Monday, September 22, 2008

Comment Type #40: Astroturfing

"As a life-long conservative Christian, I'm concerned..."

Astroturf was the wonder product of the space age, constantly green grass that never required mowing or watering. It was amazing! Baseball and football fields installed the stuff to save money and it seemed like a brilliant move for indoor stadiums such as the Astrodome. Players hated it. The ball skimmed across that stuff like ice, it was rock hard, your knees hurt from running, your body hurt from diving to catch a ball. It was ugly, painful, and brutal stuff. Now days the only place you see that kind of thing is on the porch of some houses and motor homes.

There's another kind of astroturf, however. The term for this was coined by David Axelrod, who used it to promote businesses. It was done by inserting PR messages in the public in the guise of "concerned" citizens worried about something. Here's a bit from Business Week explaining how it works:
From the same River North address, Axelrod operates a second business, ASK Public Strategies, that discreetly plots strategy and advertising campaigns for corporate clients to tilt public opinion their way. He and his partners consider virtually everything about ASK to be top secret, from its client roster and revenue to even the number of its employees. But customers and public records confirm that it has quarterbacked campaigns for the Chicago Children's Museum, ComEd, Cablevision, and AT&T.

ASK's predilection for operating in the shadows shows up in its work. On behalf of ComEd and Comcast, the firm helped set up front organizations that were listed as sponsors of public-issue ads. Industry insiders call such practices "Astroturfing," a reference to manufacturing grassroots support. Alderman Brendan Reilly of the 42nd Ward, who has been battling the Children's Museum's relocation plans, describes ASK as "the gold standard in Astroturf organizing. This is an emerging industry, and ASK has made a name for itself in shaping public opinion and manufacturing public support."
Astroturfing in comments works the same way. The commenter pretends to be a concerned member of the Republican party - presenting themselves as a "concerned Christian conservative" and merely asking questions or proposing a concern, then ending up with the inevitable conclusion: surely a vote for Obama is the only choice.

Here's one example from James Taranto's Best of the Web:
As a Republican and strong McCain supporter in 2000, I was disappointed and saddened in 2004 when McCain permanently traded in his maverick credentials and sold out his principles to support George W. Bush. I now find it equally disturbing to see him gamble our security and future with a reckless choice for a running mate.

Gov. Sarah Palin clearly has a bright future in politics. She may even have the depth and diversity of experience to be a vice-presidential candidate four years from now.

The McCain ticket, with all of its newfound "freshness" and despite all of the claims, has quickly devolved into the politics-as-usual that we have come to expect in the last eight years. McCain and Palin quickly emerged from the rhetoric of their convention as the uniters of dividers.

I talk politics with a lot of people from all walks of life. I find it compelling that many of the ordinary Republicans I talk to understand that their families cannot afford another four years like the last eight. We all deserve better.
Over the last week, any right leaning blog of note has been inundated with these kind of comments. Every single one follows the same pattern, as noted by Ace at his HQ:
  1. Establish yourself as a long term conservative, usually Christian
  2. Repeat a DNC talking point about Governor Palin or Senator McCain
  3. Conclude with a call to vote for Senator Obama.
They all sign off with a white bread folksy down home name like John or Mary. Some even stick around trying to continue their post, arguing with people. Gosh, no I've long been a conservative, I voted for George Washington! I was at the cross and became a Christian in 1500 BC! I just can't stand by any longer and watch what's happening!

These comments are technically a subset of the Mole, more specifically a Moby (a false conservative) but are a specific class, a distinct type within that category. Instead of just being a leftist trying to make Republicans or conservatives look bad by posing as one and posting hateful, insane, or outrageous things, this kind tries to fool people into believing nonsense because, well shucks, I'm just one of you!

On the radio, Rush Limbaugh coined these "Seminar Callers" after the Democratic Party - I'm certain Axelrod's organization was behind this too - literally set up seminars in cities to teach people how to call in right wing radio shows and get on the air with their questions. Each one was taught to claim to be a long-time Republican, a big fan of (insert host here) and to know the idioms of the radio show, such as Limbaugh's "dittos." They would start out with the same basic mantra, I heard several and it was transparently hilarious, and then launch into "tough questions" that these "conservative talk show hosts never deal with" (demonstrating a lack of actually listening to the show). It would inevitably be a scripted and boring repetition of left wing talking points, something straight out of the DNC faxes and they'd end up looking silly by the end of the call.

With the rise of the blogs, they're trying the same thing with comments, Astroturfing them. Its brilliant, in a bong-circle college student sort of way. It is the kind of thing a lot of stoned guys without any contrary voices would come up with and decide would solve the world's problems. Dude, that would work! In real life, it ends up being an object of derision.

Astroturfing is just bad every way it is done, unless it is meant as satire and mockery. Just don't. People see through it in an instant, primarily because the kind of person who'd try this - left or right leaning - is not the kind who really understands at all what the other side thinks or why so they come across as clueless. Like a suburban white kid trying to act like a gang banger dude, I saw MTV cribs! Just don't, for your own sake.

*thanks to Ace and Treacher for the info used here.

This is part of the Profiles in Commenting series.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've seen the astroturfers use the "As a citizen of (insert foreign country here), I really hope Barack Obama wins this election blah blah blah."

As if we care what "concerned Australians" think.

- adam