The left’s favorite socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, recently deleted a tweet where she accused a former staffer to Mitch McConnell of running a bot network to attack her online. After being called out for her baseless and inaccurate attack, she tweeted, ”Heads up–I’m deleting a tweet about astroturfing [because] I want to make sure details are solid,” While we would normally regard her tweets as another one of her incoherent ramblings, she brings up a questionable tactic used in politics known as “astroturfing”. While this does happen at a much larger scale by national groups, outbreaks of astroturfing have occurred, right here in Idaho.
What is Astroturfing
Astroturfing, a fascinating word in itself, takes its name from the synthetic grass used to cover football and soccer fields in place of real grass. While they may look very much alike, one has no actual roots. Online, astroturfing is a tactic used by groups to fake grassroots support by coordinated messaging across social media accounts, blogs, and emails. Larger national groups use something called twitter bots to produce their messaging campaigns. This gives the appearance that there is a large movement for or against an issue when in fact, it is run by a small group that is attempting to influence people.
Here in Idaho, linking up support through a network of contacts and willing participants gives small groups the ability to make a lot of noise and scare legislators into thinking their constituents are up in arms when really it’s only a few hundred networked social media accounts all following instructions from their leaders. By incorporating pieces of information that are important to each group and wrapping it all in a bow with buzzwords like Tyranny, Liberty, Patriot, and Socialism they all get their piece of buy in. While the messaging may seem legitimate, use real profiles, and have all the hallmarks of a rebel rousing pitchforks and torches outrage, it’s really just cut and paste content designed to look like all the villagers are up in arms and charging toward the Capitol.
Vaccines are Tyranny!
On January 10, 2019, the Idaho House Health & Welfare committee approved a new rule that would add a meningitis vaccination mandate for high school seniors. Moments later, Republican representatives who voted for the bill were flooded with emails intended to intimidate, impugn and challenge their right to have an R by their names. One legislator we spoke with said, “I had not even walked out of the committee room when I started receiving loads of outraged emails and social media messages, none of which asked for my reasoning on voting the way I did, only condemning and calling me names.
This was the start of a very sophisticated astroturfing campaign. Multiple Facebook pages were used to spread disinformation and narratives around vaccines being tyranny. Let’s go down the rabbit hole and examine what really happened.
Health Freedom Idaho
Health Freedom Idaho, a group that actively promotes anti-vaccination narratives posted this on their Facebook page:
Followed by this…
When asked about a celebration one legislator stated, “What celebration? We are not circus performers, we are legislators and take our jobs very seriously”. If there was a party, they certainly were not invited.
The Gem State Patriot
The Gem State Patriot, a website that publishes ultra-conservative news shared this on their Facebook page:
The author of this article is Natalie Feuerstein, the same person who wrote the articles published on Health Freedom Idaho’s website. Notice how they used the same image from Health Freedom Idaho? The next day, Representative Giddings and Scott published their opposition to the vaccination rule here:
Representatives Scott’s article claims to tell the truths about the vaccine, yet contains no actual information about the vaccine itself, just complains about how the rule is implemented within Idaho legislation. Also, Scott is not a medical professional.
Here Representative Giddings attempts to convince readers that Big Pharma is controlling Idaho Legislators through broad accusations and zero evidence or examples of actual influence on campaigns. This article leaves out critical factual information to inform the reader of any viewpoint other than her agenda. Continually impugning the integrity of other legislators by insinuating they are “on the take” is, in our opinion, highly questionable behavior of a legislator entrusted with making Idaho laws.
Madison Liberty Institute
Madison Liberty Institute, a group based in East Idaho that is headed by Johnathan Haines and former Representative Ron Nate published this content:
FYI, Ron Nate holds a Ph.D. in economics and is not a medical doctor. Also, notice how the photos are almost identical to the one used by Gem State Patriot? Stock photos can be expensive, sharing a library or account would save money.
Greg Pruett For Liberty
Greg Pruett, founder of Idaho Second Amendment Alliance and uncompromising gun rights advocate started a new Facebook page called “Greg Pruett for Liberty”. The page was suspiciously started on January 11 with this as his first real post:
Shortly after Pruett followed up with this one…
Pruett’s strong language here would leave a reader to believe that these Republicans actually “violated their oaths of office”. Unless you subscribe to the opinion that a single issue gun rights advocate is suddenly the authority on vaccination legislation, it is more likely that Pruett’s claim lacks any credibility.
Idaho State Legislators Join In
Multiple state legislators jumped on board the anti-vaccination outrage messaging to share Health Freedom Idaho’s content.
Representative Chad Christensen who serves on the Health & Welfare committee shared these posts on his campaign Facebook page:
The second comment is interesting. It comes from Madison Liberty Institute’s President, Jonathan Haines.
Then you have this post which shares content sourced from Health Freedom Idaho…
Representative Nichols shared Health Freedom Idaho’s dishonest post here:
Representative Giddings shared the following:
Pay attention to the language. She names those who voted for the rule, calling them “republicans” and equating their action to tyranny. A common theme amongst the liberty-minded legislators and their handlers is to view anyone who does not follow the liberty caucus line to be a RINO (Republican In Name Only) as if they have the sole claim to what is conservatism.
Then she shared the article she published on Gem State Patriot…
Representative Christy Zito connected Health Freedom Idaho with her post here:
According to our own state health and welfare statistics, in ages 0-4 the second leading cause of death is congenital malformations with 21 deaths. In ages 5-14 the second leading cause of death is cancer with 9 deaths in Idaho. Ages 15-24 is self-harm as the second leading cause of death for Idaho children with 53 deaths. Oh and one other minute detail, according to the Idaho Immunization Program there are currently a total of 16 diseases that can be immunized against and a total of about 24 vaccines actually administered from birth to 18 years. Just can’t seem to come up with 70 cancer causing vaccines….
Zito also shared her fellow Liberty Caucus member’s post here:
According to Zito, doing your homework means spending hours reading anti-vaccination content from Health Freedom Idaho, a website and Facebook page that provides “trusted” alternative medical advice from the internet.
Just days after these articles were published and shared by these connected legislators, a major measles outbreak flared up in Washington. State officials there credit this kind of anti-vaccination propaganda with contributing to the low vaccination rates within the state resulting in children getting seriously ill.
Engineering an Outbreak
If you did not know the connection between all of these pages and websites, you might think that there are a lot of people in Idaho who promote anti-vaccination agendas masked as government interference with parental freedom.
Idaho has an exemption rule. Parents can opt out of vaccinations they object to. Yet, this is not posted up front in this social media campaign as it would detract from their fear-based narrative.
This was a dishonest campaign likely designed to show legislators how quickly the Idaho Freedom Caucus “supporters” could mobilize a digital campaign to strike fear into state legislators who dare oppose their agenda.
Dig further and look at the people who reacted, commented and shared each of these Facebook posts, you will see it is the same people every time.
The same style tactics were used to share Idaho Second Amendment Alliance’s deceptive campaign about “Red Flag” laws, Medicaid expansion, Idaho Abortion Human Rights Act, and nearly every agenda pushed by the Idaho Freedom Caucus.
Need another example? How many times and places have you seen this image shared on Facebook?
This was a campaign started by the Idaho Freedom Foundation and related to the failed lawsuit they filed, quite unsuccessfully, to overturn the Medicaid expansion proposition.
The Anatomy of a Successful Astroturfing Campaign
Astroturfing is all about making it look like you have a larger base of support than what actually exists. Between all the pages shared in this article, it would appear that it represents tens of thousands of followers. Yet only a few hundred people actively engage with these posts. By creating variations of the same content on multiple sites and pages it gives the appearance of a larger mob when in reality it’s just the same people posting over and over again. Here is how this works:
- Create a Facebook audience or co-opt an existing group
- Enlist legislators (or former legislators) loyal to your agenda to write articles that are long on the rhetoric and light on the facts
- Activate your “Brushfires” network of followers to like, comment, and share the source articles.
- Use the same network to share pre-written emails with areas to add minor personalization to give the appearance of mass constituent outrage.
- Lather, Rinse and Repeat.
How to Prevent an Astroturfing Outbreak
This type of astroturfing is very effective. Legislators targeted by these types of campaigns often get worried that their base might be turning on them and their re-election will become a challenge. They spend hours attempting to verify if these emails are real people of Idaho, their constituents or trolls. If they do not respond immediately the system is activated again to call out their lack of response to their constituency. Voters can be fooled by the same tactics. Misinformation masked with miniscule nuggets of “agreeable” content are often shared to change the conversation and the election outcome.
The best defense against a viral attack like this is to inoculate yourself with knowledge. When people are aware of how to spot astroturfing campaigns, they become immune to the negative effects and start thinking for themselves. Our feeling was that it was very important to communicate what we saw happen in the minutes, hours and days after a RULE vote in a committee. Being very much non-techie it took us a full month to validate, capture, link and analyze what had been done and then attempt an article to help Idahoans educate themselves about these tactics.
We fully expect to be attacked for exposing these questionable tactics. We’ve been called liars, fake conservatives, had our livelihoods threatened, and much worse, all because we sought to show that being a conservative in Idaho was not exclusive to the uncompromising few. As someone who strongly believes in the constitution, it’s sickening to see our liberties threatened by those who claim to be “liberty-minded”. Next time you see a comment meant to demean or vilify, a Facebook post, or dishonest video about Idaho Conservatives, consider the source. It’s very likely to come from the same people who have been astroturfing you all along.
Kassidy Ellis-Telford helped write and provide research for this editorial.
Jennifer Ellis is a rancher from Blackfoot, Idaho. She has worked for over 20 years with agriculture and community policy. She and her husband ranch and farm in Bingham and Caribou Counties.