Column: I learned a new word today, ‘astroturfing’ | VailDaily.com

Column: I learned a new word today, ‘astroturfing’

Butch Mazzuca
My View

Butch Mazzuca

Editor's note: Find a cited version of this column at http://www.vaildaily.com.

It's called "astroturfing." I must live under a rock, because for someone who considers himself reasonably well informed, this term came out of left field. Merriam-Webster defines astroturfing as an "organized activity intended to create a false impression of a widespread, spontaneously arising grassroots movement in support of or in opposition to something (such as a political policy) but that is in reality initiated and controlled by a concealed group or organization."

In this age of fake news, astroturfing comes in many forms, including multiple online identities and false pressure groups that mislead the public into believing that a particular position (usually political, sometimes corporate) is the commonly held view. Those who get their news from social media are particularly vulnerable to the misinformation astroturfers disseminate, but so, too, are those who rely on one favored media source for their news.

Wikipedia tells us astroturfing masks the sponsors of a given message behind multiple false identities, making it nearly impossible to ascertain its true source. The term is derived from AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to resemble natural grass, as a play on the word "grassroots." The implication behind the use of the term is that there are no "true" or "natural" grassroots, but rather "fake" or "artificial" support. The modus operandi of those engaged in this sleazy activity is one of concealment and deception.

While researching the subject at www.sourcewatch.org, I found a number of Wikipedia-style pages including examples of astroturfing in the political arena. Astroturfing is used by both sides of the political isle, but the only two examples illustrated on the SourceWatch website were Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity — interesting how the unbiased sourcewatch.org named only conservative organizations.

The sourcewatch.org filter not withstanding, independent investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson reveals that the most egregious forms of astroturfing emanate from left-leaning organizations, i.e., Media Matters, Mother Jones, salon.com, vox.com the Daily Kos, The Huffinton Post, CNN, The New York Times, Politico, slate.com, MSNBC and Jon Stewart.

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It was the Media Matters posts coupled with the hundreds of emails they send to willing reporters every day that had Don Imus fired. Other examples are the unsubstantiated allegations and accusations about Donald Trump and the "swiftboating" of John Kerry back in 2004. The reality is that special interests of all stripes exploit the internet and an all-to-willing media to deliver their misleading messages.

With willing reporters spreading dishonest news stories, it's easy to understand why the ill-informed and gullible fall victim to the smear industry that's completely hidden from public view.

Not limited to politics

But astroturfing goes beyond politics. How often do we see blogs that use the words "science" or "skeptic" in their titles in an attempt to portray themselves as "neutral but concerned" on an issue, when in reality they are often actively engaged in opposing or extolling policies regarding climate, the oil industry, big pharma, etc.?

Social media and biased reporters with axes to grind are the primary conduits for astroturfing. Even some professional sports teams use shills posing as attractive young women on Facebook to befriend star athletes in order to track their activities ("The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think and How You Vote," by Sharyl Attkisson).

This repugnant tactic has only gotten worse since the election. But the truly tragic aspect of this phenomenon is how the seedy world of fake news and smear tactics is manipulating public opinion on matters of consequence to us all.

Quote of the day: "Dishonesty of any kind will create a blemish." — G.B. Hinckley

Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at bmazz68@comcast.net.