Category: Propaganda

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 exactly is astroturfing?

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?

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?

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.

All’s not right with the alt-right

The rise of Islamic radicalisation has been mirrored by the rise of extreme right-wing groups, or the so-called “alt-right”. The media focuses heavily on the former, but tends to neglect the latter. 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’.

In fact, white supremacy is a more fitting description for alt-right ideology. It manifests 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 narrative. Alt-right proponents in the US support Trump because they believe he represents the ultimate in free speech. He’s the equivalent of sending a wrecking ball crashing into the establishment, tearing down the political correctness that the alt-right despise so much.

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 Barack Obama was elected now feel like a distant memory. It is as if the rise of the alt-right is a backlash, driven by simmering outrage built up over eight years of having a black man with a Muslim name 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 stayed largely outside the mainstream. But the Trump campaign has given extreme right ideas greater legitimacy, presenting an opportunity for their supporters to bring their views into the public sphere. Indeed, Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, is also the editor of the conservative website Breitbart News, which he referred to as “the platform for the alt-right”.

How is alt-right ideology different to mainstream conservatism?

Alt-right followers tend to see conservatives as weak, believing 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 support Jews, minorities and non-whites, supposedly ‘prioritising’ their interests over those of whites. A focus on identity is a key feature of the alt-right, specifically about how white identity is seen in relation to (and in 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 clear. They fixate on promoting white identity; 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 globalism. They claim to promote traditional white Christian values. Many in the alt-right support the use of propaganda for subjects such as black and immigrant crime, in their mission to ‘protect’ whites from potential ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Like their fellow extremists 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 have been dubbed.

What threat does the 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 directed against Muslims), and causing racist ideas to 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. Extremists are not only brown men joining ISIS, but also white ones joining the alt-right.

How can the alt-right be counteracted?

Liberals often feel they are superior to the ‘barbaric’ alt-right. Both groups could benefit from gaining a better understanding of what drives the other side. These days people tend to live in bubbles, surrounded by those with similar world views. Social media 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. If they believe white identity is at stake; what has caused them to think so? Are their views rooted in a genuine fear of losing their identity? How can this be mitigated without harming others?