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Disinformation Watch #13: Astroturfing – manufacturing political support

Claims that a pro-government network of online trolls manufacture the illusion of widespread support for the government initially seemed too outlandish to be true. The Shift News investigation into a vast network of secret pro-government Facebook groups showed this practice – “astroturfing” – to be widespread and to operate on a 24/7 schedule.

What is astroturfing?

Astroturfing is a way of creating an impression of wide and deep support for a policy, individual, party or government where that level of support doesn’t exist naturally.

angele camilleri + jason micallef
A post in Labour Party’s closed groups calling for support for controversial V18 chairman Jason Micallef when international organisations called for his dismissal.

Astroturfers use multiple online identities to drown out dissent and whip online groups up into a frenzy to mislead the public into thinking that the astroturfer’s view is the commonly held view.

Astroturfing predates the popularity of social media and online comments boards. A decade before her assassination, Daphne Caruana Galizia had uncovered a coordinated network of Labour Party activists, many of whom are now government officials, writing to the English-language newspapers that were ‘written by the same hand’, followed ‘precisely the same format’, and were critical of then Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi in the same way.

astroturfing daphne caruana galizia
Astroturfing is not limited to political parties as this post shows a call for support to deny assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia a memorial.

Now most astroturfing happens on comments boards, blogs, and social media. The way newspapers’ comments boards have been colonised by an army of increasingly vicious and paranoid trolls is evidence of this: hundreds of anonymous trolls endlessly parrot government propaganda and anti-opposition conspiracy theories under every article.

There is no room for dissent, which is quickly shut down, and so the newspapers’ comments section have become a display case for extreme and manufactured political support.

Malta Today astroturfing
Comments posted under Malta Today’s article on 10 August on whistleblower Jonathan Ferris.
Calls in Labour Party’s closed groups to vote to discredit Pilatus Bank whistleblower Maria Efimova
Posts under an article of Times of Malta on 23 July on a speech by the Prime Minister on an inquiry on whether his wife owned a Panama company exposed in the Panama Papers.

Astroturfing Polls and Surveys

Clear examples of astroturfing happen around online polls and surveys, much of them come directly from the government.

One of the more worrying cases happened seven months ago when the government asked the public whether its cash-for-passports scheme, introduced without any consultation and without an electoral mandate in 2013, should be expanded.

It did this by launching an online survey, hosted on the website of the Office of the Prime Minister, using the free online survey tool ‘Survey Monkey’, which is too limited a tool for such a complex topic as any results will not be based on a scientific sample quota.

The government’s first question was whether the number of applications under the scheme should be left at the open discretion of the government.

The Survey Monkey questionnaire was geared at manufacturing consent for a fait accompli, and having not been announced ahead of its launch, it seems the plan was to distribute the questionnaire among government-friendly respondents.

In this vein, government and Labour Party-friendly journalists frequently launch and distribute surveys for their publications across the network of secret pro-Muscat Facebook hate groups.

astroturfing elections

Illum’s editor Albert Gauci Cunningham, who featured heavily in the Labour Party’s 2013 electoral campaign material, shares all surveys for his newspaper across the Labour hate groups of which he is a member.

These surveys are then published in his newspaper with no suggestion that its respondents make for a sample that is biased to the extreme – members of Laburisti sal mewt (“Labour until death”) – and are paraded as scientific evidence.

Albert Gauci Cunningham astroturfing
Illum Editor Albert Gauci Cunningham promoting an online poll on the Labour Party’s first year in government in Labour Party’s closed groups which together command some 16,000 supporters.

Labour hate group members also coordinate mass distortion of surveys done by independent newspapers, with frequent targets including The Times of Malta, The Malta Independent and LovinMalta surveys.

janice bartolo
Janice Bartolo, girlfriend of Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, promoting a poll in Labour Party’s secret groups while she was a reporter for the Party’s media. Following the election, she landed a senior job at the Tourism Ministry.

 

astroturfing elections
A post in Labour Party’s closed online groups asking people to vote for Labour in The Malta Independent polls.

One pro-Muscat hate group member posts a photo and link of one of the newspaper’s surveys, provides instructions on where to find and what response to submit, and calls their thousands of fellow members to action. The instructions are designed to direct members to voting in the poll rather than posting comments underneath it, which often happens.

astroturfing labour party

Read more: Disinformation Watch

The article has been updated to include more examples from different media outlets.

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