George Monbiot on pseudo-grass roots internet commenting
Reclaim the Cyber-Commons
For his film (Astro)Turf Wars, Taki Oldham secretly recorded a training session organised by a rightwing libertarian group called American Majority. The trainer, Austin James, was instructing Tea Party members on how to “manipulate the medium”(11). 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(12). 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.