A couple years ago, in the early days of Alaska Commons, a reader decided he didn’t like one of our contributors. The reader chose to broadcast his disapproval in the comments sections of said contributor’s articles. Mean-spirited, personal attacks.
The comments kept coming. Then, they started breeding. Before long, a dozen or so users were chiming in; all supporting and elaborating upon the initial negative comments.Photo credit: Roshan Vyas, Creative Commons Licensing
We looked into it. Turns out, they all traced back to the same Internet Protocol (IP) address.
One user was creating multiple personae to amplify his disdain. All of a sudden, readers — who often skip to the comments sections to see whether or not they should read the article itself — were given a manipulated perception of unpopularity that, in actuality, did not exist.
It’s a form of cyber-bullying. And it’s become a staple of political campaigns. “Astroturfing” in the digital era has become an effective tool used to corrupt public opinion; flooding comments sections in efforts to dumb down any substantive dialog and fan flames of controversy whenever, wherever, and as much as possible. Disallow an honest exchange of views.
The added bonus of anonymity is that — should one go too far and say something indefensibly outrageous — one can simply (put in gaming terms) re-roll: create a new profile. Create seven more. Shout down anyone chastising the original comment. Normalize whatever was said that was so offensive that you had to recreate yourself.
Data suggests that astroturfing is effective. Popular Science shut off their comments section altogether last year. The popular magazine cited two studies which showed that, as former digital editor Suzanne LaBarre described, “even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story[.]”
That perked the ears of the political strategists everywhere. They saw it as a way to get around genuine public opinion. Astroturfing has quickly moved beyond dominating online comments sections — especially as social media render that particular venue for user feedback antiquated. Astroturfing has evolved to become a way to create falsely designed narratives, and to get people to believe them.
“Know the Facts Alaska” and “Don’t Enroll Alaska.”
Last year, I wrote about a shady couple of websites that popped up in Alaska. “Know the Facts Alaska” and “Don’t Enroll Alaska” looked and sounded similar, were registered within six minutes of each other, and created Facebook pages on the same day. Both served as news aggregate services, sharing links to articles critical to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and reinforcing false narratives about the legislation and its effects. Both posed as grassroots Alaska resources.
By creating a website claiming to just offer the facts and look out for Alaskans, the anonymous group (or groups) sought to cut out the middle man — the actual journalism published by news organizations — which they then have to pay people to filibuster via comments sections.
In actuality, a Chicago marketing firm was contracted to fly up to Alaska, cast themselves as locals, and shoot a commercial to convince Alaskans that “Know the Facts Alaska” was grassroots. Which it wasn’t.
Laurel Andrews, writing for Alaska Dispatch, found that both sites were run by the Government Accountability Forum, which has since been tied to multi-billionaire political activists Charles and David Koch. The Koch brothers are also the founders of Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing political advocacy group which launched a similar negative ad campaign against the ACA (and actively promoted both astroturf websites in Alaska).
The push back from Alaskans was palpable. The websites are still online — though stripped of links to their now defunct social media pages.
They got caught. They’re online personae lost its effectiveness.
A New Coalition (But Not Really).
Jim Minnery, President of the Alaska Family Council (AFC) — and AFC’s lobbying arm, Alaska Family Action (AFA) — is a different story, far from anonymous. Minnery has made himself very visible, and his organization’s mission “to strengthen and protect Alaskan families through public policy education, issue research, and grassroots advocacy” has been omnipresent in Alaska politics, starting with their staunch opposition to anti-discrimination laws in 2010 and 2012 and their successful 2010 initiative requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions. More recently, Minnery unsuccessfully lobbied the legislature to dismantle the Judicial Council and amend the state constitution to grant private education institutions public funding. This summer, he hosted a town hall advocating conversion therapy for LGBT citizens.
If it’s pro-life or anti-gay, chances are good that his fingerprints are all over it. That plays well with a very conservative legislature, but is losing steam with the broader electorate.
On April 29, a new Facebook group calling itself The Coalition for Alaska’s Future (CAF) entered the scene, with stock images of smiling people against a backdrop of an Alaska mountain range. “Together we can create a stronger Alaska for future generations,” the group featured in its “about” section, which failed to mention any CAF members by name.
The group’s page is loaded with aspirational Internet memes: “Strong families are the Heart of America! Like if you agree!” “Our freedom is what makes America great. Share if you agree!” “America’s best days can be ahead of us! Share if you believe!”
And, of course, peppered in occasionally: “The America I Want Honors Traditional Marriage. Share if You Agree!”
Though Minnery’s name appears no where on the group’s page, a blog post featured on the AFA website, dated June 26 and penned by the AFC/AFA president reads in part:
Coalition for Alaska’s Future — Working with national leaders in the political strategy arena, we’re taking the lead on an effort called the Coalition for Alaska’s Future to build a significant social media community to educate, motivate and turn out more conservative-minded citizens for the upcoming elections. We’ll keep everyone updated as this exciting project nears fruition. 
Three months later, CAF enjoys 769 likes — eclipsing AFA’s 681. Because when one doesn’t go out of one’s way to beat people over the head with a controversial mission statement, and instead mostly offers positive (nameless) reinforcement to statements like “America good,” one can aggregate a lot of casual observers.
Minnery is a lifelong Alaskan. His newest venture is likely anything but. The AFC/AFA president was caught on tape touting a new relationship with the Koch brother’s network in 2012, and appears to be rolling out yet another campaign effort just in time for the midterm elections. But, for once, he doesn’t seem keen on taking — or doling out — any credit. Well, aside from the billboard of the Kochs he used in the backdrop of that meeting, as reported by Truth-Out’s Zach Roberts.
CAF gets more specific about its goals — so long as users go to the “about” page and click the “see more” button. The more opaque description, though similar to their larger strategy of sporadically slipping in the more controversial tenets, reads in full:
Coalition for Alaska’s Future is a coalition of Americans working towards a strong America in the future. We want an America where our children are safe; where there is economic opportunity for all; where we stop increasing the federal debt; where we honor traditional marriage; where we support our military; where we have a strong national defense; where we support families; where we support life in the womb; where we honor traditional values; where we promote energy independence; where we support our international allies like Israel; where we stand strong against terrorism; where our national government is smaller and is the servant of the people; where we support personal and religious liberty. We honor those who have gone before us and who have given their lives for the liberty we enjoy today. We welcome all Americans who share these values as part of our coalition. We realize that not everyone will agree on all of our values, but we stand united in our commitment to a greater America. We also acknowledge the strong Judeo-Christian heritage that has helped form and strengthen our great country. We are a nation blessed in many ways; our goal is to be a shining “city on a hill” that can be a great and wonderful country and can also bring hope and liberty to the nations.
Same Jim Minnery. Re-rolled with less baggage and a softer tone. And happy, shiny pictures. (Share if you agree!)
I inquired on the page as to who exactly comprised the “coalition.” Yesterday, CAF responded: “the Coalition is an informal group concerned about Alaska’s future. We do not plan to advocate on behalf of or in opposition to candidates.”
Nor, evidently, do they plan on identifying themselves by name.
Generation Opportunity Alaska.
What will the campaign against “Obamacare” look like post “Know the Facts Alaska” and “Don’t Enroll Alaska?” The answer, in a March 11 tweet, suggests little change in strategy.
“@GenOpp is coming to Alaska to fight for the future of our generation. Join us and bring your friends!”
Generation Opportunity is another conservative/libertarian advocacy group based in D.C. — this one centered around attracting younger voters. The current president, Evan Feinberg, was a staffer for Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) and is a research analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank also based out of the nation’s capital.
The group is best known for the last year’s most disturbing political advertisement, which featured a creepy Uncle Sam mascot in a doctor’s office strapping on a rubber glove, hovering over a pantless patient. The group’s website is designed similar to the two anti-ACA websites presented to Alaskans last year. Despite listing myriad issues they claim to be concerned about, the site’s content places a clear emphasis on its opposition to “Obamacare.”
Generation Opportunity has received $5 million in funding from the Koch brothers.
The state-specific subdivision of the national group is thus far limited its presence to Twitter, managing to accumulate just over a hundred followers since the account was launched in March. “GenOppAK” is already behind in their attempt to fare better than their two anti-ACA-themed, astroturfing predecessors. In the short time the group has been active on Twitter, they’ve managed to misspell GOP Senate hopeful Mead Treadwell’s name three times in as many tweets.
Every campaign in state likes to boast that Alaskans don’t fall for Outside groups, Outside interests, Outside money, Outside-Outside-Outside. It’s the easiest and often go-to strategy employed in campaigns in state. But if “Know the Facts” and “Don’t Enroll” are any indication, one hopes we’re getting better. Whether we are or we are not, astroturf campaigns are not going away. Given increased anonymity, it’s going to get a whole lot worse — with, frankly, no indication or hint that it will get better.
Buckle up and don’t buy in.