In his new book, Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has revealed that Fox News’ public relations department spent years aggressively patrolling the comments sections of blog posts about the network, and responding to criticism (and even neutral statements) from fake accounts.
According to Folkenflik, Fox staffers each maintained dozens of sock-puppet accounts, and even logged in from dial-up AOL accounts in order to make their posts seem like they’d come from actual, honest-to-god, out-of-touch angry grandparents.
Unfortunately, while Folkenflik’s revelations are dispiriting, they’re nothing new. Astroturfing by conservative operatives and corporations long predates the advent of the online comments section. In fact, the practice — in which administrations, lobbies, and public relations departments create the false appearance of broad-based grassroots support or easily refuted dissent — was first perfected by President Richard Nixon’s administration.In addition to coining the term “silent majority,” Nixon speechwriter and adviser Pat Buchanan initiated “a ‘discreet’ letter-writing operation at the Republican National Committee on a permanent basis,” according to political scientist John Anthony Maltese.
“Initially, the operation sent some letters with false names and no return addresses,” but the program grew to include “a network of people willing to sign the letters,” writes Maltese. Thus began conservatives’ attempt not to gain support, but invent it from whole cloth.
More recently, in what became known as the Brooks Brothers Riot, Republican operatives were paid to protest the 2000 presidential recount in Miami. They also blanketed newspapers and the internet with support for John McCain (speaking of angry, out-of-touch grandparents) in the run-up to the 2008 election, and created “citizen rallies” to protest environmental protections and the reduction of oil and gas industry tax benefits. The current master of the art is the Koch brothers-funded organization FreedomWorks, which fostered Tea Party protests, opposed the mortgage bailout by dreaming up a coalition of “angry renters,” and has long been behind the push against the Affordable Care Act.
The good news? The next time you come across an infuriated, typo-laden rant defending Fox News online, you can rest assured that your countrymen haven’t devolved into a mob of barely literate, blind devotees of Rupert Murdoch’s TV hate machine. After all, it’s probably just a Fox staffer doing his or her job.