ASTROTURF GONE WILD


What a Gawker story about Politico's web traffic tells us about the current state of media internet astroturfing and the emerging crime art of faking grassroots political action on the web in 2016

A .gif that illustrates the current state of capturing millenial votes in the United States.
Please don't have a seizure.



Sections:
So Meta: Gawker's story about Politico.com's web traffic
The astroturf arms race
House of Cards
#HillzTrollz
How is this legal?
Next Steps
Updates/More Reading

What is "Astroturf"?

Most of us know astroturf is the fake plastic grass made out of synthetic fibers that is laid down over playing fields. But in media contexts, astroturf simply means media content that appears to be grassroots in origin that in reality is paid-for marketing content. In other words: artifical grassroots.

So Meta: Gawker's story about Politico.com's web traffic

A couple of weeks ago in mid-April, Gawker ran a story pondering, "Why Is the Internet Obsessed With Photos of Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin?". It simply pointed out that a photo slideshow that Politico.com had put together three years ago of Hillary and her top aide Huma Abedin was currently spotted at the top of the "Most Read" list on the Politico.com homepage. Gawker staffer T.K. Trotter simply asked: Why would this simple slideshow that seemed to insinuate there was more to this relationship be randomly trending three years later for no apparent reason? Trotter pointed out that two days before, the right-wing news aggregator DrudgeReport.com had linked to this Daily Mail article whose slimy title appears to be: "Our eyes connected and I thought 'Wow'".

Huma is looking at Hillary in this screencap from DrudgeReport

There is no direct link to the Politico slideshow from the article Drudge linked to. In the absence of web analytics data about the source of the mysterious Politico traffic, Gawker's J.K. Trotter posits this answer:

"A review of Politico’s assorted social media accounts indicates the political news organization is not intentionally driving traffic to these 17 photos. Neither its Facebook or Twitter pages have recently promoted them. That suggests the slideshow’s popularity is entirely organic."

But there is another possibility that Trotter's Gawker article didn't present. Given the current state of internet astroturfing, the web traffic that propelled Politico's Hillary/Huma slideshow to the top of its "Most Read" list could have been itself artificial.

The Astroturf Arms Race

So how could simple web traffic itself be astroturf? The answer is laid bare in this incredible Bloomberg feature: "How To Hack an Election". In it, a jailed South American hacker reveals the secrets of the dirty business of using bots and trolls to shape public opinion online. Under the supervision of the South American version of Karl Rove, hacker Andrés Sepúlveda claims he created armies of (fake) internet users and used them as a botnet to manipulate elections in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Venezuela and Mexico. Sepúlveda says that his work with campaigns was always hidden by layers of shell companies between himself and his employer -- the Karl Rove-esque figure of the story -- a Miami-based political consultant named Juan José Rendón. Most interestingly, the Bloomberg article closes with this juicy insinuation:

"Last year, based on anonymous sources, the Colombian media reported that Rendón was working for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Rendón calls the reports untrue. The campaign did approach him, he says, but he turned them down because he dislikes Trump. “To my knowledge we are not familiar with this individual,” says Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks. “I have never heard of him, and the same goes for other senior staff members.” But Rendón says he’s in talks with another leading U.S. presidential campaign — he wouldn’t say which — to begin working for it once the primaries wrap up and the general election begins."

It is therefore possible to speculate that a botnet -- a network of linked computers and/or social media accounts under the control of a puppet master -- could easily have been pointed at the mysterious Politico slideshow and driven its traffic metrics up, landing it at the top of the "Most Read" sidebar feature; in a capitalist society, you can be sure that Rendón isn't the only political consultant with a formidable botnet at his fingertips. To Politico, traffic from a botnet like this would have appeared to be totally organic traffic and would have raised no alarms at all.

Coincidentally, all of this sordid Huma/Hillary Politico.com slideshow traffic came right after Politico ran a story about conservative Hillary supporter David Brock bragging about having dug up enough dirt on Trump to "knock Trump tower down to the sub-basement". The Hillary/Brock camp claims they are just holding on to the Trump dirt for now, waiting to sling it at the orange prince once the general election begins and Bernie Sanders is out of the way.

In this particular case, although the hacker/botnet astroturf theory is totally plausible and should have been presented as a possible answer as to why the Hillary/Huma slideshow was trending, we should note that the most likely suspect in the case of the mystery Politico traffic is Google's search engine results. A simple Google search for "Hillary Clinton Human Abedin" contains nearly half a million results, the very first of which (at this time) is a photo with a link to the slimy Politico slideshow. So we can now hazard a guess that this Google search result is the likely origin of the mystery traffic, not a botnet. Perhaps it was both. Makes you wonder about Twitter "Trends" and "Most Read" lists, though.

House of Cards

This leads us into discussion of yet another form of exotic digital skunkworks: search engine astroturfing . This form of astroturf is so potent and invisible that it led to an entire story arc on the Netflix series "House of Cards" (to be clear: I am not suggesting the "Hillary Clinton Huma Abedin" Google result that may have led to the Politico.com traffic spike is actually search engine astroturf; I am just illustrating how search engine astroturf theoretically works using this search as an example).

Here I am defining search engine manipulation as astroturf based on the fact that Google's legendary PageRank algorithm uses a combination of factors to decide search result rankings, but is known to heavily skew towards what is known as "link structure": how many incoming links a web page has and how much authority the linking pages appear to have. In other words, Google ranks pages by how popular they are (duh), so it is accurate to describe organic (not paid-for) search engine results as "grassroots". It follows, then, that manipulation of search engine results can be classified as astroturfing.

An excellent resource for understanding the true potential impact of search engine astroturf is an article written by Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California, author of 15 books, and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today: "The New Mind Control. 'Subliminal Stimulation', Controlling People without Their Knowledge".


The TL;dr of Robert Epstein's analysis:

* By the early 1950s politicians were beginning to market themselves using the same subtle forces being used to sell soap
* Google has become the main gateway to virtually all knowledge, mainly because it gives us exactly the information we are looking for, almost instantly
* That ordered list is so well-curated that 50% of our clicks go to the top two items
* How Google decides the order of its results is one of the best-kept secrets in the world, similar to the way that the formula for Coca-Cola is so well-guarded
* To test the effect of search engine results on political campaigns, Epstein designed a study that demonstrated what he calls the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (or SEME)
* The shift in voter opinion he was able to engineer using the Search Engine Manipulation Effect was so potent that it could change his test group's voting preferences anywhere from 37% all the way up to 80%, depending on the demographic

In House of Cards, Frank Underwood's campaign challenger has struck a deal with Pollyhop -- a fictional search engine not unlike Google. Caught flat-footed for once, President Underwood is forced to employ an illicit data mining operation (utilizing government spy agencies) to begin harvesting voter data so he can counter Pollyhop's user monitoring and SEME techniques. Frank immediately begins to use his ill-gotten voter data to subtly shape his messages on the campaign trail and keep his finger on the pulse of the nation (or his wing-tip on the back of our necks, however you want to look at it).

#HillzTrollz

As I pointed out in an earlier post about electioneering in digital media, every serious campaign is now emulating grassroots organizing tactics online because they were first pioneered in a big, successful way by the Obama campaign in 2008. Utilizing social media in particular, Obama deployed some of these grassroots techniques to wipe the floor with Hillary Clinton (he actually won by a narrow margin of 4%, so yeah, these techniques matter).

Not to be outdone this time around, Hillary seems to have systematically pieced together a formidable 2016 astroturfing offensive by striking up strategic partnerships with tech executives.

Clinton's Google connection, in particular, has flown low under the radar. According to this Quartz piece, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt helped form a company named The Groundwork to, as they say, ensure that the Hillary campaign has what it needs to succeed. [UPDATE: The Wikileaks.org Podesta Emails have revealed the gory details of this relationship: how it started and proof that it was exclusive].



A glance at The Groundwork logo reveals a circle, perhaps even a planet? Beneath a surface on that planet we see several digitized lines, perhaps they are seeds? Shoots of seeds? Are they grassroots? But instead of growing straight up and surfacing at random, they are joining other lines that all point to one small dot floating above the surface. That dot sits between the grassroots and a large pyramid that seems to radiate so much power. With one slip of sheer gravity, the pyramid appears to be able to easily crush all of the other forms embedded within the circle.

Gently rock yourself back and forth. Now repeat after me:
The Groundwork logo is totally not scary.
The Groundwork logo is totally not scary.


Sidenote: A glance at The Groundwork logo reveals a circle, perhaps even a planet? Beneath a surface on that planet we see several digitially stylized lines, perhaps they are seeds? Shoots of seeds? Are they digital grassroots? But instead of growing straight up and surfacing at random, they are joining other lines that all point to one small dot floating above the surface. That small dot floats between the grassroots and a large pyramid that seems to radiate so much power. With one slip of sheer gravity, the pyramid appears to be able to easily crush all of the other forms embedded within the circle. This is all happening at low contrast and is very difficult to see.

I digress.

The Groundwork (a "startup" named after work that is done in the ground, near the roots) is run by the former Obama 2008 campaign's chief technology officer. Quartz reported that The Groundwork billed the Hillary campaign $177,000 in the second quarter of 2015 alone.

Most importantly, the Quartz article poses this important question: "Are Startups the New Super-Pacs?":

"That’s the beauty of the Groundwork: Instead of putting money behind a Super PAC that can’t coordinate with the campaign, a well-connected donor like Schmidt can fund a startup to do top-grade work for a campaign, with the financial outlay structured as an investment, not a donation."

-- http://qz.com/520652/groundwork-eric-schmidt-startup-working-for-hillary-clinton-campaign/

Clinton's Twitter connections have been a little more closely scrutinized, thanks to rampant speculation that began when users began to suspect the #WhichHillary hashtag had been censored by the social network after a gaffed encounter with a Black Lives Matter protestor at a fundraiser. DailyKos covered the incident here and raised questions about the possible timing of the alleged #WhichHillary censorship, given that Twitter's executive chairman Omid Kordestani threw a fundraiser for Hillary just one week before the incident, right before key primary elections.

Twitter is not alone in facing cries of censorship when it comes to Hillary Clinton. Wikileaks has accused Facebook of censoring it to protect Hillary as well when they tried to post a link to the searchable database of FOIA'd Hillary emails. TruthDig has a great summary of the incident here.



But Hillary Clinton is not alone in her astroturfing, and that's why if you ask she'll say: Don't hate the player, hate the game. Having suffered defeat in the face of voter data-driven microtargetting campaigns on social media in 2008, she'll tell you that she didn't invent these techniques. And she's right. This election cycle, the "grassroots" game has turned into an arms race fueled by gasoline-scented piles of cash.

The marketing master known as @realDonaldTrump is the King of Twitter, where he allegedly keeps his own personal army of Twitter bots. Because Twitter isn't just a place where marketing bobbleheads go to copulate. No, Twitter is where the media goes to manufacture consent take the country's temperature. Donald Trump seems to perfectly understand this, as illustrated in this article by Kemberlee Kaye at Legal Insurrection that documents his arsenal of tactical online weapons.

So Hillary simply has no other choice but to astroturf in the face of all this. And nobody loves a good arms race more than Hillary Clinton. As RawStory and others reported just a few days ago, Clinton announced a new SuperPac unironically named Correct The Record that will use $1 million to fight anti-Clinton rhetoric on Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The SuperPac will take advantage of a loophole created by the Federal Election Commission that they claim has (stupidly) created an exemption for content posted online "for free".

Flash forward a few days from Thursday's announcement to Monday night, when reports began to trickle in about pro-Bernie Sanders Facebook pages getting trolled with really dirty tactics. Spammed with kiddie porn and images of animal abuse, Facebook automatically took down many pro-Bernie pages as reported by USUncut on Monday night. This is a commonly used dirty tactic online: most social media services will automatically take down posts/tweets/pages/groups when people complain about this kind of content, even if the author or group is not actually responsible for the content. We also see this with YouTube videos; activists will often find their content has been removed for "copyright" violations, even if the copyright holder is not the one who reported the violation and has no intention of going after the activist who posted the content, even if the media used is protected by "fair use" laws.

How Is This Legal?

Apparently, all of the tactics outlined here are legal and do not violate campaign regulation law. At least that's what the candidates using them are trying to say.

“What they [Clinton campaign] are doing with Correct the Record is groundbreaking. It is creating new ways to undermine campaign regulation.”

-- Paul Ryan, attorney for the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center via http://www.rawstory.com/2016/04/pro-clinton-pac-in-cahoots-with-campaign-to-spend-1-million-to-fight-critics-on-social-media/

The story arc in Netflix's House of Cards suggests that laws around this stuff already exist, they are just not being enforced. In the European Union, the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive requires that paid content be disclosed as such. If the Unites States had a law like this, it would clearly demonstrate to the public and its legal bodies that these astroturfing tactics fall within the jurisdiction of campaign finance regulation. In other words: because astroturf is paid-for content, campaigns that are actively engaging in it may be breaking the law and subject to penalities -- in this election right now.

Now before you start running in the streets screaming "Netflix for president!", consider this first: Netflix has a dog in this fight. It is well-documented that Hillary has taken alot of money from Verizon as well as its top executives; this Salon.com article points out that she has received $225,000 from Verizon for speeches, and that the telco giant has filled Clinton Foundation coffers with six-figure donations. Why would Verizon do this? They might be under the impression that Hillary is their pay-to-play candidate, and in their near-constant attacks on Net Neutrality, Verizon is a direct threat to Netflix's business model which depends on Net Neutrality. So understand this: Netflix seems to be doing (or allowing their writers to do) some populist editorializing -- because our interests converge, for now.

In this country, the phrase "free elections" is now shorthand for "expensive elections" brought to you by voter data mining, the surveillance economy and its ad microtargetting on social media, allegedly censored hashtags, comment trolls, botnets and "startups".

As Malkia Cyril of the Center for Media Justice observes: the strategy of subverting grassroots movements is not new. It is the medium that is new. Cyril points out that in America, there has always been a surveillance class and a surveilled class. The surveillance class invented CoIntelpro to monitor and subvert the grassroots campaigns of Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s.

"The point of surveillance at this level is not simply to invade our privacy, but to carry out the primary economic and social objectives of both state and economy, which too often are at odds with our own, at odds with human rights and the course of humanity. It’s time to revolt and reject the use of technology to uphold the caste system in this country."

-- Malkia Cyril on Targeted Surveillance, Civil Rights, and the Fight for Democracy

Next Steps

We need to ask ourselves as a society: is current campaign finance law not being violated with astroturfing tactics? What we need are some serious legal heavyweights to do a deep investigation as to whether the astroturfing tactics currently being used constitute violations of the existing campaign finance laws we already have on the books.

If it is found that the astroturfing techniques outlined in this article are, in fact, currently legal, we must update campaign finance laws to include the following:

* Targeted political ad-buys that use demographic data
* Using botnets to manipulate social media
* Using botnets to manipulate web traffic
* Coordinating a "startup" with a political campaign that is the beneficiary of its priceless innovations and inventions
* Paying people to troll online media for a candidate
* Coordinating with a Super Pac expressly designed to troll online media for a candidate
Until we rein in big data and astroturfing in elections with campaign regulation as well as enforce the existing campaign finance laws we already have, we will not have a civil society. We will have a surveillance society.


We must support organizations working on real campaign reform:
Move To Amend

We must support organizations working on real big data and surveillance reform:
EFF.org
ACLU.org
Center for Media Justice

We must vary our web browsing habits:
Use DuckDuckGo.com to search the web, it does not track you or gather personal data about you.
Vary your news sources and don't trust social media to give you the whole picture; you can use LevelNews.org to find alternative news; we don't sell you or your browsing habits.

...And do more reading about how astroturf works:
Check out "Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy" by Edward Walker
Start from the beginning of the Level News blog's "Activist Shanghai" series that delves into the murky intersection of Big Data and political action





Updates/More Reading

"The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine" -- by Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath. An excellent roundup of Trump astroturfing techniques, focused on Cambridge Analytica, Facebook dark posts and digital voter suppression techniques
"Frightened by Donald Trump? You don’t know the half of it" -- George Monbiot via TheGuardian.com; TL;dr "Many of Trump's staffers are from an opaque corporate misinformation network. We must understand this if we are to have any hope of fighting back against them."
"How the Trump Campaign Built an Identity Database and Used Facebook Ads to Win the Election" -- Joel Winston, consumer protection attorney via Medium.com. TL;dr Trump campaign admits to "voter suppression" in this Bloomberg article. Winston's Medium piece does deeper dive on how they used Facebook microtargetting to aim negative Hillary ads at blacks, women, young people to suppress vote.
"In the new robopolitics, social media has left newspapers for dead" -- Damian Tambini in TheGuardian.com's Comment Is Free
"Trump Had Five Times More Twitter Propaganda Bots Than Hillary " -- via TheYoungTurks/TYTNetwork.com
"Wikileaks Reveals Google's "Strategic Plan" To Help Democrats Win The Election, Including Tracking Voters -- via ZeroHedge.com and (Wikileaks.org Podesta Emails)
"Bots Unite to Automate the Presidential Election" -- Samuel Woolley and Phil Howard via Wired.com
"Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News" -- via AOL's Gizmodo.com
"Senate GOP Launches Inquiry Into Facebook’s News Curation" -- via AOL's Gizmodo.com
"Did Google Manipulate Search for Hillary?" -- via SourceFed.com




Creative Commons License
Astroturf Gone Wild by LevelNews.org is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Eljee
Lauren Garcia is a software developer in the San Francisco Bay Area.