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Astroturfing the climate wars: five ways to spot a troll

Dan Machold

With online debate flaring around the release of the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, it’s time to go deep inside the climate wars - behind the trenches - to examine the psychological warfare and the techniques currently being used.

At times, this war resembles a videogame that involves many more combatants than you might think, so you have to know where to look. The gaming metaphor is apt, not only because of the adversarial nature of the conflict, but because it is time-wasting and so much of it is divorced from the reality of communicating climate science, and doing something about climate change.

It is the online forums associated with mainstream, public and alternative media - such as the one waiting for you at the end of this article - that comprise the guerilla battlefronts of the climate wars. What is spiking in these forums at the moment - including right here at The Conversation - is a new kind of astroturfing.

Astroturfing is traditionally understood as the manufacture of a grassroots movement that is totally fake. Such synthetic grass was first cultivated in the US by the Tea Party, which would bankroll the hiring of flash-mob protesters and the swarming of news sites with the intention of drowning out discussion, and replacing it with a Tea Party ideology.

Today, astroturfing is not about creating the image of a unified grassroots movement, but rather the training of scores of individual crusaders to go out and crash blogs in online news sites. As such, it is an almost exclusively online affair, where participants are known as “trolls”. Trolls are supposed to look like they are acting independently, but it is alleged that they are co-ordinated largely by conservative think-tanks, like the IPA and Menzies House, the latter founded and funded by Cory Bernardi.

Bernardi, who was once Tony Abbott’s shadow parliamentary secretary, also founded the Conservative Leadership Foundation, to recruit young, digitally native volunteers. Bernardi has also used online media to attack windfarms and has twice been invited to speak to the sceptical extremists of the astroturf-friendly Heartland Institute in Chicago.

In Australia, the astroturfers are well organised, and were particularly active on Crikey last year, The Drum on the ABC, and are currently targeting The Conversation. For example, on climate change, Monash University metrics of Conversation authors show that the two authors who have attracted the most comments have both written substantially on climate change politics, and of these articles more than 45% of the comments could be identified as being from trolls.

In relation to global warming discussions, astroturfers hide behind their anonymity in making remarks, and will not make comments that give away their identity. They are lurkers whose brief is to watch the site intently, ready to strike - which is precisely why they are called trolls, some of whom have multiple personas.

But there are two principal kinds of climate change astroturfers: denialist trolls and bar-room-brawl trolls. The former have a standard set of responses to warmists, with hypertext links to denialist sites, or repetition of a simple ‘hypocrisy meme’ such as accusing warmists of using petroleum for holiday travel or to going to a conference on global warming.

The latter kind of troll are hecklers, who attempt to provoke other commenters or the author. They are not abusive as such, but simply attempt to distract and reduce the level of discussion to a pub brawl - ending in an impasse with the aim of driving readers away. In this sense, as a technique of free-market activists, it is ironic that astroturfing squashes free-speech.

But the real tragedy of astroturfing is that it drowns out a discussion that could happen between genuine skeptics of the science and the warmists. The skeptics, whose participation is driven by conviction, do not lurk like trolls do, and they are often slower at entering the discussion: by which time, the trolls have trashed the blog. But on occasions, skeptics can get a good run, and the conversation is a very productive one.

Skeptics actually want to have a discussion, and wish to have a voice to defend their position. But this is made difficult when the trolls are out in number. Astroturfing has also given rise to a smaller group of science-savvy resistance trolls who keep watch over blogs, waiting for the lurkers to strike, and respond as rapidly as possible. In the US, astroturfing has even brought into being a group of scientists who are offering a “rapid response” service for public comments and forums on climate change.

Five ways to spot a global warming troll

The first way to spot a troll is that their comment is seldom directed at the actual content of the article, and makes a strike on an author or commenter with the troll quickly disappearing.

Second is the pack circle, where an author or commenter is subjected to two or three orchestrated blows to a tiny area of their argument which can be from a multi-avatar troll. The author/commenter is suddenly surrounded, but often the resistance trolls will come to the rescue - armed with the actual science - for which even the best astroturfers are no match.

Thirdly, there are times when the multi-avatar trolls are “outed” by a resistance troll. When this happens, the multi-avatar trolls will disappear altogether, to be reborn under alternate pseudonyms. I have seen this happen at The Conversation in my short time here, and am fascinated to spot where they re-appear.

Fourthly, if you web search some unique word-strings from a troll you will often find the same content cut and pasted appearing in other forums under different names, topped and tailed. This is particularly evident of trolls who have posted large slabs of text shortly after an article is published.

Fifthly, look at the activity pages of participants you suspect are trolls to see if they have ever sustained an argument rather than hit-and-run comments.

The techniques used by astroturfing depend on swarming to be effective, which has to be large enough to overwhelm resistance trolls.

The resistance trolls are at the frontline of the climate wars and are well-informed on the science, but have only come into existence because of - and not in spite of - the astroturfers. Resistance trolls are not astroturfers in that they are seldom acting on behalf of an organised institution, but act out of rational understanding of the science.

Overseas, some astroturfers are paid, but the truth is that most are involved for reasons of honour and prestige. They seldom believe in what they are saying, but they are desperate to please the organisation they are members of, and may even consider their actions “heroic”.

In part, resistance trolls resent the time-wasting involved in countering the astroturfers, but may nevertheless believe their actions to be heroic in the sense that “someone has to do it”. They so often effortlessly defend the science position when they are standing up to a troll. Consequently, the resistance trolls do not necessarily need multi-personas, or even a pseudonym.

Without sufficient numbers, the astroturfers have a hard time in the climate wars. This is because they actually have two opponents: the resistance, but also the skeptics. For the conviction skeptic, who is actually interested in defending a deeply-held position, the astroturfers are like soulless robots who come in and takeover the thread, and the constructive challenge that the skeptic throws up to the science gets lost in all the noise, and they can get very annoyed with an astroturfer.

An interesting trend is that troll behaviour toward denialist journalism in some of the mainstream media tend to be validatory, a well-organised cheersquad that meets little in the way of resistance. This is because the resistance trolls seldom read publications from such press, and that the comment threads are much more controlled than genuinely liberal sites such as Crikey or The Conversation.

To free themselves of astroturfing, online forums may paradoxically need to tighten their community standards, to ensure that comments comply with a broader range of criteria. These could include ensuring that comments provide new arguments and information, new links, and engagement with the article in the spirit of a thoughtful debate.

Compliance won’t stop climate trolls from rebirthing, but it will lift the conversation. More importantly, it will allow genuine and rational scepticism, the engine room of education, science and the public sphere, to flourish.

Correction: This article was amended on October 14, 2013 to remove a paragraph detailing reported allegations about an online pseudonym used by Cory Bernardi.