Grassroots or Astroturf?

How does one tell a grassroots organization from astroturf?

That was the issue of last presidential election. It was proven how widespread astroturf had become. It wasn’t only the Russians. In the presidential campaign before that, Hillary Clinton had planned to use paid trolls. And we already have seen investigative reporting on the networks of groups being funded by powerful interests. When dealing with an individual or group, how does any of us really know who we are dealing with?

During the Soviet era, something like one in three citizens were either working for or informing to the KGB. That is what politics feels like right now in the United States. Dark money is flowing in such immense amounts, from the likes of the Mercer family and Koch brothers. It’s largely untraceable.

“There has been some good investigative reporting on it, published in scholarly books and in the alternative media. Dark Money by Jane Mayer is one example. Another one is Buzzfeed’s in-depth report on how the Koch brothers and Mercer family funneled money to Steve Bannon, Breitbart News, Project Veritas, etc. Both of these probably only scratched the surface of what goes on behind the scenes, as they are just two examples among many” (Skepticism and Conspiracy).

Other more well known examples involve climate change denialism. It is endless. One could spend one’s life attempting to uncover the corruption that rules our society and still never discover a fraction of it.

To make matters worse, over the past half century, almost all media has become concentrated into transnational corporations that are directly tied to the two-party stranglehold of corporatocracy. The tech industry and social media, of course, are also entangled with this maze of big biz and in many cases with big gov (the entire tech industry was built on government defense funding and Jeff Bezos was essentially born into the military-industrial complex).

Meddling foreign governments are the least of our worries.

I was reminded of this with the campaign season heating up. I came across a Facebook group, Democracy Rising. The first group rule is: “Unite the Democratic Party.” But I noticed that any Democratic candidate that isn’t a Clinton DNC elite is attacked viciously, including by the woman running the group, Betty Plumley.

There was one particular post that demonstrated this. Plumley invited responses by saying, “Lets discuss the negatives and positives of Bernie Sanders.” It has so far received 171 responses. Almost all of them were harshly critical, including by Plumley, not uniting of the Democratic Party in the slightest, except for a few commenters who dared to speak out (one guy said his comment was deleted when he simply stated that Sanders is better than Trump; other people said their similar comments were removed).

The group’s real purpose, if we are to go by the posts, is to divide the Democratic Party and to attack the political left, to conflate Sanders and Trump with false equivalency and once again advocate lesser evilism, or maybe simply to muddy the water with bad feelings and conflict. Whatever is the intention, that is what such groups achieve. And one begins to suspect that this result might very well be what is expected, not merely an unforeseen and unfortunate side effect of those lacking social skills and political acumen in fighting authoritarianism.

What concerned me is, when I checked out the names of first dozen or so commenters, almost none of them had any friends listed: “No friends to show”. Who are these ‘people’ on Facebook apparently with no visibly indicated human connections? Their timelines are public, but no friends. Some didn’t even have much or anything on their timelines nor even photos. And others joined Facebook sometime this past year.

This might be a real group. And these might be real people. But how would I know? I’m not trying to be paranoid, although it’s hard not to be these days. These are honest questions. How does a citizenry remain informed when surrounded by disinformation campaigns that are secretly funded and operated? And how can a population under these conditions ever hope to be genuinely free?

Enlightenment values of democracy and liberty are no match for modern authoritarianism, of plutocracy and corporatism and inverted totalitarianism. Most Americans are simply clueless. How do we fight what we can’t see? And for those of us who realize how dangerous it’s become, how do we promote a sense of crisis and urgency for a public that has fallen into apathy and cynicism?

8 thoughts on “Grassroots or Astroturf?

  1. The only thing I’d add is that while the current toxic miasma is, a toxic miasma, it’s not new. It’s almost certainly become worse due to tech and even more vast sums of money, but the other night I was watching Orson Wells in an interview from 1970 and of course there was some discussion of Citizen Kane.
    But while worse now it’s also possible that relative to the social system of the past – mass yellow journalism newspapers vs mass yellow journalism via the internet/social media – it’s really consistently the same level of awful.

    Maybe not.

    Regardless you’re correct – Facebook is a vast troll factory cranking out industrial scale civic poison.

    “During the Soviet era, something like one in three citizens were either working for or informing to the KGB.”

    Everyone works for Big Brother even if they believe they don’t.

    • I’m not sure how to compare what is worse. But it does feel different. The transnational corporations, special interest groups, dark money funders, etc didn’t exist to the same extent in the past. So much in global society is larger, more concentrated and more powerful.

      It feels more nefarious, more complex and deeply embedded. Corrupt and authoritarian forces were often far more crude and blatant in the past (e.g., the FBI’s clumsy attempt to blackmail MLK into suicide). A citizen more easily knew what they were dealing with. But it’s become so pervasive as to be normalized.

      We know nothing else, even if there was anywhere else to escape to. One can’t simply slip off the grid as was possible before. Every nook and cranny is controlled, manipulated, and monitored. We are all living in the Truman Show now. That is how it can feel.

      • I definitely agree with your last point – which in turn adds weight to your other points – about how it’s no longer possible to “slip off the grid.”

        A friend who is, as they say, a veteran of the late 60s tells interesting stories and I have remarked on many occasions that back then one could just vanish – get in a car and go or buy a Greyhound ticket and be gone.

        That’s all but impossible now without recourse to professional level tech and know-how.

        That in turn exists inside the wider context of the ever expanding power and reach of the dark money goons.

        • These days one suspects that the powers that be, governmental and corporate and whatever else, know more about people than people know about themselves. The files that are kept on individual citizens by various organizations is no doubt far more vast than anything the KGB ever was able to accomplish in its greatest ambitions.

          My mother has noticed that whenever my father does a particular search it changes the advertising she gets, even though they are using separate computers. As with China, one day a truly horrific authoritarian government or other similar entity is going to get hold of all that info. It plays in the background now, manipulating so many aspects of our experience and perception, but it could get overt quite quickly. And few would notice until it was too late.

          My conservative and capitalist-loving father has been worrying about the power wielded by the likes of Facebook. He mentioned that Elizabeth Warren was talking about this and, even though he hates the Democratic Party, he admitted she was right. Corporations are out of control. That is exemplified to an even greater extent with Google working with the Chinese government in helping them to propagandize and oppress their own people.

          Part of the irritation is not merely the psychopathic evil of it all. It simply puts one on edge, a grating anxiety that never allows one to fully relax. And so it gets tiresome, in feeling like one can never let one’s guard down. It spreads mistrust and, as with this post, makes one feel paranoid about so much in the world. That such paranoia is justified makes it all the worse. It would be much more comforting to believe it was just all in my head.

          For that reason, I understand why so many people don’t want to know or else don’t want to admit to what is going on. It is quite disturbing.

          • Agree with all of that.

            Combining the corporate with the state is either the highest form of capitalism or the lowest form of fascism – or both;-)

            As to paranoia – was just reworking a lengthy piece on that subject – skim, read or not as you please but the persistence of paranoia in its authentic non clinical sense (that is, there really is a reason to be suspicious) is a genuine issue.

            The atmosphere of mistrust and hostility saps the will and colors all discourse and social interaction.

            That touches on my recent post about poetry – joy has been ghettoized and is suspect in part because of what you’re describing.

            Here’s the long piece on paranoia;


          • That piece is a great analysis. It perfectly captures my own sense of things. This is the eternal failure of liberalism. There is an astute awareness of the danger, but their entire ideological worldview is dependent on them coming up short.

            The blinders that Hofstadter put on are the same as for Chomsky, both being liberals who dismiss the paranoid style as if nothing is behind it, but both are smart enough to know that such a conclusion is bullshit. We are surrounded by real conspiracies and the likes of Hofstadter and Chomsky will even give examples, followed by a pretense that the evidence they give doesn’t really mater, after all.

            They are afraid of what would happen to their beloved liberal society, as it hangs on by a thread, if the public ever discovered the truth. Their fear is valid, in a sense. But what they don’t consider is that the system needs to be blown apart. In the end, they don’t take their own liberalism seriously. Whether liberal rhetoric is used or not, a reactionary is a reactionary. Along these lines, such liberals more in common with Edmund Burke than with Thomas Paine.

            “That Hofstadter was a liberal is crucially important. That the liberals triangulate both the left and the extreme right by filtering them through the prism of profiling their accusations as only paranoia is both accurate and a distinction without a difference. But the liberals cannot, and will not admit that there is any legitimacy to the accusations because to do so would be to admit that not only is the system rigged, but that the liberals are complicit in its crimes. […]

            “Thus Hofstadter and his liberal descendants arrive at an insupportable contradiction. They enter through the front door of claiming to be sober minded clear-headed excavators of the cultural mise-en-scene and then exist through the backdoor of cherry picking the details to suit their agenda. Either the culture in its entirety is relevant, and we can excavate the culture, or it is not and we condemn ourselves to a dangerous tunnel vision based on subjective claims to authority.”

            I just posted something else about conspiracy in terms of Russiagate:
            The reason you give for why the issue never gets addressed is fundamentally the same. As in the past, all areas of government, DNC and GOP, FBI and CIA, along with related private interests, are involved in some really dark shit. It would blow this country apart if the truth were fully revealed.

            “And yes, we said it – yes there was a conspiracy and more to the point let us add that the issue that never gets addressed is that of course there had to be an effort to prevent a full investigation precisely because in the early 1960s, (and even after that) the government, and the states and local law enforcement were up to their eyeballs in every shady, disgusting, corrupt activity you could think of from, as already mentioned, dosing people with syphilis and drugs and radiation, to cops and judges also being members of the Klan, to using any number of extremist groups to run guns, and plot to attack Castro and stop Dr. King and all the while that was going on there’s the little matter of organized crime building an empire with the help of the government – because organized crime was the hammer the government used to crush the left.

            “So just try to imagine a massive investigation into anything in Texas – with investigative tendrils reaching out everywhere – that wouldn’t touch on every corrupt relationship that the federal government and the states had with each other, and everyone else. You can’t and as a case in point – remember that when first questioned, Clay Shaw denied everything and only years later was it revealed that oh yes, he was an informant for the C.I.A. and the point then being that even if he was an informant it does not prove that there was a conspiracy to kill the president but it does prove that the government lied, continues to lie and that assertions of how it’s an illness to say otherwise are revealed to be reactionary propaganda in the service of the government.”

  2. About the Facebook group in question, I could be totally off about it. I admit that it’s quite possible that the head of the group could be entirely sincere. She obviously has some personal issues and her politics are pathetic. But she may have earned both honestly.

    There are paid trolls, ideological trolls, and still others who are simply troll-like. Whatever is the case, it all plays into the same games of power. That such people are so often indistinguishable is part of the plan or at least conducive to it. The purpose is to rile up the troll-like so that they’ll do most of the work. It creates a greater perception of authenticity and legitimacy.

    It’s similar to one incident where it was proven the Russian government was involved. They had riled up both sides of an issue. So, the protesters and counter-protesters showed up not realizing that the entire event had been imagined into existence by forces that were manipulating them all. It’s the equivalent of the pie-eating story in the movie Stand By Me where everyone ends up barfing on everyone else.

    Such incidents are internet trolling taken to the highest levels of fuckery that bleeds over into the real world. So, even if the woman who formed that specific Facebook group is the real deal, she has created the perfect platform for powerful interests to promote similar fuckery. The distinction between real and unreal becomes fuzzy and maybe at times meaningless.

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