On the television show, ’30 Rock’, Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan), a controversial, African-American actor who stars in the kind of films that would make Martin Lawrence think twice, is persuaded by high-flying uber-executive Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) to become a member of the right-wing, anti-taxation-of-the-rich party, the Republicans. However, now that the Republicans, a party dominated by old, white Christians, have a black star to represent them, Jack tries to persuade Tracy to do a series of political adverts in an attempt to woo the African-American voting block which tends to elude them come election time.
The attempt is disastrous. At one point, Tracy goes as far as to comment that black voters will never support the Republican party. The joke is intended to point out the voting trends of the American public, whilst poking the finger of fun at political attempts to seduce those who have nothing in common with the aims and goals of that political organisation. But whilst Tracy is a dim-witted madman, high on his own sense of entitlement, Jack Donaghy is a shrewd mover, who made his name by being ruthless, efficient, and pretty darn perceptive, when it comes to business and politics. Jack has a plan that will work in the Republicans favour, but would not need to rely on the African-American demographic voting for his party.
Jack has Tracy tell African-American voters to stay home and not vote. The reasoning behind this is that every vote by a member of that community would simply be a vote against the Republicans, and therefore, if each of them stayed home rather than voting, then it would be either a widening of the margin of victory, or a closing of the margin of defeat. Either way, it would make the Republicans seem more popular than they actually are, and would swing elections in their favour.
This brings us to the 50 Cent Club. Whilst they sound like a fan-club for a bling-dripping rap-star who makes wish-fulfilment computer games about being the most bad-ass mo’fo’ in the entire world, the truth is both more boring, and a little bit more terrifying.
The 50 Cent Club is a group of astroturfers, paid for by the Chinese government. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “astroturfing”, it relates to the practice of having individuals, groups or organisations posting positive comments about themselves, their groups, or organisations, anonymously, on message boards. This gives an inflated sense that the public is in favour of, or against, whatever they represent. The role of the 50 Cent Club is to spend their days posting articles and messages in favour of their government, with a grand fee of 50 cents paid each time they post. This then, in theory, will convince anyone on the Internet that everything in China is just hunky dory.
Of course, the Chinese are not the only ones that do this. The American military have been using a variety of seemingly innocent social networking sites to bomb private individuals with propaganda, hidden not by clever wording to appeal to the person, but by the original source of the message being obscured due to an assumed online identity.
Neither is it just the politicians that use this practice. Both ‘Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1’ and ‘The Hunger Games’ were promoted heavily through astroturfing. The Bleeding Cool website ran an article looking at an example of similar messages used by a lazy astroturfer to promote both films. In the case of ‘Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1’ the practice becomes quite scary because of just how unnecessary it is: by now there cannot be anyone on the planet who doesn’t at least know who Team Edward and Team Jacob are, and constantly wonder why people like reading about the bland, death-fixated life of the dull, dull, dull Bella Swan. The only possible explanation can be that is has become expected for a marketing campaign to warp reality in this way.
The concern with this is that it begins to call into question everything you read on the Internet, including this article right here. How do you know that the author of this article isn’t secretly working pro-Chinese messages into this work, perhaps as a weird acrostic down the side of each piece of work, slowly permeating your subconscious until you want to work for $14 a month in a Beijing sweat-shop owned by Walmart?
This becomes increasingly problematic when you try and “think for yourself and question authority”. How can you effectively question authority when, like the protagonists of ‘1984’, you find out that even your allies are secretly agents of the authority you are railing against. Increasingly, we find that Orwell was not warning us as much as he was explaining the world we are slowly descending towards, a special tenth circle here on Earth.
How can you trust your own mind when you learn that the moderate person speaking sense is, in fact, just another Tracy Jordan trying to twist your perception into doing something that seems to match your own beliefs, but is really benefiting those that only want to create a world opposed to them?
The reason for this article is because of the comments section on The Guardian website this past few months. As the rage from the end of the last Labour government subsides, people are now starting to realise that they have elected a regressive, elitist coalition who will dish out hard medicine like they are American doctors handing pharmaceutical company pills to children they claim are hyperactive: they will give you it whether you need it or not, because it makes their lives easier. But the rage hasn’t fully subsided, instead it is being pulled in two directions, and this makes those on the left-side of the political spectrum very vulnerable to astroturfing.
You see, the average comment on CiF (Comment is Free) tends to follow these simple lines: “They’re all the same. What’s the point of voting? Meet the old boss, same as the new boss.” It is very easy to give in to the apathy surrounding these issues, especially with the opportunity to effect real political change still so many years away.
The problem with those types of comments is that they tend to short-circuit the democratic process. Whilst the left suffers from general apathy as the Labour party tries to establish a new identity following the perceived failure of Gordon Brown’s economic plans (and it was only perceived, the economy was turning around in the months leading to the election, but the results weren’t known until afterwards and so have been suppressed by a media desperate to cosy up to the Condems), the right is rallying, and is even trying to turn the idea of being on the left-wing as something naïve and reckless. But for those feeling apathetic, it isn’t helpful to be told that the only party political alternative that could win the next election will do exactly the same as those in power. There is no evidence for this at all. Further, it suggests that to those moderates who swing elections that you would be better off with the devil you know, or not voting at all.
The role astroturfing could very well play in this instance is the exact same role Tracy Jordan was hired to play, and that is to further encourage those who are gravitating towards the left as a viable alternative to instead choose a cool, misanthropic distancing of themselves from the political process. The comments on CiF have already started to do this (though it needs to be stated that there is no evidence they are participating in a program of astroturfing). We need, therefore, to be more vigilant than ever when it comes to assessing what we read. After all, if someone like me thought of it, who’s betting Oliver Letwin hasn’t?