Who is Paying Right-Wing Trolls to Dumb Down Online Conversations?

By George Monbiot (Excerpt)
The Guardian, December 13, 2010

There are daily attempts to control and influence content in the interests of the state and corporations: attempts in which money talks. ...

I’m not talking here about threats to net neutrality and the danger of a two-tier internet developing, though these are real. I’m talking about the daily attempts to control and influence content in the interests of the state and corporations: attempts in which money talks. ... I first came across online astroturfing in 2002, when the investigators Andy Rowell and Jonathan Matthews looked into a series of comments made by two people calling themselves Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek. They had launched ferocious attacks, across several internet forums, against a scientist whose research suggested that Mexican corn had been widely contaminated by GM pollen.

Rowell and Matthews found that one of the messages Mary Murphy had sent came from a domain owned by the Bivings Group, a PR company specializing in internet lobbying. An article on the Bivings website explained that

“there are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved … Message boards, chat rooms, and listservs are a great way to anonymously monitor what is being said. Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party."

The Bivings site also quoted a senior executive from the biotech corporation Monsanto, thanking the PR firm for its “outstanding work”. When a Bivings executive was challenged by Newsnight, he admitted that the “Mary Murphy” email was sent by someone “working for Bivings” or “clients using our services”. Rowell and Matthews then discovered that the IP address on Andura Smetacek’s messages was assigned to Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri(9). There’s a nice twist to this story. AstroTurf TM - real fake grass - was developed and patented by Monsanto.

Reading comment threads on the Guardian’s sites and elsewhere on the web, two patterns jump out at me. The first is that discussions of issues in which there’s little money at stake tend to be a lot more civilized than debates about issues where companies stand to lose or gain billions: such as climate change, public health and corporate tax avoidance. These are often characterized by amazing levels of abuse and disruption.

Articles about the environment are hit harder by such tactics than any others. I love debate, and I often wade into the threads beneath my columns. But it’s a depressing experience, as instead of contesting the issues I raise, many of those who disagree bombard me with infantile abuse, or just keep repeating a fiction, however often you discredit it. This ensures that an intelligent discussion is almost impossible - which appears to be the point.

The second pattern is the strong association between this tactic and a certain set of views: pro-corporate, anti-tax, anti-regulation. Both traditional conservatives and traditional progressives tend be more willing to discuss an issue than these right-wing libertarians, many of whom seek instead to shut down debate.

So what’s going on? ... I’m suggesting that some of the efforts to prevent intelligence from blooming seem to be organized, and that neither website hosts nor other commenters know how to respond.

For his film (Astro)Turf Wars, Taki Oldham secretly recorded a training session organized by a rightwing libertarian group called American Majority. The trainer, Austin James, was instructing Tea Party members on how to “manipulate the medium”. This is what he told them:

“Here’s what I do. I get on Amazon; I type in “Liberal Books”. I go through and I say “one star, one star, one star”. The flipside is you go to a conservative/ libertarian whatever, go to their products and give them five stars. … This is where your kids get information: Rotten Tomatoes, Flixster. These are places where you can rate movies. So when you type in “Movies on Healthcare”, I don’t want Michael Moore’s to come up, so I always give it bad ratings. I spend about 30 minutes a day, just click, click, click, click. … If there’s a place to comment, a place to rate, a place to share information, you have to do it. That’s how you control the online dialogue and give our ideas a fighting chance.”

Over 75% of the funding for American Majority, which hosted this training session, comes from the Sam Adams Alliance. In 2008, the year in which American Majority was founded, 88% of the alliance’s money came from a single donation, of $3.7m(13). A group which trains rightwing libertarians to distort online democratic processes, in other words, was set up with funding from a person or company with a very large wallet.

The internet is a remarkable gift, which has granted us one of the greatest democratic opportunities since universal suffrage. We’re in danger of losing this global commons as it comes under assault from an army of trolls and flacks, many of them covertly organised or trained. The question for all of us - the Guardian, other websites, everyone who benefits from this resource - is what we intend to do about it.

It’s time we fought back and reclaimed the internet for what it does best: exploring issues, testing ideas, opening the debate.

George Monbiot is the author Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. Read more of his writings at Monbiot.com. This article originally appeared in the Guardian.


10 Responses to “Who is Paying Right-Wing Trolls to Dumb Down Online Conversations?”

Nemo Starem

Very well said.

The population must be informed of this interest attempting to manipulate the internet and public opinion.
Corporations will not stop themselves; they don’t care about democracy or truth, only money.

See how blind are this right-libertarians, just “rating” things they don’t really know, industrially, like machines working for their shadowy masters. ¿Have they even seen the movies they are down rating? ¿Read the books? I don’t think so…

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A good article…I’ll be pointing others to this one during arguments. The best response I can think of is to identify suspected the astroturfer and then organize for them to be blocked by all others in the discussion.

L. S. McGee

If you want to see a perfect example of this, head on over to the website Unemployed Friends whenever anything newsworthy occurs about unemployment or the Tea Party. You’re liable to see these paid trolls all over the forum, trying to convince unemployed people that certain politicians are really their friends, especially the ones who have demonized unemployed folks for the last year. Very creepy, and very much Stepford. The trolls attempt to shut down threads and stifle discussion, which is the whole point of the exercise.


Talismancer said:
“A good article…I’ll be pointing others to this one during arguments. The best response I can think of is to identify suspected the astroturfer and then organize for them to be blocked by all others in the discussion.”

Although you do run the risk of then labelling anyone you disagree with as a troll and therefore end up stifling debate as a consequence.

I’d never attempt to deny someone a voice. To refute everything they say with source-based fact and rational thinking is a much more worthy endeavour.


I tried doing that once, on one website. Spent an hour and accomplished a tiny bit. But if you paid me, I could stand to do it 8 hours a day. maybe. Oh, and I have tried “reporting” the garbage that appeared on the Youtube “ask Obama a question” site because 90% of it was obscene and another 9% hostile and juvenile. They added comments way faster than I could mark them, and I don’t know that the site recorded my marks. However, I am in one online discussion group that simply throws out trolls. There will have to be more of this. (Moderation is good too.)
A particular difficulty of trolls is making everyone think the majority is way to the right of where they really are.


The right is certainly testing the limits of free speech, with their fiction-based “news” network at fox and their other programming they’ve somehow convinced their listeners is real.

Ralph H.

@Shodo – Where is the discussion group that simply throws out trolls?
If you don’t mind sharing, I need some logical,fact-based, conversation now and then.


I noticed a conspicuous absence of any mention of the democrat party’s “social media” staff, part of their their digital campaigning efforts.

They have been doing this on a massive scale for several election cycles now.

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