What happens when special interests create the illusion of “grass-roots movements” in order to manipulate the hearts, minds, wallets, and voting behaviors of real people? Astroturfing. Employing fake social profiles, mass-produced “bots,” and paid trolls, these veiled, organized attacks are put to work on all kinds of issues that impact your health, safety, and autonomy. Here’s what you need to know.

This week on The Living Experiment, we’re talking about Astroturfing — the insidious and increasingly common strategy by which special interests create the illusion of grass-roots movements in order to manipulate public opinion, promote unpopular policies, and even subvert elections.

From shady mis-information campaigns waged by Big Business to the rise of “fake news” and fake social-media feeds created with the express purpose of dividing a nation, we’re seeing the emergence of a new and highly effective form of public brainwashing.

So here, we explore the potential this sort of dis-information has to undermine our media and democracy. We look at how astroturfing is being used to mess with our minds, influence our behavior, and to subvert our common interests.

Finally, we offer you some experiments to help you get wise to how astroturfing works, and where it might be showing up in your own life.

“Astroturfing” Episode Highlights

  • Pilar and Dallas share their first-hand experiences with astroturfing
  • A current example of astroturfing — Russia’s widespread efforts to influence recent elections in the U.S. and Europe
  • Other issues, industries, and topics where astroturfing is common
  • How organizers of these campaigns use social and mass media to spread their messages
  • The influence that fake news, social-media polling, and personal attacks can have on legitimate journalists, compounding astroturfing’s reach and impact
  • How to recognize astroturfing, and why it’s so difficult to publicly uncover and extinguish
  • Avoiding the herd mentality that astroturfers rely on
  • The importance (and practical challenges) of doing deeper research before forwarding, sharing, or reversing your own position based on what looks like strong “public” or “scientific” support (but isn’t)

Pick a notable new thing you’ve learned online in the last year — some idea that really grabbed you or that changed your opinion. Think about how you came upon that new idea, whether you spent any time at all checking out its legitimacy, and if groupthink played any part in your perception of reality.

Check out an item from the Resources section below to educate yourself about what astroturfing is, how it works, and for whom. See if these new insights inspire you to become a more discerning media consumer, and if you can now better spot astroturfing when you see it. 

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