Here is the full transcript of American author Sharyl Attkisson’s TEDx Talk: Astroturf and Manipulation of Media Messages at TEDxUniversityofNevada conference.
Sharyl Attkisson – American author
Consider this fictitious example that’s inspired by real life: say you’re watching the news, and you see a story about a new study on the cholesterol-lowering drug called cholextra. The study says cholextra is so effective that doctors should consider prescribing it to adults and even children who don’t yet have high cholesterol.
Is it too good to be true? You’re smart, you decide to do some of your own research. You do a Google search, you consult social media, Facebook, and Twitter. You look at Wikipedia, WebMD, a non-profit website, and you read the original study in a peer-reviewed published medical journal. It all confirms how effective cholextra is. You do run across a few negative comments and a potential link to cancer, but you dismiss that, because medical experts call the cancer link a myth and say that those who think there is a link, they are quacks, cranks, and nuts.
Finally, you learn that your own doctor recently attended a medical seminar. The lecture that he attended confirmed how effective cholextra is, so he sends you off with some free samples and a prescription. You’ve really done your homework.
But what if all isn’t as it seems? What if the reality you found was false; a carefully-constructed narrative by unseen special interests designed to manipulate your opinion? A Truman Show-esque alternate reality all around you? Complacency in the news media combined with incredibly powerful propaganda and publicity forces mean we sometimes get little of the truth. Special interests have unlimited time and money to figure out new ways to spin us while cloaking their role.
Surreptitious astroturf methods are now more important to these interests than traditional lobbying of Congress. There’s an entire industry built around it in Washington.
What is astroturf? It’s a perversion of grassroots, as in fake grassroots. Astroturf is when political, corporate, or other special interests disguise themselves and publish blogs, start Facebook and Twitter accounts, publish ads and letters to the editor, or simply post comments online to try to fool you into thinking an independent or grassroots movement is speaking. The whole point of astroturf is to try to get the impression there’s widespread support for or against an agenda when there’s not.
Astroturf seeks to manipulate you into changing your opinion by making you feel as if you’re an outlier when you’re not. One example is the Washington Redskins’ name. Without taking a position on the controversy, if you simply were looking at news media coverage over the course of the past year, or looking at social media, you probably have to conclude that most Americans find that name offensive and think it ought to be changed.
But what if I told you 71% of Americans say the name should not be changed? That’s more than two-thirds. Astroturfers seek to controversialize those who disagree with them. They attack news organizations that publish stories they don’t like, whistleblowers who tell the truth, politicians who dare to ask the tough questions, and journalists who have the audacity to report on all of it.
Sometimes, astroturfers simply shove intentionally so much confusing and conflicting information into the mix that you’re left to throw up your hands and disregard all of it, including the truth; Drown out a link between a medicine and a harmful side effect say, vaccines and autism, by throwing a bunch of conflicting paid-for studies, surveys, and experts into the mix, confusing the truth beyond recognition.
And then, there’s Wikipedia — astroturf’s dream come true — Built as the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit, the reality can’t be more different. Anonymous Wikipedia editors control and co-opt pages on behalf of special interests. They forbid and reverse edits that go against their agenda. They skew and delete information in blatant violation of Wikipedia’s own established policies with impunity. Always superior to the poor schlubs who actually believe anyone can edit Wikipedia only to discover they’re barred from correcting even the simplest factual inaccuracies.
Try adding a footnoted fact or correcting a fact error on one of these monitored Wikipedia pages, and poof! sometimes within a matter of seconds you’ll find your edit is reversed. In 2012, famed author Philip Roth tried to correct a major fact error about the inspiration behind one of his book characters cited on a Wikipedia page, but no matter how hard he tried, Wikipedia’s editors wouldn’t allow it. They kept reverting the edits back to the false information.
When Roth finally reached a person at Wikipedia – which was no easy task – and tried to find out what was going wrong, they told him he simply was not considered a credible source on himself.
A few weeks later, there was a huge scandal when Wikipedia officials got caught offering a PR service that skewed and edited information on behalf of paid publicity-seeking clients, in utter opposition to Wikipedia’s supposed policies. All of this may be why, when a medical study looked at medical conditions described on Wikipedia pages and compared it to actual peer-reviewed published research, Wikipedia contradicted medical research 90% of the time. You may never fully trust what you read on Wikipedia again, nor should you.
Let’s now go back to that fictitious cholextra example and all the research you did. It turns out the Facebook and Twitter accounts you found that were so positive, were actually written by paid professionals hired by the drug company to promote the drug. The Wikipedia page had been monitored by an agenda editor, also paid by the drug company.