Over three years ago, Adam Bienkov wrote an article for The Guardian, “Astroturfing: what it is and why does it matter.” He noted how the use of “astroturf” groups was widespread and could be found internationally, across all walks of life—from book reviews to online surveys to big business and to local politics. He described astroturfing as: “The attempt to create an impression of widespread grassroots support for a policy, individual, or product, where little such support exists.” Astroturfers use multiple online identities and fake pressure groups to mislead the public into believing the position held by the astroturfer was the commonly held view.
Here is a TED talk by journalist Sharyl Attkisson on Astroturf and media manipulation. She said Astroturf was a perversion of grassroots. Astroturf is when political, corporate or other special interests disguise themselves and publish blogs, start facebook and twitter accounts, publish ads or letters to the editor or simply post comments online. Astroturf seeks to change your opinion by manipulating you. “Astroturfers seek to controversialize those who disagree with them.” Sometimes their strategy is to throw in so much confusing and contradictory information into the mix, that people are tempted to throw up their hands and disregard all of it—including the truth.
Complacency in the newsmedia combined with incredibly powerful propaganda and publicity forces mean we sometimes get little of the truth. . . . . Surreptitious astroturf methods are now more important to these interests than traditional lobbying of Congress. There is an entire industry built around it in Washington.
One example she discussed at length was how Wikipedia was compromised by astroturfing editors. She also described how author Philip Roth was told he wasn’t a credible source to correct a factual error in Wikipedia about one of his own novels. When a medical study looked at medical conditions described on Wikipedia pages, and compared the descripption to actual peer-reviewed published research, “Wikipedia contradicted published research 90% of the time.”
She went on to describe an investigation she did a few years ago for CBS News on a story coming out that was done by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). Her investigation showed that the study was actually a survey, conducted by the NSF. The NSF and the survey was sponsored in part by the makers of a new drug about to be released—Lunesta. CBS was the only news outlet to report the connection.
This sounded a bit out there at first. But after I read the above information on astroturfing, it made sense. I saw where it fit with what I’ve read (and written here on Faith Seeking Understanding) about how some pharmaceutical companies market their drugs and some psychiatrists have perpetuated false beliefs about those drugs. If you want another source, read Psychiatry Under the Influence by Robert Whitaker and Lisa Cosgrove. And then I realized I may have had some contact with astroturfers myself.
I wrote an article on June 6, 2015 on palcohol titled: “Hype Over Powered Alcohol.” Soon after my article was published online, I received an email whose sender identified himself as the creator of palcohol. After reading about astroturfing, I don’t believe the email was from Mr. Philips. Rather, it must have been from someone hired to do astroturfing for Lipsmark, his company. Philips was about to launch his product nationally. He didn’t have time to respond nastily to my article. The email opened with: “I wouldn’t call your publication Faith Seeking Understanding [my website’s name] unless understanding comes from misinformation.” The email went on to say:
You have so much misinformation in your article, I don’t even know where to begin. I can understand why you don’t have a Comments section at the end of your article because you would have people who know the truth pointing out the countless mistakes in your article. You should really do a better job on presenting factual, balanced information about a topic.
I do have a comments section and in my response to the person saying they were the creator of palcohol, offered to post it myself if he couldn’t. I never heard back.
Another time I wrote an article titled: “Medical Reform or Medicinal Con?” It noted the pending legislation in the Pennsylvania legislature for the legalization of medical marijuana. I suggested that the work to accept medical marijuana could be a first steppingstone for the legalization of recreational marijuana.
Someone who said they were “Stel1776” took an instant dislike to what I said and engaged me in a back-and-forth discussion that seemed to be more a way of using what I’d written to then post their pro marijuana position. Stel1776 first deleted his/her first post from my site. When I re-read it, it seemed to be an example of astroturfing. Disqus data on “Stel1776” indicated he/she had made 6,742 comments, 129 of which were flagged and 138 marked as “spam.”
When I published the first of three articles on the use of baclofen to treat alcoholism, my website’s facebook page had a comment from another facebook page named “Baclo Fen.” The comment said: “If interested about baclofen (and other addictions) you can find all news here in this FB account …” Part 1 of my article was relating more of the history of baclofen treatment developed by Olivier Ameisen and it reported his rather positive outlook of it. The next two articles were questioning and critical; I didn’t get any comments from “Baclo Fen.”
Then I had someone attempt to post a comment to advertise a spell caster in a comment attached to an article I wrote: “Diagnosing Spiritual Heart Problems.” And another time there was a comment from “Marowincyin” on an article titled: “Hepatitis Hostages” about the high cost of Solvadi and Harvoni, which treat Hepatitis C at a cost of over $1,000 per pill. Her suggested link led to a website advertising how to but these drugs overseas. Here’s the thing. If my little corner of the web can attract attention from astroturfers, imagine how widespread this phenomena really is.
Writing for Salon A.M. Gittlitz said: “I was a political astroturfer.” He described how he was hired through a Craigslist ad for “TV Press Rally Extras” to be at a rally. “The job will once again be to stand behind elected officials and cheer, hold signs, be enthusiastic. If you have already worked the previous event, the rules, payment, instructions, sign-in and EVERYTHING is the same, except location.” He was offered $20 an hour.
The marketing done by Shire for its drug Vyvanse to treat binge eating disorder has an astroturfing feel as well. Soon after Vyvanse was approved by the FDA to treat binge eating disorder, Monica Celes went on “Good Morning America” and “The Dr. Oz Show” to relate her person struggle with binge eating. Seles was a paid spokesperson for Shire. See “A Drug in Search of a Disorder” for more on this.
Sharyl Attkisson in her TED Talk gave a hypothetical scenario about the comprehensive marketing strategy with a cholesterol-lowering drug that illustrated the sophistication of this process. It means we can’t take things we read at face value anymore. Here is a case in point. “Bel Buca” has a Twitter account: @Belbuca. “Her” picture is of a young, attractive woman. But Belbuca is actually a new opioid pain management drug whose active ingredient is buprenorphine, a drug used in maintenance therapy for opioid addiction. Addicts I’ve known who have abused buprenorphine said it was harder to withdraw from than heroin.
Attkisson identified four ways to help spot astroturfing: 1) Inflammatory and charged language, such as: quacks, kooks, pseudo, conspiracy theorist. 2) Made up myths that are ‘debunked.’ 3) Attacking or controversializing people’s character or organizations instead of addressing the facts. 4) The ‘turfers’ reserve their public skepticism and criticisms for those exposing the wrong doers instead of directing that skepticism to the wrongdoers themselves.
In “Psychiatry, Diagnose Thyself! Part 1” I described what psychiatrist and former President of the American Psychiatric Association, Jeffrey Lieberman, had to say about anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann, journalist and write Robert Whitaker and The New York Times. His statements qualify as astroturfing, as he was clearly attempting to controversalize them by his remarks. He used charged language in his criticism, attempting to say Luhrmann portrayed psychiatry as philosophy or religion, and attacked both Luhrmann personally. When leaders within the field of psychiatry resort to such tactics to defend their profession, determining what is truth and what is rhetoric can be hard to distinguish. I’m grateful for Sharyl Attkisson’s suggestions.