Saturday, January 11, 2014

Astroturfing--how a handful of paid operatives create false impressions of public opinion

On January 9, Washington Post columnist Harold Myerson posted a column titled "Despite what the critics are saying, Obamacare is working."

I just scored all 604 comments for this column, now that the commenting is pretty much wrapped up, and the results are telling:

Against the article & against the Affordable Care Act (ACA): 55%
For the article & for the ACA: 41%
Ambiguous: 4%

Of the anti-ACA comments, a majority were vitriolic rants laced with words like "socialist"
"Obummercare" and the like, accounting for a full third of all the comments.

Of the pro-ACA comments, a small minority were anti-right wing vitriolic rants--mostly in response to the hundreds of red-faced denunciations of all things Liberal/Democratic/Obama--accounting for 11% of all the comments.,

A very large percentage of the anti-ACA comments included expressions of contempt for the Washington Post.

It seems unlikely that this distribution of comments mirrors the demographics of the Washington Post's readership--especially since so many of the comments opposing Meyerson's column included statements that the Washington Post wasn't worth reading.

So--what accounts for this disparity? Where did all the antis come from, if they aren't WaPo readers? And what about the WaPo's paywall that limits nonsubscribers to commenting on only 10 articles a month?

The greatest likelihood is that they are the same kinds of operatives who the tobacco industry hired decades ago to pretend to be constitutents of Congressmen, inundating them with calls and letters and telegrams opposing tobacco regulation.

That is, paid Astroturfers.

Anyone can validate my numbers by devoting a few hours to totting up the comments on this thread. And anyone can see what the current state of the art is in right wing Astroturfing with a little research. It includes "persona management" software that can give one operative up to 100 different online identities, each with a unique IP address.

So much for the WaPo paywall, as this one comment thread proves. I hope the WaPo comes up with a way to control these trolls-for-hire. They're making reasoned discourse hard to do there. And on any other major newspaper's comment threads on issues where wealthy special forces want to game the system.

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