-term; not to persuade the buyer that they needed the product right now, but to ‘transform the buyer’s very world’ so that the product appeared to be utterly desirable.

From products to politics

Bernays also applied this technique, far more dangerously, to political campaigning. In 1953 he used it on behalf of the United Fruit Company, to orchestrate a campaign that brought down the government of Guatemala and turned it into a fascist dictatorship – all to create more suitable conditions for United Fruit to make more profits. The campaign began by creating and spreading the myth that Guatemala was at risk of communist subversion.

Once this myth became widely believed, the United Fruit Company was able to persuade the Eisenhower administration, via the CIA, to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala. What was in it for United Fruit? An uninterrupted source of bananas and pineapples, picked cheaply by local labour and sold for big profits in the United States.

The newest propaganda 

If propagation of such a myth could cause regime change in the 50s, a pre-digital age, what could similar campaigns achieve today, with so many more tools at propagandists’ disposal? Bernay’s calculating antics with United Fruit offer parallels with today’s alarming rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement. This movement seemingly emerged from nowhere, but from there, became influential enough to propel Donald Trump into the White House, borne on a swelling tide of populist fear, hatred, and bigotry.

Among other things, Trump voters responded to a constant tide of media messages detailing horror stories of terrorist attacks and ISIS atrocities. The link between those stories and Muslims, refugees (mainly Muslims) and foreigners in general was cleverly and cynically drawn.

Once the seeds of this hysteria took root, it became easy to stoke it high enough to shift the public’s perceptions of reality. In short, to create fertile conditions for the ‘alt-right’ to go mainstream and elect their presidential candidate. Or, over the Atlantic, for the public to vote against their interests and decide on Brexit. Both outcomes were so extreme that many didn’t expect them. But, just as Bernays did all those years ago, with products as mundane as bacon and pianos, so these campaigns were once more executed to a tee. The conditions were created, and the ‘product’ quickly sold itself.

Emotion over reason

Critics of Bernays contend that the public is not one big mass that can be easily manipulated, with opinions drip-fed into their passively waiting brains. This critique is especially relevant in these days of independent media, where alternative opinions can be sought at the expense of a simple Google search. It’s valid, to an extent, but on the other hand the power of emotion, especially fear, is such that it can override the logical parts of the human brain. When this happens, the resulting fight or flight response can make even the most logical human being abandon reason for emotion.

The pervasive power of media messages is hastened along even further by the enormous reach of social media, distilled into a concentrated force by people’s own digital echo chambers, until it finally seeps out to unveil a grand result – a fearful population that no longer knows what’s true and what’s not. In this milieu, fear of the ‘other’ seems to make perfect sense. And who better to save us than a self-styled strong leader, a straight-talker who refuses to be bound by political correctness, who makes lofty promises for change that would seem to quell our nastiest fears?

Perhaps it really is all a big propaganda campaign and populations on both sides of the Atlantic have fallen for it. The question remains now – who stands to benefit? And who is running the show?

History repeats itself

Lately, terrorism has started feeling like old news. We no longer see new beheading videos emerge online, nor do we hear reports of attacks in major Western cities. For the time being, Daesh has retreated backstage. A new actor has emerged, one who peddles fear just as effectively as any terrorist group ever did. Of course that’s Donald Trump, the president-elect of the United States.

Trump’s rise to power was a shock for many. Yet there were others who predicted it; and many more who actively welcomed it. He campaigned on a platform of popular fears, goading his audiences to ever-deeper depths of hysteria as they talked of Muslim registers, Mexican walls and abortion bans. Now this cartoonish individual is sitting smugly at the top of the tree; crowned the world’s most powerful leader. In many ways his campaign was smarter than his rival Clinton’s, who thought her political pedigree would carry her to victory. But she was too complacent. Trump’s campaign strategists tested the mood of the nation and anticipated it perfectly. His win was no accident.

Now the world faces an uncertain future. The Trump administration is staffed with individuals who promote division, fear and hatred. The most alarming among them is surely Stephen Bannon, chairman of Breitbart News, an ultra-conservative online platform that promotes white nationalism, stands against immigration, is pro-gun, anti-abortion and heavily against anything that appears politically correct. Bannon is now chief strategist in the Trump administration.

Out of curiosity I opened up Breitbart News while writing this post. I felt slight trepidation at what I might find there, yet sought to understand more about the ‘other side’s’ point of view. It struck me how lively the comment sections were. An interview with Bannon attracted particularly high engagement, with the number on the ‘Show New Comments’ button flying up from zero to 31 in the time it took to type this paragraph. A quick scan of the comments told me that Breitbart readers see politics as war, ‘love the aggressiveness of Mr Bannon’, believe they were treated like ‘helpless peasants’ during the Obama days, and consider Washington D.C. as ‘the enemy’. Many also think that Hillary Clinton should be jailed, for crimes that include ‘treason’ and ‘importing illegals and rapefugees’.

It was a baying mob, aggressive and full of hate. Many commenters believed that events like Sandy Hook and 9/11 were fake, ‘false flags’ as they call them. But what struck me the most was the Breitbart readership’s resentment and outright hatred of the American establishment. Breitbart was founded in 2007, just before Obama took office. I don’t know much about its trajectory since then, but today it has clearly become a force to be reckoned with. So much so that Breitbart readers and their far-right counterparts around the world have begun to challenge the very foundations of liberal democracy.

Much of our current debacle revolves around the simple marketing advice of ‘knowing your audience’. Good marketers know their audience’s pain points, speak their language, and try to solve their concerns. Much of Trump’s rhetoric directly speaks to the type of concerns expressed in the Breitbart comments sections. With an audience as actively engaged as this it’s no wonder he was able to gain power so easily. It’s a perfect alignment between message and recipient. Now there’s a risk that Breitbart-esque views will start to become normalised. Expressing views that espouse hatred and mistrust of Muslims, for example, may become more acceptable than before. Trump’s remarks about setting up a compulsory registry to keep track of Muslims are nothing short of persecution, akin to the Jews in pre-war Germany.

Trump, Breitbart and their ilk have opened up a Pandora’s box in the West. As similar far-right groups rise up across the Western world, harassment of minorities is likely to become more prevalent. That makes the narrative of groups like Daesh far more resonant. Although terrorism has become less prominent in the news for a while now, it’s inevitable that it will soon return in some form or another, likely angrier and more dangerous than before. History will surely repeat itself. Promoting better understanding between all groups in society is the only way to stand a chance of counteracting this situation. That includes those who consider themselves liberals seeking to understand what drives alt-right perspectives, however repugnant that prospect may seem.

Reclaiming a ‘crumbling’ world

 

“Their world is crumbling, ours is being built.”

– Florian Philpott, Front Nationale chief strategist

It’s the second day after the night before and at first everything felt like a bad dream. But it’s really true; the unthinkable has happened. Donald Trump, the man whose face launched a thousand memes, has become president of the United States. We thought it was impossible. Safe in our ivory towers of so-called common sense, insulated in our echo chambers, we were convinced that logic would prevail. We should have learned from Brexit that it would not.

Instead the educated liberal global elites just repeated the same mistake again. Ironically it’s the most popular cliche in the US Congress; that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. This time, we played directly into its hands.

We can argue that those who voted for Trump, as with Brexit, did so based on hatred, misinformation and lies. This is true to an extent, as all politics is subject to a fair amount of propaganda, made even easier in our always-on media age. And there’s plenty of hatred to be found among the average group of Trump supporters. It’s frightening that things have sunk to this point. But the fact remains that large swathes of American (and British) society have legitimate concerns, which the election results have thrust to the forefront. Many of them are racist, bigoted and hateful, but it’s not constructive to ignore or belittle them; and it’s a natural reaction that the more we insult people’s views, the more vehemently they cling to them.

This is where part of the problem lies, in this self-selection into camps of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Labelling Trump supporters as ‘stupid’ and ‘deplorables’ may trip easily off the tongue; after all so many of them express the unpalatable. But if the educated liberal sections of society truly seek social cohesion, what about putting aside the insults and getting to know the driving forces behind these ‘repugnant’ views?

A note now on psychology and human nature. Why do people react so viscerally when their views are challenged? When humans develop an opinion on an issue it tends to become more than just academic. It becomes part of our worldview, which defines our identity. That influences who we are, what we believe and which group we belong to, making any challenge to our identity feel deeply personal. At a sub-conscious level the brain readies itself for an attack on our self-esteem.

That’s why it often feels so difficult to change people’s minds on an issue. Most attempts to persuade simply backfire, no matter how many facts are supplied to support the point. This makes the gulf between opposing views even wider and less possible to bridge. According to behavioural science, the more facts and evidence that are brought to the table, the more adversarial most people become, and the less likely reconciliation becomes. On both sides of the Atlantic this proved to be true. People rejected the experts and went the other way.

So how do we get people to listen to our viewpoints? Clue: it’s not by bombarding them with facts and then insulting them. According to behavioural scientists, the technique of affirmation may hold some hope. If you tell people something positive about themselves, they become more amenable to changing their views on an issue. In contrast, when challenged by evidence, the brain shows more activity in areas linked to emotion, conflict, moral judgments, and reward and pleasure, but far less activity in the area most closely associated with rational thought.

The Democrat campaign in the US and Remain in the UK might have fared better if their strategists had considered the fundamentals of human behaviour. It’s too late for now; Brexit and Trump have taught us a resounding lesson. But going forward the most useful approach would be to try and understand the driving factors that produced this outcome. We need to discover people’s concerns when they voted for Trump. What aspects of the establishment were they rebelling against? What do they truly fear? And what do they hope to achieve in the future? By setting aside our liberal disgust at the racism and bigotry and delving deeper into the issue we can try to salvage this situation and learn something from it.

So get out of your echo chamber and talk to someone who voted for Trump. Ask them why they did it. Don’t insult or belittle them, just listen to their explanation. Even better, get away from social media altogether and go outside. Find real-life people who voted for Trump (or Brexit if you’re in the UK). Talk to them, engage with them, and see if your liberal tolerant views can extend to understanding the other side, no matter how repugnant you find it. In this way we can try to tackle the root causes of fear, and perhaps improve Western social and political systems in the process. Yes, we could also keep on protesting, insulting, and talking about how badly we’re doomed. But that approach will never lessen the divisions.

 

All’s not right with the alt-right

 

“Intolerance betrays want of faith in one’s cause”

– Mahatma Gandhi

The rise of radicalisation has been closely mirrored by the rise of extreme right-wing groups, or “alt-right” (alternative right) as they have come to be known.  The media focuses heavily on the former, but tends to neglect the latter. But they are both part of the same cycle of fear, therefore deserve equal attention and analysis.

What is the alt-right?

The alt-right movement started in the US as a mainly online phenomenon. Its proponents believe that existing Western governments are fatally flawed. They criticise democracy and rule of the people by the people. But this in itself is not the biggest issue. The main facet of alt-right ideology is its obsessive focus on race, specifically on white supremacy and the belief that different races ‘should be kept apart’. This manifests itself clearly in Donald Trump’s claim that the US should build a wall between itself and Mexico. His arguments to ban Muslims from entering the country also fit the alt-right ideology.

Alt-right proponents like Trump because they believe he represents the ultimate in free speech and tearing down the political correctness that they despise so much. The views of the alt-right are seen as anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and white supremacist. According to NPR, the alt-right movement mostly consists of young white men “who see themselves first and foremost as champions of their own demographic. However, apart from their allegiance to their “tribe,” as they call it, their greatest points of unity lie in what they are against: multiculturalism, immigration, feminism and, above all, political correctness.”

Donald Trump is the most prominent figurehead of the alt-right, with his rhetoric of hatred and division. The growth of this movement, which is especially rampant on social media, represents a worrying trend towards fascist viewpoints becoming mainstream. Those heady, hopeful days when Obama got elected feel like a distant memory. It almost feels like the rise of the alt-right is a backlash, driven by their simmering outrage built up over eight years of having a black, Muslim-named president in the White House.

Where did it come from?

Although extreme right-wing ideas of various stripes have been around in America (and to a lesser extent the UK and Europe) for many years, they have largely stayed outside the mainstream. But the Trump campaign has given extreme right ideas greater legitimacy, presenting their proponents with the opportunity to emerge from the woodwork and air their views. Indeed, the leader of Trump’s campaign, Stephen Bannon, until recently also led a conservative website called Breitbart News, which he referred to as “the platform for the alt-right”.

How is alt-right different to mainstream conservatism?

Alt-right followers tend to see conservatives as weak, believing that their support for racist and anti-Semitic ideas is not strong enough. The alt-right coined the term “cuckservative” (‘conservative’ + ‘cuckold’) to disparage mainstream right-wingers. The term refers to white Christian conservatives who supports Jews, minorities and non-whites, supposedly ‘prioritising’ their interests over those of whites. Identity is a key feature of the alt-right, specifically in how white identity is seen in relation (and opposition) to that of the so-called ‘other’.

What are its key messages, and how does it spread them?

The alt-right is still a loose movement made up of various strands, but its ideology and key messages are very clear. They are fixated on promoting white identity and this forms the core of the alt-right ideology. Alt-right supporters want to ‘preserve European-American (i.e. white) culture’ and reject any form of multiculturalism, pluralism or globalist outlooks. They also claim to promote traditional white Christian values (of which hate seems to be one…) Many in the alt-right support the use of propaganda on subjects such as black and immigrant crime, in their mission to ‘protect’ whites from potential ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Like their counterparts in Isis, many alt-right members are young and internet-savvy. They know how to use the power of the digital world to amplify their messages. Alt-right proponents have a noisy online presence and frequently use trolling as a way to get their message across. In fact, some justify their trolling as a necessary response to perceived ‘bullying’ by liberals, or SJWs (‘social justice warriors’) as they are dubbed.

What threat does alt-right pose?

The rising popularity of the alt-right represents a wider trend towards right-wing social attitudes that has been spreading over the Western world in recent years, driving the rise of Trump and the Brexit vote. The risks stem from deepening of social divisions, increasing hate (especially that directed against Muslims), and making racist ideas become mainstream. This promotes a rise in hate crime and increased victimisation of vulnerable members of society. At the same time, the increase in aggressive right-wing attitudes promotes the exact same kind of social division that groups like Isis seek to ignite. Fearful and divided societies turn against one another, producing disillusioned individuals seeking a cause greater than themselves. This is where extremists come from. And we must not forget, extremists are not only Isis, but also alt-right.

How can it be counteracted?

Liberals often feel themselves to be superior to the ‘barbaric’ alt-right. Arguably, both groups could benefit from understanding what drives the other side. Liberals tend to live in bubbles, surrounded by people with similar worldviews. The social media echo chamber effect only amplifies this effect, excluding all dissenting viewpoints from the user’s immediate social media feed. But we need to understand what drives people to certain views. They believe that white identity is at stake; but what has caused them to think so? Are their views rooted in fear of losing their identity?