“Astroturfing” is a practice by which groups or campaigns are able to spread disinformation by sending it virally using non-existent people and “sources.” An essential element is the use of “sockpuppets,” or multiple forum accounts set up by a single existing user under different names, to imply a multitude where only one person exists. It’s essentially a way of faking the appearance of a grassroots campaign (hence the reference to fake grass in the name “astroturf”).
Rusty Shackleford at The Jawa Report (via Instapundit) has done an incredible amount of independent research into the people behind a smear video calling Sarah Palin a secessionist sympathizer in Alaska, and uncovers a link to a Democratic PR firm in California, as well as possible links to Obama campaign manager David Axelrod (notorious for past astroturf campaigns):
Extensive research was conducted by the Jawa Report to determine the source of smears directed toward Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Those smears included false allegations that she belonged to a secessionist political party and that she has radical anti-American views.
Our research suggests that a subdivision of one of the largest public relations firms in the world most likely started and promulgated rumors about Sarah Palin that were known to be false. These rumors were spread in a surreptitious manner to avoid exposure.
It is also likely that the PR firm was paid by outside sources to run the smear campaign. While not conclusive, evidence suggests a link to the Barack Obama campaign.
The post is long and detailed, but TJR’s findings make it a must-read. Doubly so given the fact that TJR’s post appears to have made the astroturfers very skittish:
Within an hour of this post going up, YouTube videos implicating Ethan Winner were yanked, sockpuppet accounts deleted, and more importantly, the Wikipedia entry on David Axelrod began to edit out mentions of his well known astroturfing campaigns. Hmmm, it sounds to me like we’re on to something.
We have backups of all the deleted websites, and will update as soon as we can.
As a better blogger than myself is wont to say, “read the whole thing.” I was on the fence as to whether Rusty might be on to something until I had read most of it, by which time I was leaning toward the possibility that he’d caught someone doing something naughty. With the sudden flurry of yanked videos, deleted accounts, and altered Wiki pages as the sudden switching on of the light by TJR causes the roaches to scatter, I’m not leaning anymore. I’m simply waiting to find out whose heads are going to roll over this, and whether it will damage the Obama campaign even further.
UPDATE: Hot Air has further commentary.
UPDATE II: Shackleford posts the content of a statement by Ethan Winner, claiming sole responsibility for the video. The reason he gives for pulling the video is because he says his family was getting threats. No word as to why he felt he needed to close his YouTube accounts on top of it.