The dark art of manufactured consensus is a long-running interest of mine. I’ve been fascinated by exposes of operations selling faked positive online reviews, to make products appear better or more popular on shopping websites like Amazon. Politicians use the same tricks, creating phony Facebook or Twitter fans to create the appearance of greater support for their positions, or infiltrating forums with professional operatives to engage in “concern trolling.” That’s the manufacture of negative consensus, in which the operative pretends to be, for example, a lifelong rock-ribbed Republican who just can’t stand the party’s position on tax cuts or gun control any more.
So it was with great interest that I read my friend Jim Treacher’s exploration of Team Obama’s phony gun-control Tweets over at the Daily Caller. In short, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX) says he received a paltry 16 tweets in support of Obama’s gun control agenda, after the President openly called for his supporters to badger Congress with such messages. But even at that, all of the messages used virtually identical wording… and ten of them came from obviously false Twitter accounts, created to produce the illusion of a crowd. Amusingly, Treacher investigated one of the fake accounts and discovered its sole follower was… a “former” digital strategist for the Obama campaign.
As consensus manufacturing efforts go, this one’s pretty lame, but it’s the thought that counts, and that thought is extremely disturbing. This is outright propaganda, in the true Soviet or North Korean style. It could be viewed as an effort to create a “preference cascade,” or more properly to restrain one, since preference cascades occur when people who formerly believed themselves isolated or out-of-touch with popular consensus realize their opinions are actually widely held.
And this sort of thing is going to happen a lot – either under the direction of active political operatives, or as freelance fakery festivals held by zealous supporters – because it’s easy to do, and it can be effective at picking up mainstream media interest. Maybe twelve cut-and-paste messages sprinkled through Steve Stockman’s timeline isn’t good enough, but it really doesn’t take much more effort to get the media noodling about “groundswells” and “grass-roots support,” if they’re already friendly to the agenda in question. It’s the same reason your inbox is still cluttered with dopey spam emails: sending them is virtually cost-free, and people do occasionally nibble on those absurdly baited hooks.
Now, imagine the media narrative if Republicans, or their energetic supporters, were caught pumping phony “grass-roots” emails into a Democrat’s electronic in-box, in support of a hotly contested conservative agenda…