Sharyl Attkisson explains "Astroturfing" and how to recognize it; Transcript and Commentary

Astroturf and manipulation of media messages | Sharyl Attkisson | TEDxUniversityofNevada

Atkinson's experience with FakeNews

She left CBS after having been frustrated over what she perceived to be the network's liberal bias and lack of dedication to investigative reporting.

She tells the story of her departure in her book, Stonewalled: One Reporter's Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama's Washington, where she details the CBS protection of the the Obama administration by not giving enough coverage to such stories as the 2012 Benghazi attack and slow initial enrollments under Obamacare


The Wikileaks revelations of DNC emails highlights why CBS took an interest in protecting the Democrats and their omessiah:

Her TED talk

From her website:

Astroturfers often disguise themselves and publish blogs, write letters to the editor, produce ads, start non-profits, establish Facebook and Twitter accounts, edit Wikipedia pages or simply post comments online to try to fool you into thinking an independent or grassroots movement is speaking. They use their partners in blogs and in the news media in an attempt to lend an air of legitimacy or impartiality to their efforts. Astroturf’s biggest accomplishment is when it crosses over into semi-trusted news organizations that unquestioningly cite or copy it.

What I am going to do here is to restate a few of her comments during her talk, and add a little more info. I'd suggest that if you don't have a complete understanding of front groups, that you check out this link

Atkinson's comments are quoted, mine are italicized ; the full transcript is below.

It's a perversion of grass roots as in fake grass roots

She notes that the term comes from the opposition in meaning

Sometimes Astroturfer's simply shove, intentionally, so much confusing and conflicting information into the mix that you are left to throw up your hands and disregard all of it including the truth.

One of the themes in my Information War series is that there is too much information out there, and that disinformation is not always intended to convince, but rather to distort or to cloud critical thinking re: the subject. A study of intelligence analysis confirms that too much information results in no intelligence!

You may never fully trust what you read on Wikipedia again. Nor should you.

This is an excellent point. A good tool for understanding edits and bias is the Talk page. See Sharyl's Talk page and you can see the rationalization and disinformation in play, as wiki-editors argue over changes to her Wiki page's content

what if the whole notion of the myth is itself a myth and you and Snopes fell for that?

Those of you that pay attention are already aware of Snopes' leftist bias; they remain a good critic of memes that lie outside politics, but...

Astroturfer's tend to reserve all of their public skepticism for those exposing wrongdoing rather than the wrongdoers

Note the attack on people pushing a PizzaGate instead of using facts to debunk that interpretation. A better example is the investigation into non-existent Russian-Trump ties than an investigation into the publicly known crimes of Clinton

Transcript: Astroturf and manipulation of media messages | Sharyl Attkisson | TEDxUniversityofNevada

Warning, this link is to a Facebook page

So, consider this fictitious example that's inspired by real life say your watching the news and you see a story about a new study on the cholesterol lowering drug Cholextra, the study says Cholextra 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, FB and Twitter, you look at Wikipedia, WEBMD-a non profit website, and you read the original study in a peer reviewed published medical journal

-it all confirms how effective Cholextra is. You do run across a few negative comments and 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 your own doctor recently attended a medical seminar, the lecture that he attended confirmed how effective Cholextra 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 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 us while cloaking their role. Surreptitious astroturf methods are now more important to these Interests than traditional lobbying of Congress. There is an entire industry built around it in Washington.

What is Astroturf?

It's a perversion of grass roots as in fake grass roots. Astroturf is when political corporate or other special interests disguise themselves and published blogs start Facebook and Twitter accounts, publish ads letters to the editor or simply post comments online, to try to fool you into thinking an independent or grass roots movement is speaking.

The whole point of Astroturf is to try to give the impression that there is wide spread support for or against an agenda when there's not.

Astroturf seeks to manipulate you into changing your opinion by making you feel as your an outlier when your 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'd probably have to conclude that most American's find that name offensive and think it ought to be changed.

But what if I told you 71% of American's say the name should not be changed? That's more than two thirds.

Astroturfer's seek to controversialize those who disagree with them. They attack news organizations that publishes stories they don't like, whistleblower's who tell the truth, politicians who dare to ask the tough questions, and journalist's who have the audacity to report on all of it.

Sometimes Astroturfer's simply shove, intentionally, so much confusing and conflicting information into the mix that you are left to throw up your hands and disregard all of it including the truth.

Drown out a 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.

And then there's Wikipedia. Astroturf's dream come true. Built as the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit the reality can't me more different. Anonymous Wikipedia editors control and co-opt pages on behalf of special interests. 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 schleps who actually believe that anyone can edit Wikipedia only to discover they are barred from correcting even the simplest factual inaccuracies.

Try adding a footnoted fact or correcting a fact error on one of these monitored Wikipedia pages of poof - Sometimes within a matter of seconds you'll find your edit is reversed.

In 2012, famed author Phillip Roth tried to correct a major fact error about the inspiration behind one of his book characters sited on a Wikipedia page. But no matter how hard he tried Wikipedia's editors wouldn't allow it. They kept reverting the evidence back to the false information.

When Roth finally reached a person at Wikipedia which was no easy task and try to find what was going wrong they told him he was simply 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 the skewed and edited information on behalf of paid publicity seeking clients in utter opposition to Wikipedia's supposed policies.

All of this may be why when a medical study looked at medical conditions described on Wikipedia pages and compared it to actual peer 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.

Let's now go back to that fictitious Cholextra example and all the research you did. It turns our 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 optimize Google's search engine results so it was no accident that you stumbled across that positive non-profit that had all of those 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 of editorial control to omit any mention of cancer as a possible side effect. Once more, each and every doctor who publicly touted Cholextra or called the cancer link a myth or ridiculed critics as paranoid cranks and quacks or served on a government advisory board that approved the drug -- each of those doctors is actually a paid consultant of the drug company.

As for your own doctor, the medical lecture he attended but had all of those positive evaluations was in fact like many continuing medical education classes - sponsored by the drug companies. 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. 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 recognized the phrase - ask your doctor - as a catch phrase promoted by the pharmaceutical industry. They know that if they can get your foot through the door at the doctor's office to mention a malady you're very likely to be prescribed the latest drug 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 onto the market that was called Lunesta. A sleeping pill. I reported the study as CBS news asked but of course I disclosed the sponsorship behind the non-profit and the surveys so the viewers could weigh the information accordingly.

All of 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.

So now you may be thinking what can I do. I thought I had 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 that I can tell you about, to help you recognize signs of propaganda and Astroturf.

Once you start to know what to look for, you'll begin to recognize it everywhere.

First, hallmarks of Astroturfing include use of inflammatory language such as crank quack nutty lies paranoid pseudo and conspiracy.

Astroturfers often claim to debunk myths that aren't myths at all. Use of the charged language test well. People hear some things a myth 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 controversializing or attacking the people personalities and organizations surrounding it rather than addressing the facts.

That could be Astroturf!

And most of all, Astroturfer's tend to reserve all of their public skepticism for 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 realizing for the first time how foggy they've been all along.

I can't resolve these issues but I hope that I have 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.

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