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Conservatives Astroturfing a Brave New World (VIDEO)

09/27/2011 03:48 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2011

Hilary Clinton was mocked as paranoid when in 1998 she said that there was "a vast right-wing conspiracy" out to discredit her husband Bill Clinton's presidency. Since then the network of right-wing media outfits, conservative think tanks, merchant scientists, propaganda videographers and corporate-funded astroturf organizations has been broadly documented.

In a recent post I mentioned how my upcoming book, Fool Me Twice: Fighting The Assault on Science In America, had become a target. The book has a chapter exposing the assault on climate scientists. It received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, reserved for books of "remarkable merit" and "outstanding quality," but the early pre-release customer reviews on Amazon were awful.

How could this be?

Advance reviewers can select which books they want to review. Reading the reviews, it became apparent that they were from "climate skeptics" who rated climate change denial and politically aligned books very highly.

The Internet propaganda war is raging and far-ranging. It focuses on creating a revisionist alternative to history and established science, arguing that mainstream history and science is liberally biased. With sites like Conservapedia, subjects range from creationism to Ralph Reed's Christianity-for-hire model of astroturfing.

This reality revisionism is most widespread on the subject of climate change. For example, try Googling "the best documentaries on climate change." The first result (this may change now) is a link to The Great Global Warming Swindle Wikipedia entry. Googling "the best documentaries on global warming" brings up a long list of climate change denial sites:

In a 2010 documentary called (Astro)Turf Wars, filmmaker Taki Oldham goes undercover to try to shed light on the problem. One scene features a secretly recorded training session put on by a group called American Majority. The trainer teaches Tea Party members how to "manipulate the medium" via "online activism."

"Here's what I do," the trainer tells his freedom-loving audience. "I get on Amazon; I type in 'Liberal Books'. I go through and I say 'one star, one star, one star.' The flipside is you go to a conservative/libertarian whatever, go to their products and give them five stars. So literally, eighty percent of the books I put a star on, I don't read. So, that's the way it works. I promise you, this is where your kids get information: Rotten Tomatoes, Flixster. These are places where you can rate movies. So when you type in 'Movies on Healthcare,' I don't want Sicko, I don't want Michael Moore's to come up, so I always give it bad ratings. I spend about 30 minutes a day, just click, click, click, click. ... If there's a place to comment, a place to rate, a place to share information, you have to do it. That's how you control the online dialogue, give our ideals a fighting chance."

A 2009 Dallas Morning News story described how the group set up shop in Texas, apparently in part to support the possible presidential candidacy of Texas Governor Rick Perry. Perry has been vocally anti-climate science, saying that it is "not settled," even though the conservative US National Academies said in May that the findings of climate scientists "have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small," and so should now be "regarded as settled facts."

The Texas office was set up by Drew Ryun, who moved for that purpose. His twin brother Ned Ryun is national director of the organization, based in Purcellville, Va. The Ryuns are sons of former conservative Republican Kansas congressman Jim Ryun.

About seventy-five percent of American Majority's start-up funding comes from the Sam Adams Alliance, a Chicago-based think tank created in 2006 that "inspires and trains allies to advance economic and individual liberty through a strategic combination of new media tools, traditional communications, and networking."

The then-president of the Sam Adams Alliance was John Tsarpalas, the former executive director of the Illinois State Republican party.

Its CEO is Eric O'Keefe, a former executive director of the National Libertarian Party. He previously worked for Citizens for Congressional Reform (pdf), a project of David Koch's Citizens for a Sound Economy. Koch is co-owner of oil refiner Koch Industries, and a major funder (pdf) of climate denial outfits. Crooks and Liars has a more detailed rundown.

American Majority is just one example of several aligned astroturfers, many largely funded by energy industry money, whose purpose is to train and motivate libertarian and tea party activists in "how to win and influence in a digital age" using a guerrilla war of deception, dirty tricks and propaganda. The goal isn't to advance the libertarian ideal of freedom, it's to protect the interests of oil companies and fundamentalists using tools that are more often associated with tyranny.


Pre-order Shawn Lawrence Otto's Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, "a gripping analysis of America's anti-science crisis." --Starred Kirkus Review. Like him on Facebook.