How the media hypes right-wing activist schemes into "movements"
A case study in how contemporary astroturfing actually works.
In my last post I discussed how “astroturfing” is more than just a simple matter of rich people paying actors to feign support for a cause. If you want to know how wealthy interests misrepresent their agenda as more popular than it really is, you have to look at how the media does this systematically, often without any explicit direction at all.
Since then some readers have said they didn’t quite follow my explanation, so I thought it might be useful to give a specific example. Over the past couple of days there has been growing buzz about a protest similar to Ottawa’s “Freedom Convoy” appearing in the US. Where has this come from? The lines of dissemination are quite clear:
On Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security advised several media outlets that “a trucker convoy…could target the Super Bowl this weekend.” The memo goes on to add, however, that this protest was still “purely aspirational because the event is only being discussed online”. Local law enforcement, meanwhile, said that “it is not aware of any credible or direct threats related to the game.” Similarly, Pyrra, a social media monitoring firm, has reported that the protest does not seem to be taking off “despite plenty of chatter in extremist circles and favorable coverage by right-wing outlets.”
By the end of Thursday, the oligarch-funded Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal website landed an exclusive interview with Senator Rand Paul promoting the potential rally.
On Friday, Fox News reported this with the headline “US protest set to start this weekend”.
And now, citing Fox News, Matt Taibbi reports that “the Freedom Convoy is inspiring similar protests…in the United States”.
This is not an organic grassroots movement. This is a think tank, a corporate media giant, and a libertarian Senator leveraging their massive platforms to market a movement into existence. You can watch this trickle down in real time from the big outlets to pundits with huge audiences like Taibbi to the activist rank-and-file. And if it somehow comes together, of course, everyone will rewrite history and pretend like it was a spontaneous outburts of popular will.
Note that you don’t have to imagine any kind of conspiracy or coordination at work whatsoever. It certainly happens sometimes, but it doesn’t need to. Everyone knows their role in the media ecosystem; when the big players like Fox News or sitting Senators start promoting something or talking about it in a certain way, every sees the signal go up and knows to follow suit. Say what you will about the US right, but it has always had an extraordinary gift for getting on-message.
Dark money often plays a much more direct role in astroturfing, of course; it seems clear that a lot of Koch and Thiel money is probably in circulation right now, for instance, and I think it’s only a matter of time until we find out who’s been cashing in. But today, I think astroturfing mostly takes place through systems of promotion and amplification like we’re seeing with the potential Super Bowl trucker protest.