George Mon-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-biot is convinced that ‘astroturfing’ outfits are influencing on-line discussion.
The tobacco industry does it, the US Air Force clearly wants to … astroturfing – the use of sophisticated software to drown out real people on web forums – is on the rise. How do we stop it?
‘Astroturfing’ is, I think, one of those words like ‘cult’, which, is especially hard to define, and even harder to use with precision.
What is a cult? On the one hand, we can think of cults which we know exist to extort money (and other things) from people by using illegitimate means of persuasion: brainwashing, bullying, false promises. But on the other hand, to make premature statements about someone taken in by a cult, might be to say that they have been duped, that their rational and critical faculties were compromised or insufficient, or that they are simply stupid. So while it’s easy to say that a cult manipulates people by exerting undue influence over them, we run the risk also of diminishing the putative cult-victim in just the same way that that the cult has. We say they are not complete, they are unable to look after themselves, and that they need our protection. The cult-buster risks reproducing the techniques employed by the cult; he promises us protection from them and their distortions or ignorance of the truth. The hazard is in making hasty assumptions about what other people think, why they think or believe certain things, and how such beliefs are turned into actions. To determine that people act in certain ways because of some undue influence or other is necessarily to leap to premature conclusions, unless we know the individuals concerned intimately. That is to say, only somebody who knows another person very well can say that an idea or action is out-of-character. And even then, to claim that something is uncharacteristic, and therefore the result of some illegitimate influence over their will is again to presuppose perfect knowledge about what somebody’s will ought to be, and the content of the persuasion.
None of this is in defence of cults, of course. There are horrific instances of cults, some leading to mass-murder and suicide. The point is to emphasise that much human behaviour involves persuasion and grouping of various kinds. Associations of individuals are defined by the ideas that they have in common. Those ideas give groups and their members identity. The point at which this normal, positive and rewarding process becomes toxic is not straightforwardly defined, and is certainly not captured by the term ‘cult’. Persuading, and being persuaded; joining and identification with groups are normal human experiences. There is something wrong, then, with seeing normal human relationships in such a way.
And so it is, I think, with this word ‘Astroturf’. It is as ambiguous as the word ‘cult’. Says Monbiot:
Every month more evidence piles up, suggesting that online comment threads and forums are being hijacked by people who aren’t what they seem. The anonymity of the web gives companies and governments golden opportunities to run astroturf operations: fake grassroots campaigns that create the impression that large numbers of people are demanding or opposing particular policies. This deception is most likely to occur where the interests of companies or governments come into conflict with the interests of the public. For example, there’s a long history of tobacco companies creating astroturf groups to fight attempts to regulate them.
The evidence of the ‘long history of tobacco companies creating astroturf groups’ is an article George wrote in 2006.
ExxonMobil is the world’s most profitable corporation. Its sales now amount to more than $1bn a day. It makes most of this money from oil, and has more to lose than any other company from efforts to tackle climate change. To safeguard its profits, ExxonMobil needs to sow doubt about whether serious action needs to be taken on climate change. But there are difficulties: it must confront a scientific consensus as strong as that which maintains that smoking causes lung cancer or that HIV causes Aids. So what’s its strategy?
The website Exxonsecrets.org, using data found in the company’s official documents, lists 124 organisations that have taken money from the company or work closely with those that have. These organisations take a consistent line on climate change: that the science is contradictory, the scientists are split, environmentalists are charlatans, liars or lunatics, and if governments took action to prevent global warming, they would be endangering the global economy for no good reason. The findings these organisations dislike are labelled “junk science”. The findings they welcome are labelled “sound science”.
Monbiot returns to this claim again and again: that Exxon has distorted the public’s perception of the science. But as this blog has pointed out many times, Exxonsecrets’ grubby investigation failed to turn up the dirt it was expecting. Last year, Greenpeace — who ran the Exxonsecrets campaign — congratulated itself for exposing the ‘secret’:
And indeed, over the past four years, Exxon has reduced its grants to prominent climate change deniers from the peak spending in 2005 of over $3.5M. Greenpeace’s research shows a $2.2 million reduction in annual funding to these organizations, down to roughly $1.3 million in 2009. The number of groups known to be funded has dropped from 51 to 24 between 2005 and 2009.
The thing that Monbiot and Greenpeace have never explained is, why they have made such a big deal out of such small change? The peak $3.5M/year allegedly spent on climate change denial represents less than 0.001% of its $billion/day sales, the profits from the remainder of which were apparently threatened by the policies Monbiot and Greenpeace wanted. Wouldn’t it be worth spending just a bit more? It’s such small beer, yet the conspiracy theory put about by Monbiot and Greenpeace persisted. This cash, he argued, was used to create fake campaigning organisations, established by the people involved in the same campaign to protect tobacco-company profits:
Philip Morris, APCO said, needed to create the impression of a “grassroots” movement – one that had been formed spontaneously by concerned citizens to fight “overregulation”. It should portray the danger of tobacco smoke as just one “unfounded fear” among others, such as concerns about pesticides and cellphones. APCO proposed to set up “a national coalition intended to educate the media, public officials and the public about the dangers of ‘junk science’. Coalition will address credibility of government’s scientific studies, risk-assessment techniques and misuse of tax dollars … Upon formation of Coalition, key leaders will begin media outreach, eg editorial board tours, opinion articles, and brief elected officials in selected states.”
… the “coalition” created by Philip Morris, was the first and most important of the corporate-funded organisations denying that climate change is taking place. It has done more damage to the campaign to halt it than any other body.
… This, it seems, is how Monbiot understands ‘astroturf’ organisations.
But does it not also provide us with an adequate description of many environmental campaigning organisations? Some simple substitution of terms suggests that ‘astroturf’ might begin to be too broad a category to apply to just the one side of the debate:
“a national coalition intended to educate the media, public officials and the public about the dangers of CLIMATE CHANGE. … Upon formation of Coalition, key leaders will begin media outreach, eg editorial board tours, opinion articles, and brief elected officials in selected states.”
Surely that could be any green group which receives much funding… Millions and millions of $, £ and € more than Exxon ever spent on the same… from organisations like the UN, the EU, and the UK government to do precisely that same thing? Isn’t that what environmental NGO’s seek also to do?
If it is, then, precisely what NGOs do, what sense does the term ‘astroturf’ bring anything useful to a discussion about the respective sides’ strategies in the climate debate? We can see the problem, of course, with the public agenda being influenced by parties passing themselves off as somehow better reflecting public opinion than their counterparts, but isn’t this form of theatre simply a fact of political life in the 21st century? Isn’t the problem not that there are fake ‘grassroots’ organisations, but that there aren’t really any genuine grassroots organisations at all? Monbiot seems to hint that astroturfing ‘deniers’ serve commercial interests. But there are plenty of cases of the same happening in the other camp.
One such organisation, for instance is Embrace My Planet, which aims to be “a movement of ordinary people who are supporting renewable energy in the UK, enabling you to make your opinions known to politicians and the media”, but is in fact “an arms-length campaign of RenewableUK (formerly BWEA), the trade association for renewable energy suppliers in Britain.” As ‘arms-length’ as Embrace want to claim that they are, anyone who understands Top Gear’s appeal would know how much more quickly the non-renewable energy sector could, should it desire to, mobilise many thousands more people, with much less effort. There are at least as many petrol-heads as there are Gaia-botherers, and there are a great many more people who, if nothing else, merely understand the utility of cars, roads, and fossil fuel. Monbiot’s claim on the moral high ground is precarious enough, and to remain there he has to turn logistical somersaults to claim to represent the public interest whilst denying the fact that the public know their own interest.
Real Climategate Blogger Barry Woods has a couple of posts recently on what might reasonably be called Astroturfing outfits, from the greener side of the fence. Woods points out that The Carbon Brief website, set up apparently put writers and journalists in touch with scientists has a clearly partial agenda:
On further investigation, the website demonstrates that they appear to be nothing but advocates of consensus climate change policy. A look at their further resources page gives the first two links as the Climate Science Rapid Response Team and RealClimate and it also include Climate Progress. There are no sceptical or even lukewarm website or blog links of any kind.
“Our team of researchers will provide a rapid response service for climate science stories. We go straight to peer-reviewed science and the relevant scientists to get their opinions” – The Carbon Brief
The Carbon Brief appears to have been set up for the specific purpose of countering sceptical stories relating to ‘climate change’ by going to AGW consensus scientific sources for an instant rebuttal. It is a project of the Energy and Strategy Centre, funded and supported by the European Climate Foundation (ECF)
Furthermore, Woods’ investigation into the ‘Green Social Network’, as he calls it, puts Monbiot at the centre of attempts to influence online debate in a remarkable instance of eco-hypocrisy.
It is Monbiot’s belief that the ‘denial’ attempt executed by Exxon, with no more funding than $3.5 million a year has virtually scuppered the attempt to prevent global warming. Yet there is not one shred of evidence that a single comment beneath Monbiot’s articles on the Guardian has been as such ‘paid for’, or put there by ‘sophisticated software’. Even if you had $3.5million a year to spend, and you paid denier-drones just $10 an hour to spread their denial across the web, you’d only have 350,000 man hours of commenting. That’s 43,750 working days, 8,750 working weeks, or 190 working years. So let us call it that: if this astroturfing effort exists, and it is funded to the same tune as Exxon’s entire effort, it’s just 190, low-waged people, commenting on websites such as the Guardian. But what a waste of money this would be. For instance, Monbiot has it that ‘Between 2000 and 2002 [TASSC] received $30,000 from Exxon’, and that this same organisation (The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition) “has done more damage to the campaign to halt [CLIMATE CHANGE] than any other body”… If donations of just $10,000 dollars can buy the effect Monbiot is claiming TASSC achieved with it over three years, why on earth would anyone pay for far more expensive comment drones?
The amounts Monbiot gets heated up about are really very small indeed. Given that the issue relates to the creation of hugely powerful supranational institutions, a total transformation of the entire global economy, and the most far-reaching regulations of industry and of lifestyle ever conceived, I think that exchanges of tens of thousands of dollars between interested parties is completely insignificant. Ditto hundreds of thousands. And the same for the millions, too, because the propaganda effort running the other way stretches to millions… No, hundreds of millions… No… Billions of dollars… From NGOs, from carbon finance firms and low carbon venture capitalists, from philanthropic self-serving billionaires… from governments, from supranational organisations… And not a single penny of that is any cleaner than the dirtiest dollar from Exxon.
It’s not the actual amounts that concern Monbiot. If he were to actually gain a sense of proportion, he would have nothing to write about. What disturbs him is the fact that it’s Exxon giving money to the likes of TASSSC, and Steven J Milloy’s Junk Science website. How dare they? Monbiot moans,
JunkScience.com – has been the main entrepot for almost every kind of climate-change denial that has found its way into the mainstream press. It equates environmentalists with Nazis, communists and terrorists.
It is true that Junk Science is a very influential website. It has been the starting point for many days of research for many people. This site is frequently linked to from there. And it’s brought some visitors who have both agreed and disagreed with the content here, and either hung around, or moved on. Is this the criticism? Is this what has annoyed Monbiot? Is his complaint that some Exxon money ended up as a site that directs people to the latest stories about climate change written from a sceptic’s perspective?
It is here that the problems with the use of words like ‘cult’ and ‘astroturf’ begin to emerge.
There is no question about it. Steve Milloy wants to persuade you. I want to persuade you. But so does Monbiot. Monbiot, however, wants to claim that the form of persuasion that Milloy is engaged in is illegitimate. It’s not enough, you see, to simply disagree with Milloy. It’s not enough to put counter arguments to his criticisms of environmentalism.
This is where Monbiot turns the normal, democratic exchange of views; the normal, democratic development of associations between individuals and groups; and the normal, democratic presentation of arguments intended to persuade others… into a dark, sinister and devilish conspiracy.
It now seems that these operations are more widespread, more sophisticated and more automated than most of us had guessed. Emails obtained by political hackers from a US cyber-security firm called HBGary Federal suggest that a remarkable technological armoury is being deployed to drown out the voices of real people.
It is nonsense, of course. It might work in some sense to market the occasional product. It might create better rankings for certain search terms. The strategy might even drown out online criticism of products within a limited market. But no more than that. As Richard Chirgwin points out on the Register, the best that this form of intervention can hope to achieve is to alienate any genuine participants from online discussions:
While it looks a little like the corporate threat to democracy and free discussion that the Daily Kos believes it to be, it’s also a completely self-destructive strategy. The personas will invade any and every conversation they’re instructed to, acting like over-indulged toddlers and yelling “want #banana NOW!” across grown-up conversations.
Anyone with a brain worth having would, were they ever to find themselves in virtual conversation with an individual operating dozens of personas, recognise that they were engaged in a discussion with a moron. It would certainly not be possible to have as many persuasive simultaneous discussions. But for Monbiot, the idea that thousands of debate-hackers each operate dozens of puppets in thousands of online fora, absorbing the collective mental energies of all virtual environmental activists, thereby stalling progress, is just too good to let go. It explains to him the failure of his own arguments to persuade the wider public, and it explains the dearth of harmony under his own articles. It’s not that he doesn’t inform the debate with robust argument; it’s not that Monbiotists too, lack coherent and powerful arguments; it’s that an army of ciphers exists, merely to overwhelm them. Hence, he asks the readers of CommentIsFree :
So let me repeat the question I’ve put in previous articles, and which has yet to be satisfactorily answered: what should we do to fight these tactics?
Online discussion fora are perhaps the most disposable form of public debate. On sites like CommentIsFree, dozens of articles a week feature exchanges below the line between the same characters, throwing the same arguments at each other. The aggressive, pedantic, exhausting form of exchange alienates the casual participant, and discourages the casual reader. Vast amounts of energy are spent on these little battles, that are, in almost every case, forgotten by the time the next article is published. Why would anyone want to pay people to dominate the billions of such discussions that take place? It would be absolutely futile.
Yet it’s what happens below the line that is the subject of Monbiot’s articles, above it.
George’s articles about the environment and environmental politics are poorly conceived. Yet they call for radical political, economic and social changes, throughout the world. It is obvious from what happens below the line that George’s ideas are not going to spread throughout wider society. The only way George can account for this is by conceiving of an effort to deny ‘the truth’. He can’t reflect on the idea that people might disagree with him, because he is wrong. They can’t have worked out for themselves that he’s wrong. They can’t have been persuaded by a better argument than his. They must all have been persuaded by a lie, then. Or they must all have prostituted themselves to Big Oil, and spend their time engaged in futile online discussions, hoping to dissuade others from Monbiot’s own righteous cause.
Whether or not Monbiot is right about climate change and the need for political and economic reorganisation of the world to stop it; his ideas about why his perspective is not shared by people is simply implausible. It doesn’t pass basic tests of proportion and logic. The result in black and white is an ego-centric fantasy that says much more about the mythology of the environmental perspective than it says about its detractors. In positing that these detractors belong to an astroturfing outfit, Monbiot turns normal political debate and the exchange of ideas into a conspiracy. Normal discussion becomes a manipulated space, dominated and controlled by sinister interests. But worst still, in the process, Monbiot reduces anyone involved in, or following the conversation into zombies, easily influenced by the dark forces that seek to control the ideosphere. In his rush to explain why people simply don’t agree with him — and in fact strongly disagree with him — he insults the intelligence of anybody who dares to take issue with him. Like brainwashed cult victims, they merely respond to the misinformation they are exposed to.
What this speaks about then, is the contempt Monbiot has for humans and their faculties of reason; for democratic expression such as association and debate. He simply does not trust people to make their own minds up: all that happens is they end up disagreeing with him. Worst still is that Monbiot simply doesn’t recognise that this extraordinary narcissistic approach to debate is what alienates him. He’s expecting the sympathies of the same people he is calling stupid. Monbiot doesn’t seem to understand that his critics often accuse him of being anti-human, but we can see this misanthropism running across his whole argument.
If there’s a film which questions climate change, it’s because the broadcaster has declared a war against science. If there’s an organised effort to challenge environmentalism, there’s a ‘tobacco strategy’ and a conspiracy. If his fellow greens take issue with his religiosity, they have been sucked into the corporate agenda. If people in internet chat rooms disagree with Monbiot, it is because there are paid minions of Big Oil, tapping away at their keyboards for money. If the public don’t buy his ideas, it’s because they are feckless, stupid, sheep, blindly following their base drives and instincts. This is the consistent pattern of Monbiot’s arguments. Climate change has little to do with it… It’s about people. The environment is merely the thing which Monbiot uses to legitimise his elitism, and his anti-humanism. It’s a device, a story, a myth that elevates him. That’s why nobody buys it, because they’re not so stupid, after all.