Astroturfers and Space Cadets

Poor George Monbiot is even miserabler than usual:

On the Guardian’s environment site in particular, and to a lesser extent on threads across the Guardian’s output, considered discussion is being drowned in a tide of vituperative gibberish. A few hundred commenters appear to be engaged in a competition to reach the outer limits of stupidity. They post so often and shout so loudly that intelligent debate appears to have fled from many threads, as other posters have simply given up in disgust. I’ve now reached the point at which I can’t be bothered to read beyond the first page or so of comments. It is simply too depressing.

His problem is that lots of commenters don’t agree with him. And Monbiot flatters himself that there can be only reason for that – someone must be paying them to do so:

As I documented extensively in my book Heat, and as sites like DeSmogBlog and Exxonsecrets show, there is a large and well-funded campaign by oil, coal and electricity companies to insert their views into the media.

They have two main modes of operating: paying people to masquerade as independent experts, and paying people to masquerade as members of the public. These fake “concerned citizens” claim to be worried about a conspiracy by governments and scientists to raise taxes and restrict their freedoms in the name of tackling a non-existent issue. This tactic is called astroturfing. It’s a well-trodden technique, also deployed extensively by the tobacco industry. You pay a public relations company to create a fake grassroots (astroturf) movement, composed of people who are paid for their services. They lobby against government attempts to regulate the industry and seek to drown out and discredit people who draw attention to the issues the corporations want the public to ignore.

Considering the lengths to which these companies have gone to insert themselves into publications where there is a risk of exposure, it is inconceivable that they are not making use of the Guardian’s threads, where they are protected by the posters’ anonymity. Some of the commenters on these threads have been paid to disseminate their nonsense, but we have no means, under the current system, of knowing which ones they are.

Monbiot even once went as far as challenging one of the commenters, who ignored him. Which has got to prove something:

Two months ago I read some comments by a person using the moniker scunnered52, whose tone and content reminded me of material published by professional deniers. I called him out, asking “Is my suspicion correct? How about providing a verifiable identity to lay this concern to rest?” I repeated my challenge in another thread. He used distraction and avoidance in his replies, but would not answer or even address my question, which gave me the strong impression that my suspicion was correct.

As it happens, we’ve been making the odd venture into Comment is Free discussions recently, and the funny thing is that the vast majority of our time on there has been spent fending off accusations that we are paid deniers, astroturfers, corporate sock-puppets, and that we’ve been posting under multiple aliases as part of an orchestrated campaign.

Monbiot’s preoccupation with astroturfers and the like sits hilariously with the fact that it is environmentalism that claims to be the grassroots movement trying to be heard above the din of the well-funded denial machine. The truth is of course that environmental orthodoxy is being driven from the top down, and comprises a range of corporate interests, policy-makers, media types, academics, NGO’s and private-school activists. The group it has most spectacularly failed to win over is the electorate. There’s a whole lot of people out there who disagree vehemently with Monbiot – too many for any denial machine to be able to afford to pay.

This failure is explained by the Monbiots of this world as the result of the influence of ‘deniers’, of course. Deniers have accordingly become the key antagonists in environmental mythology. But rather than taking on the arguments of the deniers, George has a fantasy battle in his own head. These fantasy deniers say so much more about George than they say about the real world.

26 thoughts on “Astroturfers and Space Cadets”

  1. AGW alarmists liken sceptics to the paid shills of the tobacco industry who denied the dangers of smoking. However, a person who was fully aware of the dangers of smoking could still be a paid shill for the tobacco industry, because he could take precautions (like – er – not smoking) to ensure that his own health would not be at risk.

    Why would someone who believed in catastrophic AGW (or any other threat to the entire planet) claim otherwise for mere money? What use is money if the planet is wrecked?

    By the way, my reason for thinking that catastrophic AGW is a hoax is that governments don’t seem to be treating it as an emergency.

    We already have a way of producing energy in the amounts we need without CO2 emissions – it’s called “nuclear fission”. Why haven’t governments declared martial law and began constructing nuclear reactors as fast as possible, cutting whatever corners need to be cut to speed up construction, and shooting dead any anti-nuclear protesters who try to stop them?

    If we were faced with catastrophic AGW, it would be the obvious thing to do. Extreme AGW alarmists such as Lovelock predict desertification of huge areas of the planet, killing billions through famine. Compared to that, another Chernobyl (or even another hundred Chernobyls) would be peanuts.

  2. George you make an interesting case for atomic energy, though we think it’s not necessary to use the prospect of climate change to develop it.

    Do you think that fears about weapons proliferation might stand in the way of fission become a feasible way of powering the world? Is this a case of two different forms of ‘the politics of fear’ standing in the way of development?

  3. Your past posts demonstrated that the alarmist NGO budget was hundreds if not thousands of dollars greater than the oil / tobacco budget delusion.

    Could you ask George where consequently, are the thousands of paid Green commenters reacting to these sceptic bloggers and why they are failing to drown them out?

    Or maybe why, if he is so sure Green dogma is generated and supported by such a huge grassroots movement, how come the sceptics are having so much of a say?

  4. What is really strange is that Monbiot’s accusation of paid manipulation of comments is all aimed at one single poster (scunnered52) who has been accused in three separate articles, on absolutely no evidence. He doesn’t even fit the definition of astroturfer which Monbiot gives.
    I’ve posted my interpretation of what I think happened in comments to this article at 11.01am (page 8 of comments) and followup posts at 4.30pm and 7.17pm.
    Briefly: in comments to the original article, on 20/5/9
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2009/may/20/climate-change-denier-mit
    three sceptics, hamlet4, scunnered52, and myself all posted in quick succession. Hamlet4 and scunnered52 criticised climate models, and I pointed out that the MIT research which Monbiot quoted with approval was financed by Exxon and other oil companies.
    This obviously riled Monbiot, because just 6 minutes later, he replied, asking for evidence that the MIT research was being tainted by its funding. Only he mistakenly addressed the challenge to “Halmet4” (sic) instead of to me. In consequence, I didn’t notice Monbiot’s challenge, and Hamlet 4 replied, pointing out that Monbiot’s reply was irrelevant to his (Hamlet4’s) post .
    Eleven minutes after his post to ”Halmet4” Monbiot launched his bizarre accusation that scunnered52 was an astroturfer. Bizarre, because scunnered52 was just one of a dozen sceptical commenters, his opinions brief, science-based and to the point, and Monbiot gave absolutely no reasons to back up his claim.
    Here’s my theory. Monbiot realised he’d made a silly mistake, and that he’d look even sillier if he went back and corrected it, so he made the accusation as a diversionary tactic.
    It’s just occurred to me that it would have made much more sense to accuse ME of astroturfing, since my comment, though basically trivial (I was in effect accusing Monbiot of hypocrisy for attacking Big Oil funding for sceptics, while himself quoting research funded by Big Oil) could be seen as more harmful to Monbiot’s reputation than a straight criticism of climate models. But I was the only one of the three sceptical commenters to be using my real name, so there might be a question of libel.
    In the panic of the moment, and having already made two clear Freudian slips (mistaking, and mispelling, someone’s name is a clear sign of unconscious antagonism) did Monbiot make a third, by accusing scunnered52 instead of me?
    I’ve asked over at CiF, but you know their slogan: “Comment is Free, but Facts are Secret.”

  5. George you make an interesting case for atomic energy, though we think it’s not necessary to use the prospect of climate change to develop it.

    I think there are valid non-AGW reasons for abandoning fossil fuels. Coal is too polluting, and oil and gas are too geopolitically problematic. Nuclear fuels by contrast are so energy-dense that a country could stockpile decades-worth of supplies – this would make imperialism based on control of energy supplies impossible.

    Do you think that fears about weapons proliferation might stand in the way of fission become a feasible way of powering the world? Is this a case of two different forms of ‘the politics of fear’ standing in the way of development?

    Perhaps, but I regard it as a red herring.

    In the 1960s the rhetoric of Mao Zedong was even more bellicose than Ahmadinejad’s today, and the US and USSR even considered a joint pre-emptive strike against China to prevent it getting nuclear weapons. Ten years later, and China did have nuclear weapons, but the United States was if anything allied to it against the Soviets.

    Mad aggressive dictators tend to turn into sane and cautious ones as soon as they split atoms. The only real threat of nuclear attack comes from non-state-backed terrorist groups, but they can be forestalled simply by tight security on highly-enriched uranium (which isn’t used for nuclear power anyway).

    Plutonium – even weapons-grade – cannot be detonated without an implosion device, which requires precision engineering be beyond the capabilities of a terrorist group.

  6. If it’s astro-turfing groups that Mad George is looking for maybe he should take a look under ‘Environment’ on fakecharities.org.

  7. Geoff, I’ve been following the George Monbiot/scunnered52 exchanges with some bemusement. I can’t for the life of me think why George should focus on this one commenter (and devote an entire blog entry to the matter.) Except… The Guardian logs everyone’s IP addresses – maybe George got one of the IT guys to do a whois, and scunnered52 turned out to be posting from an energy company? That’s the only reasonable explanation I can come up with. But I agree – bizarre…

  8. to Alex at #8
    That makes a lot of sense. It could be an energy company, or there could be a hundred other clues in his e-mail address to arouse Monbiot’s suspicions. If you look at scunnered52’s posts, it makes no sense to pick him out. He is really Mr Average Sceptic – no cleverer or stupider than the rest of us.
    It was only today that I followed Monbiot’s link to the original article, and was surprised at the coincidence that his calling out of scunnered52 occurred just a few minutes after what I consider my best tactical move in the climate wars, my revelation of Monbiot’s approval of Big Oil-funded research. By putting my post at the centre of my explanation, I risk ad hominem accusations of self aggrandissement over at CiF. But for the moment, everything’s gone very quiet…

  9. “The group it has most spectacularly failed to win over is the electorate.”

    How did you reach that conclusion? Mr Obama was very clear about his green agenda, he won the election and is now President of the United States. Similary Mr Rudd , the Australian Prime Minister. Even David Cameron is going green in the hope of winning votes.

    Green is definately top of the political agenda, all the (elected)G8 leaders are at it.

    So.. are you going to be present at the Copenhagen conference or not? We would be most interested to hear your arguments.

  10. I don’t support the green agenda, but if I’d been American I would certainly have voted for Obama. McCain was a dangerous warmonger, while Palin was a loony fundamentalist.

    Voting in a two-party system is normally a case of choosing the lesser of two evils…

  11. @SJones

    “Mr Obama was very clear about his green agenda, he won the election and is now President of the United States.”

    I would say that the ‘green agenda’ influence on the voter would be cancelled out by his opponent John McCains strong stance on green issues which riled a large part of his own Republican party.

    And Rudd won against a very unpopular Howard, whereas the ousting of the Green friendly Helen Clark in New Zealand last year doesn’t particularily signify an anti-green vote by the public either.

    I think it is hard to measure since the rhetoric is very much easy constant background noise for most politicians, no one has made it the predominant single issue in an election or referendum yet. Looking forward to that day 🙂

  12. I joked on a fark.com forum that some of the realclimate/desmogblog supporters occupy all the climate change threads so reliably that one could be forgiven for suspecting they were paid to be on there!
    I find desmogblog and rc in particular to be consummate projectionists – nearly everything the accuse others of are so perfectly applicable to themselves.

    SJones, Obama didn’t win on any green agenda. Bush had just run the economy into the ground and the electorate wrongly thought that Obama would bring change.

    As for IP addresses coming from energy companies – could always be someone goofing off at work too.

  13. The question to ask Mr. Monbiot would be, “So,assume these folks ARE paid to comment skeptically, what are they saying that is incorrect, and can you prove THAT?”

    Questioning somebody’s motives is ALWAYS a diversionary tactic when what you are defending hasn’t a leg of logic to stand upon.

  14. I totally agree with J.Ewing. One of the strange things that seems to have been forgotten and thoroughly gone by the wayside during the crescendo of modern day discussions about climate/environment/resources/population/pollution is the fact that what the opponent in a discussion may say, may still be worth looking at no matter what their speculative possible moral origin.

    Now having taken the time to follow GeoffChambers links in more detail, like other posters have said it looks like George got the nod that a certain poster came from an IP address identified as unsavoury by some criteria that I and maybe others could guess about. i.e. oil company, Adam Smith a filling station , who knows? etc.

    Monbiot is summoning up a realm of thought here that clearly enjoys a bastion of unquestionable truth. Where has that been heard before? A question for Richard Dawkins perhaps?

    It really seems silly of G.M. to do this though, because when he does this, I think even to the uninitiated ( most people not as obsessed as we or G.M 😉 ) he seems to strike a discordant note.

    I remind myself I sound like Claude Rains in Casablanca – noticing gambling at Ricks – when I claim to be shocked by this behaviour 🙂

  15. “They have two main modes of operating: paying people to masquerade as independent experts, and paying people to masquerade as members of the public. These fake “concerned citizens” claim to be worried about a conspiracy by governments and scientists to raise taxes and restrict their freedoms in the name of tackling a non-existent issue. This tactic is called astroturfing. It’s a well-trodden technique, also deployed extensively by the tobacco industry. You pay a public relations company to create a fake grassroots (astroturf) movement, composed of people who are paid for their services. They lobby against government attempts to regulate the industry and seek to drown out and discredit people who draw attention to the issues the corporations want the public to ignore.”

    Wow. Talk about paranoia and conspiracy-mongering! It’s all about The Other Guy, you see. He’s the one trying to derail us, try to make it look like we’re the bad guys here, but we’ll prevail! We won’t let those bastards grind us down! Even if we end up looking like our sanity is of questionable quality while doing it.

    [Okay. I’ve said my mean comment. Now where’s my paycheque?]

  16. Among the 1200+ comments (!) to the article, I found the most interesting was this by gpwayne, an AGW believer 11 Jul 09, 8:02am. It give a convincing analysis of Monbiot’s motives, without descending to name-calling

    “(…) In the last year, it has dawned on ACC advocates like George that the governments are powerless and will not fix this problem, or in fact do very much about it at all. He is driven to rage and despair – I would be too if I believed the worst of the prognostications and believed I had a duty to ‘save the world’, which of course the leading lights in this little farrago must feel. They are failing in their duty to get the great and good to pull their noses out of trough long enough to realise the sky is indeed falling, and it’s driving them mad. I feel for them, understand their desperation and the guilt I think goes with it, but now they want someone to blame, someone they can point a finger at and say “see, it’s your fault, not mine. I did my best…”
    And this is why in the last year, the subject has changed. The principle topic is no longer climate change, but denialism…The climate change debate is no longer about mitigation, because nobody well informed on the subject believes for one second that we are going to effect any substantial change in our consuming habits, as the lack of meaningful agreement in the run-up meetings to Copenhagen are making all too clear. Things are going to get ugly now, because all that’s left is to try and find someone defenceless enough on which pin the blame for whatever happens next. Right now, that’s Scunnered, and it’s a form of cheap, hectoring, self-righteous bullying I think is a disgrace. George, you’ve really let me and the agenda down …”

  17. Rupert Murdochs speech on reducing emissions at News Corp: http://www.woopidoo.com/biography/rupert-murdoch/green-speech.htm

    If there was a billion dollars a year spent on skeptics groups it wouldn’t match News Corporation propaganda. Once upon a time it was possible to argue that skeptics groups were well funded, but nowadays the majority of the mass media supports the AGW theory. I’m an environmentalist, but George Monbiot needs to cut the crap. It’s not like CIF is ITN News. Even if there are a few paid skeptics, there are hundreds of thousands of paid environmentalists who openly comment on internet forums, including George Monbiot himself. What is he on about?

  18. “Do you think that fears about weapons proliferation might stand in the way of fission become a feasible way of powering the world?”

    They shouldn’t do. Bear in mind that existing reactors are mostly based on 30+ year old designs specifically intended for bomb-making. There are about a dozen modern designs that have been arranged to make this far more difficult. See for example this discussion of the IFR design.

    http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA378.html

    The primary problems are environmentalists, and the economic cost of meeting all the safety regulations piled on by environmentalists.

    Everything else is just engineering.

  19. Bear in mind that existing reactors are mostly based on 30+ year old designs specifically intended for bomb-making.

    True of British reactors, but not true of the PWRs that are now the most common type of nuclear reactor worldwide – those were based on designs originally intended for submarine propulsion.

    Oh, and I don’t think that “environmentalists” per se are the biggest obstacle to nuclear expansion. I think that corrupt politicians in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry (like former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder) are a bigger problem.

    Another possible problem is the US Dollar, which since the end of Bretton-Woods in the 1970s has been effectively backed by oil. Perhaps the Americans suppress nuclear power for fear that it would collapse the dollar?

  20. George,

    Point taken. Designed for submarines, but often built with the intention of making bombs. 🙂

    Corrupt politicians are always a problem. But if there’s money to be made in nuclear, why wouldn’t the fossil fuel industry move into it? And is there no mining industry to compete for pocketable politicians? Why does everyone seem to believe that Exxon secretly runs the world? And why do they allow the AGW panic to have the political traction it does?

    I’ve heard a rumour that some guy invented a way to turn water into petrol using a handful of herbs, but the oil giants bought the patent, locked it up in a safe, and kept it quiet. Obviously they wouldn’t want to use it themselves, because it’s so much easier and more profitable to drill for it.

    Although I suppose it would explain why the oil hasn’t run out despite the environmentalists telling us it would all be gone by about 1980. Hmmm…
    🙂

  21. J. Ewing:
    The question to ask Mr. Monbiot would be, “So,assume these folks ARE paid to comment skeptically, what are they saying that is incorrect, and can you prove THAT?”

    Exactly. Looking for motivations just means there isn’t enough evidence to make a clear case. And motivations are going to be different anyway. An extreme environmentalist has their whole ego wrapped up in their belief system. But we don’t dismiss them purely on that. If AGW is true, then they will in effect be doing us a service. They are like a sub-routine in humanity’s culture, exploring and promoting and warning us of one possibility. Meanwhile others care more about the economy, and other care more about other stuff.

    The original call of the enlightenment was to “dare to think for yourselves”. And sure we’re all motivated to think different things and take different perspectives. But in the end, which perspective is the most correct for a particular issue or problem? The scientific method leads to that. You can be evil and practice the scientific method and despite being evil, if you did it right your experiment can be reproduced by someone else, even a good person.

  22. Stevo,

    Why doesn’t the fossil fuel industry back nuclear? One reason is that because of all the capital investment (pipelines, coal trains, deals with dictators controlling oil and gas fields) which would be worthless in a nuclear world.

    And I suspect much of the bribery of politicians comes not from Exxon or other stereotypical “Big Oil” companies, but from fuel suppliers for whom the effect of nuclear expansion would be entirely negative. In the case of Gerhard Schroeder, it was Gazprom (the Russian nationalized gas supplier) which bribed him.

    As long as nuclear power (the only real competitor to fossil fuels) is safely suppressed, AGW campaigners are no real threat to the fossil fuel industry because the environmentalist ambition of rationing energy is violently unpopular with the public.

    I wonder how much money anti-nuclear organizations are taking from the fossil fuel industry? In the United States, the Sierra Club’s campaign against dams (which began for traditional conservationist reasons) received a big boost from Big Oil in California, who wanted to sell gas for electricity generation and therefore wanted to curb hydro-electricity (which was then the main competitor to fossil fuels for this purpose).

    Another example is that a lot of the push for offshore wind turbines comes from companies which traditionally built offshore oil rigs. The skills involved are much the same…

  23. I emailed the link to Monbiot’s article to Exxon Mobile and told them that I too occasionally make sceptical comments about AGW so could I have some money please. They didn’t even reply!

  24. Stevo, time for a quick lesson in nuclear reactor technology.

    No-one in their right mind would use a PWR for bomb making. Uranium must be enriched before it can be used in a PWR reactor, and removing the fuel rods (in order to extract the plutonium) requires that the reactor be shut down for about a week. In order to make weapons grade plutonium (90%+ plutonium-239), the fuel rods must be left in the reactor for no more than a month, otherwise too much of the plutonium would become the heavier plutonium-240 isotope. This would mean that any bomb constructed with this plutonium would be a dud.

    Much better to use a graphite moderated reactor — like the British Magnox, which was indeed designed with both electricity generation and bomb making in mind. A gas cooled, graphite moderated reactor can make every neutron count, allowing it to run on natural uranium and eliminating the need for enrichment. Also, the fuel rods can be removed while the reactor is running, as it operates at atmospheric pressure.

    The reason that submarine engines use PWR reactors is because water is much better at heat transfer than gases, so they can be much smaller for a given power output. This is critical for a submarine, but doesn’t really matter for a bomb factory. 🙂

    As for your “water into petrol” comment, the best argument to refute such nonsensical claims would be “why aren’t the Chinese using it? It’s not as if they’d care about Western patents…”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *