mercoledì 15 dicembre 2010

Astroturfing e il partito dei 50 centesimi

Le compagnie petrolifere organizzano adunate contro i tentativi del governo di regolare le emissioni di CO2. 

- Che cosa vogliamo? Siccità, alluvioni, ondate di calore e estinzioni di massa!! Quando le vogliamo? Ora!!

- Salvate big oil!
- Uccidi il pianeta, salva un posto di lavoro!
- Giù le mani dalla mia benzina.


E' incredibile quante cose stiamo imparando in questo dibattito sul cambiamento climatico. Mi sto sempre di più convincendo di come l' "Astroturfing" sia un'arma di confusione di massa veramente micidiale. L'intervento di persone che si nascondono dietro una facciata di buona fede per manipolare le opinioni altrui riesce a lungo andare a distruggere le convinzioni più serie e fondate.

L'astroturfing è - a livello mediatico - esattamente la stessa cosa dell' "infiltrazione" nei movimenti politici con falsi manifestanti che vengono inviati per disturbare le manifestazioni o per screditarne gli organizzatori. Ne abbiamo visto un esempio recentissimo, come leggiamo sul blog "crisis". 

Di astroturfing ne ho parlato in dei post precedenti (qui, e qui), come pure ne ha parlato Carlo Fusco (qui). Adesso, ne parla George Monbiot nell'articolo che vi passo in fondo.

Se masticate bene l'inglese, l'articolo di Monbiot è veramente illuminante. Fra le tante cose, lo sapevate che in Cina c'è il "partito dei 50 cent?" Persone pagate dal governo Cinese l'equivalente di 50 centesimi di dollaro per ogni post che scrivono per disturbare il dibattito oppure sterzarlo in direzione favorevole alle politiche governative. Non è uno scherzo, c'è davvero! (vedi, per esempio, Wikipedia e i link annessi)

50 centesimi a post? Mi fa venire in mente qualcuno, che però non è cinese......


The internet is being captured by organised trolls. It’s time we fought back. 

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian, 14th December 2010

They are the online equivalent of enclosure riots: the rick-burning, fence-toppling protests by English peasants losing their rights to the land. When MasterCard, Visa, Paypal and Amazon tried to shut WikiLeaks out of the cyber-commons, an army of hackers responded by trying to smash their way into these great estates and pull down their fences.

In the Wikileaks punch-up the commoners appear to have the upper hand. But it’s just one battle. There’s a wider cyberwar being fought, of which you hear much less. And in most cases the landlords, with the help of a mercenary army, are winning.

I’m not talking here about threats to net neutrality and the danger of a two-tier internet developing(1,2), 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 example, is likely to be bombarded with abuse by people purporting to be ordinary citizens, upset by the slurs against their country.

But many of them aren’t upset: they are members of the 50 Cent Party, so-called because one Chinese government agency pays 5 mao (half a yuan) for every post its tame commenters write(3). Teams of these sock-puppets are hired by party leaders to drown out critical voices and derail intelligent debates.

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(4,5). 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 organization 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.”(6)

The Bivings site also quoted a senior executive from the biotech corporation Monsanto, thanking the PR firm for its “outstanding work”(7). 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”(8). Rowell and Matthews then discovered that the IP address on Andura Smetacek’s messages was assigned to Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri(9). There’s a nice twist to this story. AstroTurf TM - real fake grass - was developed and patented by Monsanto.

Reading comment threads on the Guardian’s sites and elsewhere on the web, two patterns jump out at me. The first is that discussions of issues in which there’s little money at stake tend to be a lot more civilised than debates about issues where companies stand to lose or gain billions: such as climate change, public health and corporate tax avoidance. These are often characterised by amazing levels of abuse and disruption.

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(10).

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 be more willing to discuss an issue than these right-wing libertarians, many of whom seek instead 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.

For his film (Astro)Turf Wars, Taki Oldham secretly recorded a training session organised by a rightwing libertarian group called American Majority. The trainer, Austin James, was instructing Tea Party members on how to “manipulate the medium”(11). This is what he told them:

“Here’s what I do. I get on Amazon; I type in “Liberal Books”. I go through and I say “one star, one star, one star”. The flipside is you go to a conservative/ libertarian whatever, go to their products and give them five stars. … This is where your kids get information: Rotten Tomatoes, Flixster. These are places where you can rate movies. So when you type in “Movies on Healthcare”, I don’t want Michael Moore’s to come up, so I always give it bad ratings. I spend about 30 minutes a day, just click, click, click, click. … If there’s a place to comment, a place to rate, a place to share information, you have to do it. That’s how you control the online dialogue and give our ideas a fighting chance.”

Over 75% of the funding for American Majority, which hosted this training session, comes from the Sam Adams Alliance(12). In 2008, the year in which American Majority was founded, 88% of the alliance’s money came from a single donation, of $3.7m(13). A group which trains rightwing libertarians to distort online democratic processes, in other words, was set up with funding from a person or company with a very large wallet.

The internet is a remarkable gift, which has granted us one of the greatest democratic opportunities since universal suffrage. We’re in danger of losing this global commons as it comes under assault from an army of trolls and flacks, many of them covertly organised or trained. The question for all of us - the Guardian, other websites, everyone who benefits from this resource - is what we intend to do about it. It’s time we fought back and reclaimed the internet for what it does best: exploring issues, testing ideas, opening the debate.


6. Andrew Dimock, head of the Bivings Groups Online Marketing and Promotions division, 1st April 2002. “Viral Marketing: How to Infect the World”.
The original article was here:

But has since been taken down. Subsequently a note says that it has been “Recently edited for clarification”: which appears to mean saying the exact opposite of what the original stated, and re-posted here:
You can read extracts from the original version here:
7. See
(The original has also been taken down).
8. Newsnight, 7th June 2002.
10. See also the interesting comment by SteB1, here:
12. Scott K Parks, 5th October 2009. American Majority holds Dallas workshop. The Dallas Morning News.

13. Karoli, 26th April 2010. American Majority: Part the astroturf to see what’s underneath.

7 commenti:

  1. Forse sono un ingenuo, ma esegerando solo un po' definirei questa storia come inquitante.

  2. Aggiungo al post questo commento sul "Guardian"

    ...... I tend to discount conspiracies or the worst options without a lot of evidence. However, my experience with some of these contrarians causes me to question whether these are really joe public off the street types doing it because they care strongly about the issue. Firstly, I don't know of many enthusiastic people that would spend 10 hours or more a day posting lie, after lie - lies that get repeatedly exposed. The other week, one of them pursued me for over 12 hours, from the afternoon to 4:30am in the morning. They tried one intellectual trick after another to catch me out and try and get something on me. Initially it seemed it was a typical uninformed bloke off the street making uninformed comments. However, as it progressed I realised I was arguing with a professional who had a background in the arts, philosophy, economics etc.

    I also see very strong evidence that these troll attacks are coordinated. When one of these environmental articles is posted the so called contrarians descend on it en masse, no matter what time of the day the article is posted. There are ridiculous amounts of recommendations given to any contrarian comment, no matter how short, if it is complete drivel, and even if the claim is shown to be completely untrue. The deliberate attempt is to hoodwink the public into believing that contrarians are a mass joe public movement, when in reality they appear to be a very noisy minority. At the very least there is a forum or social networking site that these trolls are using to coordinate their attacks.

    There appears to be little doubt in my mind that this is a coordinated and orchestrated viral propaganda campaign. The clear attempt is to repeat the same lie over and over, and to drown out all the informed commenters by sheer force of numbers. The attempt is clear, and that is to litter all environmental reporting with a mass of lies and distortions in the hope that it will mislead a few more of the public. I have been arguing that the natural world matters since I was very young and before any of these issues became popular. I have nearly 40 years experience of the type of argument people put up. What is new is that these people carry on after you repeatedly expose them for not knowing what they are talking about, and having made false statements. They don't care, you are arguing with people that have no intellectual integrity at all. This is very unusual. Normally when someone is personally motivated to argue something, they naturally care about the subject. But these people do not give a damn about be right or not. So what motivates someone to post one inaccurate claim after another, and to not care about repeatedly being exposed for using intellectual dishonest?

  3. Diavolo, 50 centesimi a post sono una tariffa spaventosa, pensate che e' uguale alla paga oraria di vecchi e bambini nelle fabbriche.

    Considerando che se ci si specializza un poco, s ossono postare almeno un centinaio di post al giorno, sono 50 sacchi, roba mica male.

    Questo, pero', in controluce ci permette di capire quanto sia importante il problema: il valore di un problema lo si capisce dagli investimenti che ci fanno sopra ( pro o contro, soprattutto contro).


  4. La cosa impressionante è, invece, quanto costa poco se visto dall'altra parte. Con mille euro a 30 eurocent a commento, ti procuri più di 3000 commenti a te favorevoli; come ditta, persona, lobby o partito politico. Oppure, 3000 commenti di critica al tuo nemico/avversario. E 3000 commenti fanno rumore!

    1000 euro uno se li può tirar fuori di tasca anche solo per la soddisfazione. E pensa invece a quanti soldi può tirar fuori una lobby come quella del carbone o del petrolio.

    E una cosa da far girare la testa.....

  5. Dubito che una cosa del genere capiti anche in Italia.

    Però se fossi a capo del progetto recluterei le persone direttamente tramite forum, blog etc. perché una persona che crede in quello che fa è molto più efficiente di un cecchino prezzolato.

    Ammesso che si possano spedire in media 10 commenti all'ora, con due ore di lavoro al giorno e 25 persone (un gruppo ben gestibile e selezionabile) si hanno 500 commenti, da dividere fra i Mario Rossi pro e i Luca Bianchi contro, non necessariamente in parti uguali.

    Farei anche in modo di avere ogni 5 commentatori senza arte né parte almeno uno con cultura in materia, di quelli che inizia scrivendo "Sono d'accordo, però bisogna considerare anche..."

    D'altra parte non bisogna rischiare di affibbiare subito del venduto al primo che scrive delle boiate pazzesche; secondo me c'è altro sotto (e non è DK).

  6. @hydraulics
    Se né DK né 50 cents ("though I would be surprised if none were paid"), "what motivates someone to post one inaccurate claim after another, and to not care about repeatedly being exposed for using intellectual dishonest?"

  7. @ ocasapiens

    Monbiot scrive anche "I’m not suggesting that most of the people trying to derail these discussions are paid to do so", ed è precisamente quello che penso.

    Essere affetti da DK o pagati è condizione (forse) sufficiente per scrivere falsità, ma non necessaria.

    Comunque la mia ultima frase si riferiva a quanti (quanti!) si improvvisano esperti e al loro successo di pubblico, quella che io chiamo scienza fai da te; ci sto pensando su da un po'.