As I see in threads on my articles, the online sabotaging of intelligent debate seems organised. We must fight to save this precious gift
Monday 13 December 2010
I'm not talking here about threats to net neutrality and the danger of a two-tier internet developing, though these are real. I'm talking about the daily attempts to control and influence content in the interests of the state and corporations: attempts in which money talks.
The weapon used by both state and corporate players is a technique known as astroturfing. An astroturf campaign is one that mimics spontaneous grassroots mobilisations but which has in reality been organised. Anyone writing a comment piece in Mandarin critical of the Chinese government, for instance, is likely to be bombarded with abuse by people purporting to be ordinary citizens, upset by the slurs against their country.
I first came across online astroturfing in 2002, when the investigators Andy Rowell and Jonathan Matthews looked into a series of comments made by two people calling themselves Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek. They had launched ferocious attacks, across several internet forums, against a scientist whose research suggested that Mexican corn had been widely contaminated by GM pollen.
Rowell and Matthews found that one of the messages Mary Murphy had sent came from a domain owned by the Bivings Group, a PR company specialising in internet lobbying. An article on the Bivings website explained that "there are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organisation is directly involved … Message boards, chat rooms, and listservs are a great way to anonymously monitor what is being said. Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party."
The Bivings site also quoted a senior executive from the biotech corporation Monsanto, thanking the PR firm for its "outstanding work". When a Bivings executive was challenged by Newsnight, he admitted that the "Mary Murphy" email was sent by someone "working for Bivings" or "clients using our services". Rowell and Matthews then discovered that the IP address on Andura Smetacek's messages was assigned to Monsanto's headquarters in St Louis, Missouri. There's a nice twist to this story. AstroTurf TM – real fake grass – was developed and patented by Monsanto.
Articles about the environment are hit harder by such tactics than any others. I love debate, and I often wade into the threads beneath my columns. But it's a depressing experience, as instead of contesting the issues I raise, many of those who disagree bombard me with infantile abuse, or just keep repeating a fiction, however often you discredit it. This ensures that an intelligent discussion is almost impossible – which appears to be the point.
The second pattern is the strong association between this tactic and a certain set of views: pro-corporate, anti-tax, anti-regulation. Both traditional conservatives and traditional progressives tend to be more willing to discuss an issue than these rightwing libertarians, many of whom seek to shut down debate.
So what's going on? I'm not suggesting that most of the people trying to derail these discussions are paid to do so, though I would be surprised if none were. I'm suggesting that some of the efforts to prevent intelligence from blooming seem to be organised, and that neither website hosts nor other commenters know how to respond.
Over 75% of the funding for American Majority comes from the Sam Adams Alliance. In 2008, the year in which American Majority was founded, 88% of the alliance's money came from a single donation, of $3.7m. A group that trains rightwing libertarians to distort online democratic processes was, in other words, set up with funding from a person or company with a very large wallet.
A fully referenced version of this article is available on George Monbiot's website.