The art of astroturfing


In the past decade, particularly with the rise of the Internet, a new page has been added to the book of dirty political tricks. Rather humorously dubbed “astroturfing” by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, it’s the process by which paid political shills make use of anonymous forums, newsletters, letters to the editor, and other small-media sources to give the illusion that their pet issue has a strong grassroots support.

Most notoriously, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which ran a successful smear campaign against John Kerry in his run for the presidency, turned out not to be a non-partisan grassroots group comprised of veterans who were concerned about Kerry’s Vietnam experience. Instead, the group was a Republican-funded front operation designed to attack the presidential candidate where he was seen as being strongest, because, unlike President Bush and Vice President Cheney, Kerry has actually served as a soldier in combat, and had three Purple Hearts to show for it.

Astroturfing has become a quick and dirty way to spread disinformation about a political opponent. It’s a simple process to drop into a few dozen online chatrooms and add a few anonymous notes, or to dash off some strongly worded pseudonymous letters to community newspapers or church bulletins. Recently, on Flickr, a half-dozen semi-anonymous posters added a crude animated video of penguins sleeping through Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” The video was deliberately crude, designed to look as though it was created by an independent hobbyist who had issues with Gore’s movie. It wasn’t. The video was created by a Washington D.C. PR firm whose client list includes Exxon and General Motors.

Astroturfing can be hard to nail down. After all, just because a series of anonymous online posts all say pretty much the same thing, who’s to say that it isn’t a legitimate outpouring of grassroots concern? That being said, in the first few days after Keith Ellison won the 5th District Congressional Race, local internet discussion groups were plastered with anonymous and pseudonymous posts about the Democratic candidate, all making the exact same points about Ellison, all misinformed in exactly the same way. One series of posts reflected Republican candidate Alan Fine’s mistaken assertion that Ellison had been a member of the Nation of Islam, and is, therefore, a racist. On the blog MN Publius, a poster calling himself “Miller” responded to a post concerning the DFLer’s finances with this unrelated comment: “Like, for example, screaming ‘Racist!’ and ‘Bigot!’ at people who are critical of your candidate’s affiliation with an openly racist organization?”

A post on Ellison produced this explosive response, written in the passive voice, from someone calling himself “The Other Steve” (no additional details about the poster were available in his profile): “Reportedly, it was Ellison who advocated segregation of blacks and whites in his college writings … Ellison was also involved with the Nation of Islam in the past. Now Ellison is claiming it was for the group’s advocacy for men to stand up and take care of themselves, and not its anti-Semitic views.”

To be clear, no credible evidence has ever demonstrated more than the most tenuous link between Ellison and the Nation of Islam. In the early ’90s, he wrote a letter supporting NOI leader Louis Farrakhan to the Minnesota Daily, a letter he has since renounced, even going so far as to say on TPT’s Almanac that he now believes Farrakhan to be a racist. In 1995, Ellison was a local organizer for the Million Man March, which was initially convened by Farrakhan, but enjoyed much broader support. If Ellison’s support for the Million Man March is evidence of troubling ties to the Nation of Islam, then those same ties must be shared by Stevie Wonder, Rosa Parks, and Maya Angelou, who were all featured speakers at the event.

Perhaps more troubling is the anonymous posts on these sites attempting to link Ellison to terrorist organizations. On Aug. 25, the conservative blog Powerline reported that Ellison had attended a fundraiser in Brooklyn Park by United Chamber of Commerce and Muslim Coalition for Keith. On hand was Nihad Awad, an old friend of Ellison’s and the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a special-interest group that seeks, in its own words, “to enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.” CAIR has been criticized in the past for outspoken vocal (and some financial) support for Hamas. Within hours, anonymous posts were popping up on local blogs claiming that CAIR had sponsored the fundraiser, endorsed Ellison, and this was evidence not simply of anti-semitism on Ellison’s part but that he may, in fact, be a pawn of terrorists.

Someone calling himself “Dave” published this angry response on the City Pages Blotter: “Yet, even though Ellison is meeting with CAIR and receiving financial support from them (much of which comes from radical Islamists around the world) we’re supposed to now believe that Ellison has “changed”?

A commentor named “Andrew” on MnSpeak gave his own version of exactly the same criticism: “Mr. Ellison is strongly supported by CAIR; the Council on Arab American Relations and has received $ BIG $ campaign contributions from this terrorist organization.”

Andrews continued: “CAIR is a terrorist organization. It received funding from outside the U.S., from Iran and Hamas. While not on the list of terrorist organizations, its founders have been prosecuted for terrorist activities as well as several of its regional leaders. CAIR regularly condones and encourages terrorist violence agaonst the US. Mr. Ellison’s connections to this group are deeply disturbing.”

As the congressional race heats up, we can expect to see more of these attacks against Ellison all hitting the same essential talking points: Ellison has ties to Nation of Islam; Ellison has ties to radical, and perhaps terroristic, Muslim organizations. It’s a campaign exclusively rooted in the current climate of hostility toward Muslims and neatly sidesteps any real issues, replacing discussions of Ellison’s voting record and stated political platforms with innuendo and conjecture. It’s the 21st century version of the classic smear campaign, and it is, as ever, sometimes quite effective. After all, as Goebbels pointed out, the success of a big lie depends on sticking to it. If it appears in enough places, it will acquire credibility.