Newsflash: Astroturfing Works

By Chris Mooney | July 11, 2011 11:13 am

My latest DeSmogBlog post reports on a new study, in the Journal of Business Ethics, about the rather icky corporate practice known as “Astroturfing”–e.g., setting up fake grassroots organizations to defend the status quo, rather than challenge it. The study tested the effectiveness of Astroturf websites in sowing doubts about global warming, and lo and behold, they work.

Here’s a bit of the experimental design, which I appreciated:

The website for each condition, respectively, consisted of a ‘‘Home page’’ with links to five other pages pertaining to global warming and the organization’s activities. In the grassroots condition, these were labeled as ‘‘About us,’’ ‘‘Key issues and solutions,’’ ‘‘Why act now?’’ ‘‘Get involved!’’ and ‘‘Contact us.’’ Similarly, in the astroturf condition, the pages links were labeled as ‘‘About us,’’ ‘‘Myths/facts,’’ ‘‘Climate science,’’ ‘‘Scientific references,’’ and ‘‘Contact us.’’ All of the content was based on information found on real-world grassroots and astroturf web-sites ….

A further manipulation consisted of disclosing information regarding the funding source that supported the organization. The organization’s name in all websites, regardless of the condition, was ‘‘Climate Clarity.’’ In each of the funding source conditions, all web pages within the condition specified who funds the organization (donations, Exxon Mobil or the Conservation Heritage Fund). The ‘‘no disclosure’’ condition did not have any information on funding sources anywhere within the web pages.

You can read the full post here; the original study is here.

Comments (12)

  1. moptop

    ” All of the content was based on information found on real-world grassroots and astroturf web-sites ….”

    This proves exactly nothing. They took existing content, currently under discussion, and presented it again in other ways, same as happens on the web every microsecond, and this result is surprising?

    What might have been better is to have put out some new piece of disinformation, demonstrably false information, and noted whether or not it spread.

    You guys are so certain you are right that you cannot even conceive of the possibility that many of the points that skeptics make are genuine and unanswered.

  2. moptop

    Also, most skeptics consider funding sources irrelevant. Either the facts stand up, or they don’t. I would accept that the sky is blue on a clear day, even if Obama said it.

  3. Nullius in Verba

    Mmm. So we have one website with “fluffy” headings like “why act now” and “get involved”, and another site with evidence-related headings like “climate science” and “scientific references”, and people were more persuaded by the one with the science. Why might that be, do you think?

    I’m not quite sure what characteristic of astroturf sites this is supposed to be testing. If the only difference is whether funding sources were disclosed, it would indeed test the extent to which people were influenced by ad hominem considerations. But there also appear to be material differences in the content? Is the claim supposed to be that astroturf sites are more likely to use headings like “climate science”? This study does not, on the face of it, make any sense.

    I’ve got an uneasy feeling that the difference was that “grassroots” was simply used to label pro-AGW and “astroturf” to label anti-AGW, and what this study is really showing is that giving them information on scepticism made people more doubtful of AGW. The “astroturf”/”grassroots” labelling would then be entirely misleading – propaganda dressed up as science in other words. There are of course many genuinely grassroots sceptical sources, and several prominent pro-AGW astroturf sites.

    It would therefore be helpful to make it clearer what the distinction between “grassroots” and “astroturf” being tested actually was, and how it follows from the different types of authors. Because if they really did just label all sceptics as “astroturf”, this is even worse than the usual fare. I’m hoping it’s not true, and I’ve just misread the description. Did they in fact have both pro- and anti-AGW in both categories?

  4. Luis Dias

    How can someone “appreciate” such a pretty damned obvious silly experiment is beyond my own comprehension. The test is badly conceived and the questions ill-posed. What should I conclude from this study, that if people read sceptical arguments, they become more sceptical? Or if they read assertive arguments, they will believe in them more? The study has failed to focus on the issue of “astroturfing” completely, and the results they got may entirely be the product of entirely different reasons.

    This will be completely ridiculed on the blogosphere, Chris. Just try to ignore it the best you can, and stay away from it, or else be prepared to be ridiculed with it!

  5. Mike Mangan

    Out of curiosity, do you consider Climate Progress an astroturf effort? After all it’s financed by that comic book anti-Christ George Soros. Soros has a proven record of destabilizing nation’s currencies for the sole purpose of enriching himself. He’s doing the same thing with the AGW fraud so he can help collapse multiple economies at a time. Doesn’t he deserve some scrutiny, too?

  6. Johnny

    Astroturfing is quickly being redefined as “any conservative comment written on any online forum on any subject”.

    Its become a way for liberal commenters to dismiss any post, or even the majority of posts, as illegitimate.

    Now liberal posters can claim they are the only “real” poster, and that everyone else is a paid corporate shill of some kind.

  7. moptop

    Johnny, the word you are looking for is “authentic,” not “real.” Liberals have been claiming that forever. The nice thing about words like “legitimate” is that they have no objective definition, and so fit much more neatly into the way liberals think.

    Liberal know for a fact that once they get into the realm of logic and evidence, they come up short almost every time.

  8. Next: Mooney on how Big Oil pays dirty do-no-gooders to fill up his blog with fake comments.

  9. Aelfrith

    How many Astroturfing web-site for the pro lobby are there?

  10. mct

    @Mike Mangay

    Of course Climate Progress isn’t astroturf!

    Also not particularly informative about 3 days out of 5.

    We all know in the broad who funds it, so not sure why that is an issue?

    This is an outstandingly stupid paper.

  11. TA

    I love this latest meme that if someone has taken money from an oil company, they are somehow tainted for life.

    I’ll make a deal with alarmists. I’ll disregard all skeptics that have taken money from oil companies, if you disregard all science groups and environmental advocacy groups that have done the same.

    Won’t be many left standing after that.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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