In these days of social media, political spin, and lies told in public-relations-speak, it’s more important than ever that we don’t allow ourselves to be fooled or led astray. In other words, it’s important that we not get played.
I know whereof I speak. For much of my early adult life, if you looked up “naive” in the dictionary, there was my picture. It was only through some interesting personal experiences, plus years of observing the political arena, that I finally came to realize all was not as it appeared, and that getting played by others was a constant danger.
Now, as we deal with this massive crisis of both public health and economic impact, we all have to be aware of the attempts of others to obfuscate the truth, to spin our opinions, or even to lead us to actions based on that spin. So, I’m sharing three areas where we have to be particularly careful not to get played.
Don’t get played by astroturfing
AstroTurf® – a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to resemble natural grass
astroturfing – the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious, or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants. It is a practice intended to give the statements or organizations credibility by withholding information about the source’s financial connection. The term astroturfing is derived from AstroTurf as a play on the word “grassroots.” The implication behind the use of the term is that instead of a “true” or “natural” grassroots effort behind the activity in question, there is a “fake” or “artificial” appearance of support.
– from Wikipedia
Astroturfing has been around, well, forever. In fact, in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, “Cassius writes fake letters from the public to convince Brutus to assassinate Caesar.” The term was coined in 1985 by Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen after receiving a deluge of cards and letter promoting insurance company interests: “a fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grass roots and AstroTurf. … This is generated mail.” (ibid)
However, the rise of the internet and social media has made it so easy to astroturf that all of us are susceptible to being played. Take, for example, the day in 2016 that two groups showed up outside an Islamic center in Houston, one to protest against the center and the other to protest for it. Both protests had been organized on Facebook, and both Facebook groups were run and started by the same group of Russians.
So why am I talking about astroturfing today? Because, it is going on right now across our country, as groups clamor to “reopen” the economy.
- The protests that took place in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York were run by three far-right gun activists, who organized and promoted all the protests as if they were spontaneous grassroots efforts in those states.
- The same people started multiple Facebook groups to make it look like this is a “massive rebellion.”
- Multiple web domains and Facebook groups with “Reopen” in the name were started within a few days of each other:
- 4/13 – ReopenMichigan Twitter account opened
- 4/13 – ReopenIndiana.com registered
- 4/14 – ReopenKentucky.com registered
- 4/14 – ReopenOhioNow.com registered
- 4/14 – ReopenTennessee.com registered
- 4/15 – ReopenMichigan Facebook account opened
- 4/17 – ReopenPennsylvania.com registered
- Many more identified by one researcher, all opening at the same time, all with the word “reopen” in the domain name
- Fox News interviewed these people to make the movement look bigger than it is. They also called the people “heroes.”
- Various conservative leaders hailed the protests, and one White House advisor called them “modern-day Rosa Parks.”
We all know that the sooner we can open up things that are closed, the better it will be for our economy, as long as we do it slow and smart and continue to take the right steps to lower the risk of infection. But at a time when 98% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans say they support a national stay-at-home order, why are these astroturf protests happening, and who is behind them?
Basically, it comes down to November. Groups like Freedom Works are pushing to get the economy reopened as quickly as possible in order to save Trump’s election chances, often funding the protests with money from large conservative donors. They know that if the United States goes into a recession, or worse, a major depression, and it lasts into the fall, that Joe Biden is almost guaranteed to be the next president. And they are counting on people taking the bait and blaming Democrats for their economic woes.
It appears, though, that for once the media and the public are not fooled. Numerous stories have explored the astroturf angle, and even interviewed some of the players. If you want more on this, just Google “coronavirus astroturfing.”
Don’t get played by business leaders and elected officials
I have a friend who is in his 50s, and who has been involved in politics in Kentucky since he was 18. He told me that on one occasion, he observed a local politician do something that to my friend, at least, did not make any sense. My friend approached an older lady who had worked in city hall for decades and asked her about it. She said something that he (and I, once I heard the story) have never forgotten:
“Son, in any political event, there’s a good reason, and then there’s the real reason.”
I am one of those Pollyanna people who takes everyone and everything at face value. It has taken me a long time, and some painful lessons, to realize that people sometimes cover up the real reasons for their actions, and try to play the rest of us as they do. Sometimes it’s just spin (trying to put the best face on it). Sometimes it’s a sleight-of-hand move, where they want us all to look over here while the real action is over there. And sometimes it’s a bald-faced lie.
For example, one reporter has been reporting for weeks that the Veteran’s Administration does not have enough PPE for its vast medical system. He was hearing about practices such as using a single mask for a week, or even for two weeks. When he approached the VA about it, they initially said that his report was based on a “false premise,” and that “everyone who needs PPE has it.” Eventually, due to his reporting, the VA was forced to admit that yes, they were dealing with a shortage. But if the reporter hadn’t kept digging and pushing, he and us would have been played by the VA.
Or, take Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia. He announced a few days ago that a range of businesses in that state would be able to reopen this Friday. The thing that made people scratch their heads was the list of businesses: Gyms and fitness centers; bowling alleys; body art studios; barbers, cosmetologists, and hair designers; nail care artists; estheticians and their respective schools; and massage therapists. Restaurants can reopen to in-person dining on Monday. Kemp got immense pushback about the order, but insisted that it was time to get the state back in business.
It was only later that a few analysts figured out that those particular segments of the economy accounted for a huge portion of the state’s unemployment claims … AND, that it appears that if the state lifts the emergency order, they no longer are eligible for unemployment even if they stay home to protect their health. As noted in an op-ed:
If there’s no state order calling for businesses to be closed, the people who are unemployed can no longer claim that their unemployment is involuntary, even if it would be utter idiocy for them to return to work. A hair dresser or a massage therapist cannot maintain social distance. But they can certainly file for relief … unless the law says they can work.
Am I saying for sure that Kemp is doing this to make sure those people can’t get unemployment, or to lower their number of claims? No, of course not – I don’t know what is in his head or heart. But it IS striking that those businesses are allowed back to work.
Don’t get played by President Trump
In a few weeks, I am going to have Teri Kanefield on our show The State of Kentucky. She is a lawyer, an author, and lately has become an expert analyst on the political movement called Trumpism. You can read her Twitter-threads-turned-blog-posts at TeriKanefield-Blog.com.
Kanefield points out that Trump uses a number of tactics to keep his opponents off-balance. One of those is tweeting something outrageous or obviously untrue, then watching as everyone spends time either being shocked or furiously doing fact-checking.
She also notes that this has other positive (for him) effects:
- Keeps his base excited.
- Enrages his critics.
- Batters democratic institutions, and
- Fulfills his campaign promise, which was to “protect” his followers from their “enemies.” (defined as anyone who opposes Trump.)
She adds: “Notice it creates a loop: The more outraged his critics become, the more excited his base.”
In short, he uses a propaganda technique called “noise.” There is so much noise coming at us, all the time, that eventually we just give up.
How do we deal with this? Not by giving up, and not by failing to be outraged. Kanefield writes:
“Outrage is appropriate. Not showing outrage implies complicity. But constant outrage is also destructive. It feeds the monster. While we’re spinning with outrage, we can’t plan and move forward. If Trump can keep all of his critics spinning with outrage, he wins.
“The best thing you can do is turn your outrage to constructive action.”
So, don’t let yourself – and your emotions – get played by Trump.
How not to get played
I mentioned above that I have long been a Pollyanna type. What’s the other end of the spectrum from a Pollyanna? A cynic. Many people who have been played, then later realized it, wind up becoming cynical about the political world (or even the WHOLE world). But that means you disengage, which just gives the play-masters more room to act.
As much as I dislike quoting The Gipper, our practice when it comes to politics (and perhaps other things) should be to Trust, But Verify.
- Before you pass on that juicy story on Facebook, check to see if it is actually true. A few minutes with Snopes can often save you embarrassment later.
- When you hear that so-and-so said something bizarre or outrageous, look up the entire quote to see the context of the quote.
- When a leader tells you either “all is well” or “all is terrible,” realize that hyperbole is a favorite way to get attention. Step back and try to get the real picture. It may, indeed, be terrible or great, but figure that out for yourself.
- Whenever you see something happening, or a bill being pushed, or an ad being run, ask yourself “who benefits from this?” See if there are groups behind it. See if the person pushing has something to gain from it.
And above all, develop sources of information you can trust: news outlets, major periodicals, analysis sites and writers. Avoid sources that use click-bait headlines, or that only tell part of the story. In other words, be your own editor.
Is it extra work? Sure. But in the long run, it’s actually better for all of us. Players get called out for trying to play us, trustworthy sources get more credence and support, and we all become smarter consumers of information.
And that, Kentuckians, is good for all of us.
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