The great thing about social media is that they allow a very small number of people to create a potentially very large movement: those overlapping social circles give even just one or two people a surprising amount of leverage. Which is how two guys in a pub in Merseyside managed to launch a worldwide demonstration of the ineffectiveness of homeopathic remedies. But technology is neutral, right? So it doesn't take sides. What happens when the people using social media for leverage are already vastly wealthy and influential?
As Taki Oldham discovered in travelling around the United States to film Astroturf Wars (on both full-sized and mobile phone cameras), what can happen is the formation of what appears to be a large and growing grassroots movement of independent people espousing points of view that you would more readily identify with Big Oil, Big Tobacco and Big Pharma. And lo and behold, as he traces the origins of and sources of funding for dozens of what seem to be consumer-led groups, he finds…Big Oil, Big Tobacco, and Big Pharma. Most especially, he finds billionaires such as the Koch brothers (8th and 9th richest individuals in the US when he made the movie; joint fifth in September 2010), Richard Mellon Scaife, and others. It makes an impressive, if complicated, flow chart.
At conferences and smaller events, Oldham finds trainers teaching participants how to use the internet to push 'conservative' ideas: global warming is a myth, nationalised health care is bad, taxes are bad, government is bad, liberals are worse than bad. One trainer explains that he spends 30 minutes a day going through Amazon's book lists giving anything liberal one star and anything conservative five stars. "Eighty percent of the books I put a star on, I don't read," he says. "So that's how it works". The same goes at sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Flixster ("This is where your kids get information"), where he gives bad ratings to movies like Sicko ("I don't want Michael Moore to come up"). "That's how you control the online dialogue and give our ideals a fighting chance."
You know who pioneered this sort of approach? Scientologists, back in 1993 to 1995. It didn't work nearly as well for them, but they weren't working with such mainstream ideas.
So, the takeaways. One, there's an explanation for the way some Americans seem to be campaigning against their own best interests: they're being played. Two, social media can, like every technology, be used in good or bad ways. It will certainly be tempting for some businesses to emulate the methods outlined here, but bear in mind how damaging it can be if you're caught being dishonest. Third, be wary of user-generated ratings and reviews, because they are increasingly susceptible to gaming.
Finally, a significant danger on the internet has always been the ability to create an echo chamber, where the only ideas and opinions you encounter are ones you agree with. As the journalist Molly Ivins wrote years ago, read widely among the things you disagree with. You can learn a lot that way.
Astroturf Wars: How Corporate America is Faking a Grassroots Revolution Produced and directed by Taki Oldham Larrikan Films 91 minutes Price $14.99 (or watch the movie online for $3.99)