Journalistic Sodbusting

Astroturfing” refers to any shady public relations practice where one manufactures the appearance of “grass roots” support. I had never heard of the word until transitioning from news to public affairs (a mere six years, two months and twenty-two days ago, but who is counting?)

Journalists, by nature, are fairly good at playing the skeptic; and very cranky when they get played. When part of the story centers on public sentiment – like the case study I present to you now – they may get more than irate; they might just get even.

Particulars in a moment, but first the mother of all disclaimers:

The following post references events and issues of a political nature in the state of Alabama, and unlike most of what I write here is of a very time-sensitive nature.

This post is the work of me and me alone.

Because anything that is even remotely political ends up being blamed or framed on my employer (whether warranted or not,) let me state unequivocally that my employer, supervisor, nor anyone in my company knows I am writing this, nor am I under any directive, suggestion or hint that it would be worthwhile.

For the record, I have not taken a public position on the issues of gambling/gaming/bingo in the state of Alabama, and don’t care enough to research them.

Nobody has paid me for this post. I don’t even run ads on the site.

But I am interested in the process of communications, and how organizations attempt to persuade.

Are you hooked yet? Here we go…

It all started with a quick morning check of Twitter, just a few minutes after 6 o’clock on Tuesday. I saw a link to a Bingo story, with a killer tease line: “Alabama Senator Was Offered Money for Bingo Vote.” That certainly got my attention.

Chuck Dean’s piece (with able assistance from Kim Chandler) went live at 5 o’clock sharp. But here, in the dim morning light, I was already seeing more than two dozen comments. Don’t bother trying to look them up by time stamps, because the threading of comments has thrown it completely off, and many of the “participants” didn’t bother using the threading feature anyway.

More than thirty comments in the first hour-and-change since publication is impressive. Even more impressive is how one-sided they were.

Again, I have no stake in either outcome – but the strong polarity against Governor Bob Riley was quite apparent.

Also apparent was how these comments were all following a narrow set of talking points. They all had the very same tone, and as one who has written for a living I can tell you when there is a uniformity to the tone.

Let’s look at a few of these, in order, as they appear on the site:

garlicrolls

Posted by garlicrolls
April 06, 2010, 5:50AM

This is clearly just another attempt by Riley to defame the opposition. Sanford is decidedly making up stories just to scare the other legislators from voting yes, just as Riley called the FBI to lead an investigation into only voters who changed from no on one bill to yes on another bingo bill. The audacity of some people to try and discredit others is astounding in politics.

goinggreen6
Posted by goinggreen6
April 06, 2010, 11:49AM
It looks like Riley is pulling all the cards on this one. hes going to turn this whole ordeal around so it looks like its pro bingo’s fault when in actuality Riley is pulling all the strings with the Indian dollars backing him. cant you see were all victims to Riley.
bruno_bros
Posted by bruno_bros
April 06, 2010, 11:51AM
Riley is balls to the wall this time he will do anything to get his way and he has made that very clear. We need to stop him before he does any more damage.
beeflover1201
Posted by beeflover1201
April 06, 2010, 11:56AM
i find it awfully suspicious that the governor also took 13 million from Indians as well don’t you?? and there is proof of that.
ramonsmole
Posted by ramonsmole
April 06, 2010, 11:57AM
So Sanford is saying that someone tried to bribe him to vote yes but every other time he has voted he has always been pro gambling…..Now he votes no isn’t that suspicious.
milehighroller
Posted by milehighroller
April 06, 2010, 12:00PM
So when are they going to investigate the anti-bingo crowd they can make allegations against pro-bingo supporters and then they are investigated by the FBI but no one ever says the anti-bingo group is being investigated for anything. Is the Indian money that powerful?
SouthernAttitude
Posted by SouthernAttiude
April 06, 2010, 12:03PM
That’s all they do is attack the opposition. The anti bingo crowd continuously attacks the pro bingo crowds because they are threatened and they have nothing else to do but threaten and scare the House members from voting yes. Every voter who has switched has now been interrogated or questioned by the FBI.
sohood89
Posted by sohood89
April 06, 2010, 12:03PM
once again i find it suspicious that knowing this would bring great things to our state why Riley would try so HARD! to shut it down? I also find it odd it has been 7 years since these places have been running and one day Riley just said they are illegal shut them down? that’s like running a bakery and for 7 years and then one day saying its not a bakery because they don’t sell muffins. Its very suspicious.
angryamanda
Posted by angryamanda
April 06, 2010, 12:08PM
It’s clear that Riley is being paid or bribed by someone or something (ahem Mississippi Indians) to all of a sudden go after the casino halls in Alabama. It’s absurd to think that Riley woke up one day and decided he would go after a big tourist and economic boost in our state. Riley is just attacking people so as to put a cloud over this bill. The citizens need to vote and decide, NOT RILEY.
Tone is a match.
Talking points are a match.
And as of this writing, this story has generated more than 330 comments, most like what you see above. You won’t get quite that many when Alabama plays Auburn in football.
What’s also conspicuous is what is absent:
  • Where are the short little digs at other commenters?
  • Where are the digs at Birmingham’s ex-Mayor Larry Langford? If you have ever spent any time reading comments at AL.com, then you know what I am talking about.
  • Where are the LOL’s and the idiot racist comments?
  • Where is the dissent?

Truth is, I don’t have the patience to analyze all 336 comments, and neither do you. And that is the goal.

Someone wanted to create the impression of an impregnable groundswell of support for “a vote” to “let the people decide.” Astroturfers, by their nature, are like thieves. If they wanted to put in the hard work to cover their tracks, they’d probably have just done the ethical thing and tried, you know, persuading people with the power of their ideas and vision. But Astroturfers are all about taking shortcuts. In this case, I would venture a guess the appearance of a popular uprising would prevent the need to spend expensive ad dollars down the road.

Make the enemy feel like he’s already doomed to lose, Master Sun would say.

Forensic Journalism

Am I to believe there is finally an issue where so many people are passionate, informed and engaged? Not while there are so many comments sharing DNA from the same frontal cortex.

Actually, there are ways to parse through this clutter. It’s not DNA evidence, but if there is Astroturfing going on, there are digital fingerprints.

I would want to ask the following:

  • How many of the commenters signed up around the same time? Is there a cluster that created accounts within a narrow window?
  • How many of the comments are coming from the same range of IP addresses?
  • How many of the comments are making the same grammar and spelling errors?
  • How many of the accounts have email addresses with a similar syntax? [email protected], for instance?
  • Is there a “rhythm” to the comments? Do they come in at two-to-three minute intervals, as though someone is logging out and logging back in again?
  • How active are these accounts on other topics?

Most of these questions are outside the realm of my answering, because I don’t have access to account information or server logs. But there are people who do — those working for the Birmingham News and AL.com, who have a vested interest in building a vibrant community of contributors and visitors. They want to make the site “sticky,” and participatory at the same time.

I would extend one more assumption… that if indeed there are agents seeding the illusion of grassroots support where none exists, there will be more than a few journalists who are unhappy with how they’ve been played.

Journalism isn’t the tonic that will save America. We’re best served by participation by people who are armed with information, and empowered to act on that information by expressing their desires.

Journalism is a valuable mechanism for connecting people with the information and perspective that enables them to execute their duties as citizens (or, more popularly, to abdicate them completely.)

Personally, I’m not much on gambling, but I wouldn’t place good odds on Journalists sitting idly by while special interests infest their forums and online architecture – all in the name of subverting public perception and eventual participation in issues that matter.


“Turf Merchants” Do Exist

In case you think I am imagining the evils, allow me to link back a couple of years to a post by Todd Defren, with Shift Communications. He found a pitch from a marketing firm that is downright scary in its implications:

After gaining a sense for the community at the blog/user forum, our rep (posing as a typical user) will begin to post up to 10 separate Comments over the course of a week or two, to achieve credibility – leading up to the post that will be of-value to the client.

“Then, another of our reps (also posing as a typical user), will come in a day later – using a different IP address – to thank the original poster for the ‘great find.’”

Please spend a couple of minutes looking at a few random comments and tell me what you think.

Did I miss a glaring tell?

Or am I pounding away at perfectly good sod?

What do you see there?

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Comments

  1. Dystopos says:

    I see that with almost no obstacles to publishing, that it requires more time or more savvy from readers to distinguish worthwhile information from targeted misinformation (or plain old worthless prattle)
    Also, great find!

  2. who knew all those crazy comments about langford & finding the perfect hair replacement product serve a purpose?

    great find!

  3. Great find!
    I have noticed some similar activity on other news articles and also on some Facebook fan pages.  Astroturfing is real in Alabama and it’s up to the entire online community to call it out when we see it.  I hope we can arm even more people with the tools to recognize this kind of activity in the future.

    • Thanks, Kris.

      I don’t know what side you’re on (or even what side I am on!), but I know you’re passionate about politics here. And no way, no how does it belong, because it is a weed that crowds out the light, killing the real grass roots.

  4. And just in case some folks still aren’t convinced.  Check out the comment history for garlicrolls, goinggreen6, and brunobros.

    All accounts started in the last week and all accounts commenting on the same articles, focused only on gambling, repeatedly. 

  5. Did you see that the Washington Post is developing a moderated comments system that assigns commenters to tiers, based on several factors, including their ability to stay within guidelines (no potty mouth, no personal attacks, etc.). People who do that and provide their real names get assigned to comment tier 1, meaning their comments will show with the article. Others will be relegated to a different tier–their comments are still visible, but you have to click-through to access them, so no OMG you are shutting down free speech nonsense, but stunts like the one you’ve discussed above would be largely avoided.
     

    • Interesting. A system that rewards Reputation.

      Might be something for Disqus to consider — they could shop those localized improvements as a way to white-label comment and community management.

  6. I don’t live in Alabama an I have neither an opinion nor any information on gambling legislation there.
     
    Wow!  What a nasty example!  Politics has always had its dirty tricks, but this crosses the line.
    Interested folks also may want to read Todd Defren’s excellent series on social media ethical dilemmas.
    (No, I don’t have a connection to Todd either.)
     

  7. Zackery M says:

    I’m not exactly sure why all astroturfing is unethical. And I want to take this chance to learn from pros about it.
    I know why fake, insincere (in this case) comments would be unethical. But what about if the comments came from legitimate (in this case) voters brought together.
    Would that be something different from astroturfing if a cause/politician/brand organized its fans/constituents/consumers to band together with a unified message? If I belonged to an organization that was for a cause like legalizing a sincere cause, what’s the difference between me and other members of the same group mailing the state government to support whatever that cause might be? Or using media resources to spread a message and promote similar action?
    I’m seriously wondering!! Where’s the line in the sand? What do you call it if not astroturfing?
    Thank you!
    Z

  8. If they were really clever, they would start publishing a few pro-Riley comments under names such as “Obamalover,” “IheartPelosi” or “GlobalWarmingIsReal.”

  9. entropy aka physician says:

    http://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?p=1032102
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troll_%28Internet%29
    so you found an agenda troll on the internetz lol.. I am shocked! : ) –

    • No, this is more insidious than an Agenda Troll.

      This is likely the work of a Public Relations firm, working on the clock to create the impression of a larger support base than really exists.

      Bad ethics for communicators. Persuasion and networking is great, but this would be very similar to rigging exit polls to keep some people from even bothering to vote.

  10. entropy aka physician says:

    In online gaming communities this is almost standard practice in any community (even on the part of game developers and not just the gamers – or even worse – the poker industry infiltrating gamer communities in some many more devious ways that it makes what you found child’s play).

  11. This is why
    1) Some, perhaps many serious marketers don’t take social media seriously
    2) Why SEO is a mystery whether digitally contrived or orchestrated outside of the digital space and then implemented there
    3) Social media is a house of cards that will run its cycle and not a foundation for the evolution of communications
    Fabulous  piece

  12. 5 Points Joe says:

    I am a paid online lobyist of the Indians who oppose expansion from citizens to Alabama Bingo. I am constantly defending the governors action, and fighting everyone you are talking about. Although I am paid also, only the bingo bots as I call them are wrong, cause gambling is like crystal meth. I hope everyone would give me the same credit as garlic rolls, he is annoying anyway

  13. My Screen Name is Garlic Rolls and if you want to track my posts I got online when my job was taken away from me at the end of Jan when the Corrupt Gov Bob Riley threatened to shut down the bingo hall that I was working at.  Without a job I can collect unemployment and wait for the great State of Alabama to right the wrong, or I can fight online in blogs emails and rallies to try and get my right to vote in the general election in Nov.  If you think the out of work bingo workers are a PR firm, well I thank you for the compliment.  If you take a look at some of the articles I would accuse anti bingo bloggers to be Gov Riley interns until one day it hit me, they were never that mad at our posts unless they were directly against The Indian casinos.  The Indians have spent millions to try and suppress the vote, and no doubt have the big PR firm out there doing a fair amount of Astroturfing.  Please realize that this bingo debate has put thousands out of work and that is why is it such a passionate topic for both sides.  If I am over blogging on this issues its because I have no other options to fight the Corruption in my community.  God Bless,
    Garlic Rolls
    PS I had to submit my real email to post comment on this article

  14. Holy Cow Ike! You’re right! Guess they found your piece worthy of their time, eh? BTW, nice work. 😉

  15. Great stuff, Ike –
    Note to Zackery M – Astroturfing is unethical because the identity of the commenter is kept secret from the reader. It’s secret because knowing that the commenter is a paid PR person impugns his/her authority. Secondly, the Astroturfer is representing him or herself as a mere interested person, not someone paid to post comments in support of his/her client’s position. Finally, persuasion is still a main goal of public relations — but we don’t hide our identities when we approach influencers, executives, journalists, editors, etc.  Our job is to convince people of our arguments (our clients’ arguments) – we need to be honest when we do that.
    Sean
    @commammo

  16. Zackery M says:

    Thank you, Sean. After putting thought into this post, I had a moment of clarity. When a real group of people comment on a cause, it’s grassroots. That term finally made sense. It was one of those times when you know the definition of a word, but don’t know what it really means.

    Z

  17. 5pointsJoe @ al.com says:

    If you were to look at the syntax and tone of the 5 points Joe on this blog and compare it to my posts at al.com you’d quickly realize that it is an impersonation and a very poor one at that.

    Ike, who I’ve never met but I am sure I will be accused of being him soon at al.com, has done an excellent job of exposing the astroturfers.

    Thanks, Ike!

  18. Dystopos says:

    It’s probably no coincidence that bingo’s biggest gubernatorial supporter is also getting a lot of eerie support in the comments sections…
    http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2010/06/alabama_democratic_nominee_for.html

Trackbacks

  1. Occam's RazR: Is this Astroturfing — or just coincidence?; you be the judge and jury; http://twurl.nl/b5071l

  2. An absolute must read http://ike4.me/o60 – it is a straw that can break the social media camel's back, messin' with trust

  3. Really fascinating look at potential astroturfing in @ikepigott's post on astroturfing: http://bit.ly/aS5fM6

  4. Ike Pigott says:

    @DoctorJones – I think newspapers could be more savvy about sniffing that stuff out: http://ike4.me/o60

  5. […] Next, they discuss the Washington Post’s new comment system that centers on only allowing trusted commenters appear in “Tier 1″ comments on articles. Others would be visible, but only after clicking through to another tier to view them. Bryan points out that the system’s effectiveness will rest largely on how it is implemented–an algorithm isn’t going to be as effective as humans screening. Jen points out that a commenting system that segregates trusted commenters from others may help alleviate instances like the one Ike Pigott outlines on his post about Journalistic Sodbusting. […]

  6. Ike Pigott says:

    HEADS UP! The Bingo commenters are commenting on my Sodbusting piece! | http://ike4.me/o60 (@kmatthews @billsledzik)

  7. guhmshoo says:

    Social media's equivalent to Woodward & Bernstein is @ikepigott. Check out his latest investigative piece: http://ike4.me/o60 Whoa!

  8. […] few days ago, I wrote about what appeared to be a fairly obvious case of Astroturfing – the practice of creating […]

  9. @IanBragg Thanks for asking! Essentially, it's a fake grassroots campaign http://bit.ly/abJuyI

  10. Wade Kwon says:

    #sundayread Ike Pigott (@ikepigott) uncovers shenanigans in public opinion on bingo: http://bit.ly/are7Wc / http://bit.ly/9Nvp9M

  11. […] Journalistic Sodbusting (Occam’s Razr): This is a fascinating look at astroturfing. Not sure what astroturfing is, take a look at this case and see what you think. […]

  12. […] Journalistic Sodbusting (Occam’s Razr): This is a fascinating look at astroturfing. Not sure what astroturfing is, take a look at this case and see what you think. […]

  13. Ike Pigott says:

    Just back from vacation, but WOW do these comments seem 'Turfy or what? | http://ike4.me/jsod2 (see http://ike4.me/o60)

  14. […] to swarm the site with positive comments about your company, however. It’ll look staged and potentially backfire. (And it should go without saying that employees, public relations team members, random family […]

  15. Wade Kwon says:

    @matthewstokes @messyepicure @gdouban Note that @ikepigott wrote about that in April: http://bit.ly/are7Wc