• Astroturf and manipulation of media messages

    Video by Sharyl Attkisson transcribed by Ey@el

    As previously introduced in a reposted article about mainstream media journalists coming out to tell the truth to the public about the manipulation and distortion of information (see Related articles), Sharyll Attkisson is an investigative reporter based in Washington D.C. As a correspondent for CBS News for twenty years, she was rewarded for her great professionalism with many Investigative Emmy Awards. She's currently writing a book addressing “the unseen influences of corporations and special interests on the information and images the public receives every day in the news and elsewhere.” The following talk, “given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community”, is a blessing for anyone who might sometimes get confused as to distinguish between alleged conspiracies and fake myth debunkers. Definitely a must-watch/read especially for those who often take Wikepedia's word for granted.


    The Cholestor example

    Consider this fictitious example that's inspired by real life. Say, you're watching the news and you see a story about a new study on the cholesterol-lowering drug called Cholestor. They say Cholestor is so effective that doctors should consider prescribing it to adults and even children who don't yet have high cholesterol. Is it too good to be true?

    You're smart, you decide to do some of your own research. You do a Google search, you consult social media Facebook and Twitter, you look at Wikipedia, web indies and non-profit websites and you read the original study in a peer-reviewed published medical journal. It all confirms how effective Cholestor is.

    You do run across a few negative comments as a potential link to cancer, but you dismiss that because medical experts call the cancer link a “myth” and say that those who think there is a link there are quacks and cranks and nuts. Finally you learn that you own doctor recently attended a medical seminar. The lecture that he attended confirms how effective Cholestor is. So he sends you off with some free samples and a prescription. You've really done your homework. But what if all isn't as it seems?  

    What if the reality you found was false? A carefully constructed narrative by unseen special interests designed to manipulate your opinion. A Trumanshowesque alternate reality all around you. Complacency in the news media combined with incredibly powerful propaganda and publicity forces mean we sometimes get little of the truth. Special interests have unlimited time and money to figure out new ways to spin it while cloaking their role. Surreptitious astroturf methods are now more important to these interests in traditional lobbying of congress — there's an entire industry built around it in Washington.

    The definition of astroturf

    What is astroturf? It's a perversion of grassroots as a fake grassroots. Astroturf is when political, corporate or other special interests disguise themselves and publish blogs, start Facebook and Twitter accounts, publish ads, letters to editors or simply post comments online to try to fool you into thinking an independent or grassroots movement is speaking. The whole point of astroturf is to try to give the impression of widespread support for or against an agenda when there's not.

    Astroturf seeks to manipulate you into changing your opinion by making you feel as if you're an out liar when you're not. One example is the Washington Redskins name. Without taking a position on the controversy, if you simply were looking at news media coverage over the course of the past year or looking at social media, you probably had to conclude that most Americans can find that name offensive and think it ought to be changed. But what if I told you 71% of Americans say the name should not be changed? That's more than two thirds.

    Astroturfers seek to controversialise those who disagree with them. They attack news organisations that publish stories they don't like, whistleblowers who tell the truth, politicians who dare to ask the tough questions and journalists who have the audacity to report on all of it.

    Sometimes, astroturf will simply shove intentionally so much confusing and conflicting information into the mix that you're left to throw up your hands and disregard all of it including the truth. Drown out of link between a medicine and a harmful side-effect, say vaccines and autism, by throwing a bunch of conflicting paid-for studies, surveys and experts into the mix, confusing the truth beyond recognition.

    Wikipedia: astroturfers' favourite instrument

    And then there's Wikipedia: astroturf's dream come true. Build as the free encyclopedia that anyone can have it, the reality can't be more different. Anonymous Wikipedia editors control and co-op pages on behalf of special interest. They forbid and reverse edits that go against their agenda. They skew and delete information in blatant violation of Wikipedia's own established policies with impunity always superior to the poor schlubs who actually believe anyone can add to Wikipedia only to discover they're barred from correcting even the simplest factual inaccuracies. Try adding a footnote or fact or correcting a fact there on one of these monitored Wikipedia ages of “pages” or spoof. Sometimes within a matter of seconds you'll find your edit is reversed.

    In 2012, famed author Philip Roth tried to correct a major fact there about the inspiration behind one of his books character just cited on a Wikipedia page, but no matter how hard he tried, Wikipedia's editors wouldn't allow it. They kept reverting the edits back to the false information. When Roth finally reached a person at Wikipedia — which is no easy task — and tried to find out what was going wrong, they told him he simply was not considered a credible source on himself!

    A few weeks later, there was a huge scandal when Wikipedia officials got caught offering a PR service, discute and edit information on behalf of paid publicity-seeking clients — another opposition to Wikipedia's supposed policies. All of this may be why when a medical study looked at medical conditions described in Wikipedia pages and compared this to actual peer at reviewed published research, Wikipedia contradicted medical research 90% of the time. You may never fully trust what you read on Wikipedia again. Nor should you.

    The unseen interests behind Cholestor

    Let's now go back to that fictitious Cholestor example and all the research you did. It turns out that the Facebook and Twitter accounts you found that were so positive were actually written by paid-professionals hired by the drug company to promote the drug. The Wikipedia page had been monitored by an agenda editor also paid by the drug company. The drug company also arranged to optimise Google search engine results so it was no accident that you stumbled across that positive non-profit and all the positive comments. The non-profit was of course secretly founded and funded by the drug company. The drug company also financed that positive study and used its power for editorial control to omit any mention of cancer as a possible side-effect. 

    Once more, each and every doctor who publicly touted Cholestor or called the cancer link a myth or ridiculed critics as paranoid cranks and cracks or served on a government advisory board that approved the drug — each of those doctors is actually a paid-consultant for the drug company. As for your own doctor, the medical lecture he attended that held all that positive valuations was in fact like many continuing medical education classes sponsored by the drug company.

    And when the news reported on that positive study, it didn't mention any of that. I have tons of personal examples from real life.

    The National Sleep Foundation example

    A couple of years ago, CBS News asked me to look into a story about a study coming out from the non-profit National Sleep Foundation. Supposedly this press release coming out said the study concluded “we are a nation with an epidemic of sleeplessness and we don't even know it. And we should all go ask our doctors about it.” A couple of things struck me about that.

    First, I recognised the phrase “ask your doctor” as a catch phrase promoted by the pharmaceutical industry. They know that if they can get you foot to the door of the doctor's office to mention a malady, you're very likely to be prescribed the latest drug that's marketed.

    Second, I wondered how serious an epidemic of sleeplessness could really be if we don't even know that we have it. Right? It didn't take long for me to do a little research and discover that the National Sleep Foundation non-profit and the study — which was actually a survey not a study — were sponsored in part by a new drug that was about to be launched on the market called Lunestar: a sleeping pill.

    I reported the study as CBS News asked, but of course I disclosed the sponsorship behind the non-profit and the survey so the viewers could weigh the information accordingly. All the other news media reported the same survey directly off the press release as written without digging past the superficial. It later became an example written up in the Columbia Journalism Review which quite accurately reported that only we, at CBS News, had bothered to do a little bit of research and disclose the conflict of interest behind this widely reported survey.

    How to recognise signs of propaganda and astroturf

    So now you may be thinking: “What can I do? I thought I'd done my research. What chance do I have separating fact from fiction especially if "seasoned" journalists with years of experience can be so easily fooled?” Well, I have a few strategies which I can tell you about to help you recognise signs of propaganda and astroturf. Once you start to know what to look for, you'll begin to recognise it everywhere.

    First, hallmarks of astroturf include use of inflammatory language such as “crank, quack, nutty, liar, paranoid, pseudo” and “conspiracy”.

    Astroturfers often claim to debunk myths that aren't myths at all. Use of the charge language tastes well. People hear some things are myths, maybe they find it on Snopes and they instantly declare themselves too smart to fall for it. But what if the whole notion of the myth is itself a myth and you and Snopes fell for that?

    Beware when interests attack an issue by controversialising or attacking the people, personalities and organisations surrounding it rather than addressing the facts: that could be astroturf.

    And most of all, astroturfers tend to reserve all of their public scepticism of those exposing wrongdoing rather than the wrongdoers. In other words, instead of questioning authority, they question those who question authority.

    You might start to see things a little more clearly. It's kind of like taking off your glasses and wiping them and putting them back on and realising for the first time how far they've been all along. I can't resolve these issues, but I hope that I've given you some information that will at least motivate you to take off your glasses and wipe them, and become a wiser consumer of information in an increasingly artificial paid-for reality.

    Thank you.

    Transcribed by Ey@el
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