Palmer Luckey, who sold his company Oculus to Facebook for $2 billion in 2014, has since apologized for “the impact my actions are having on the community.” That has not stopped several virtual-reality developers from turning on Oculus — or many critics from accusing Nimble America of a slippery sort of astroturfing.
This isn’t usually the sort of behavior we think of when we talk about political “astroturfing” — that much-loathed, much-feared practice of faking grass-roots support online — but as more and more political discourse has moved to the Internet, the techniques have multiplied. Many a righteous Redditor was enraged, for instance, when the pro-Clinton PAC Correct the Record announced a $1 million plan “to correct online misinformation” about Hillary Clinton earlier this year. But that effort, with its lame memes and dutifully disclaimed accounts, is child’s play compared with what some motivated actors are attempting now.
There are the bots, for starters — we tend to hear about those a lot. While an analysis by the Atlantic’s Andrew McGill found that there are relatively few Twitter bots among the direct followers of Donald Trump and Clinton, that certainly hasn’t been the case elsewhere. Analyses of the tweets and petitions that circulated before the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom have revealed tens of thousands of automated actors that may have convinced voters that there was more national support for exiting the European Union than there was in fact. In Venezuela, bots are deployed with some regularity by the country’s radical opposition (… if not by Andrés Sepúlveda, the political consultant said to command a digital army of 30,000).
Shortly after the Republican primary vote in Nevada, dozens of Twitter accounts began tweeting an identical message about Trump, leading some to wonder whether bots were active in our elections, as well. The case of the Nevada tweets was never solved — simply put, we don’t know who programmed them.
The coordinated posters
That could also be said of what we’ll term the “coordinated posters” — real users who are secretly instructed to share similar political messages on behalf of a campaign or other organization. This isn’t fakery, per se — but it’s also not 100 percent certified organic.
On the Democratic side, the Clinton campaign has signed up and trained an unknown number of “grass-roots tweeters,” who are asked to post specific messages and graphics at coordinated, strategic times — such as during tonight’s debate. (This isn’t so different from the technique used by the Bernie Sanders campaign, which coordinated with social media “volunteers” in closed Slack rooms.) Meanwhile, the Koch brothers have coached up a “grass-roots” army of their own, actually offering online certificate courses in things like “social media best practices” via their conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.
“We just have to start the fire,” said one pro-Clinton strategist, who specializes in fomenting coordinated online outrage.
The dark-money memes
Last, but certainly not the least, we have the emerging sort of astroturf that Luckey is accused of: viral videos, memes and other apparently amateur political ephemera, which behave like political ads but require very little disclosure. The Sunlight Foundation, an open-government watch group, has called online ads — particularly of the social variety — a major “blind spot” in campaign-finance reporting. Put simply, there are strict rules that govern political ads when they appear in a newspaper or on TV. But the Federal Election Commission doesn’t require campaigns to declare themselves in their online ads — and there are even fewer requirements for online ads run by third parties.
That’s become increasingly important, as third parties have become increasingly interested in pushing the sorts of amateurish online content that you or I might whip up in Paint. North Texans for Natural Gas, a “grass-roots” (ahem) group funded by Texas energy companies, recently attracted the attention of several media outlets for launching a pro-fracking meme factory. Before that, Steve Stockman, the eccentric former congressman, tweeted an attack ad in the form of a doge meme — minus the actual doge. We know about these two examples because their affiliations were voluntarily disclosed, but we can’t say the same for some unknown number of image macros and YouTube videos.
“For outside groups,” Mother Jones’s Russ Choma warned last year, “… a move toward online advertising is an opportunity to further obscure their operations.”
Ironically, many of the outside groups that engage in these sorts of tactics have defended them in almost guerrilla terms: They are outmanned and outgunned, they argue; without astroturfing, what else could they do?
“The American Revolution was funded by wealthy individuals,” Luckey reportedly wrote on Reddit, under the pseudonym NimbleRichMan. “The same has been true of many movements for freedom in history. You can’t fight the American elite without serious firepower. They will outspend you and destroy you by any and all means.”
Then again, what is a Silicon Valley millionaire if not “the American elite”?
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