Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Astroturfing works, and it's a major challenge to climate change

Kate Shaw in Ars Technica: …[N]ew research in the Journal of Business Ethics says that yes, astroturf does work; however, some of the details in the results did surprise the paper's authors. The researchers used the issue of climate change to examine just how effective astroturfing can be in changing people's perceptions. Under the guise of a marketing survey, the authors asked 278 Canadian undergraduates to participate in their experiment. The students were first polled on their knowledge and concern regarding issues such as fair trade, racism, and global warming, then told they would be viewing a website related to one of these issues in order to assess its functionality.

They were then randomly assigned to view one of eight websites focusing on climate change; these were either astroturf or grassroots websites,and were either not labeled with a funding source or were labeled with: “Funded from donations by people like you,” “Funded by Exxon-Mobil,” or “Funded by grants from the Conservation Heritage Fund.”

The websites were all created for this experiment, but they employed arguments from actual grassroots and astroturf organizations. The design, structure, and length of the websites were all kept constant.

Once the participants had perused the sites, they were again asked how they felt about the issue, as well as how credible the website was. Of course, to keep up appearances, they were also asked about the site’s functionality and design. One group of 78 participants served as a control group and did not view any website.

The main finding: astroturfing works. Students who had viewed a website with astroturf arguments were not only less certain about the cause of global warming than they had been before; they also believed that the issue was less important than they had previously thought.

This effect was stronger for those who were not as involved or as knowledgeable about climate change. However, even students who had indicated that they were deeply involved and highly knowledgeable about the issue were significantly affected by the astroturf claims.

This shift came despite the fact that the students didn't find the material very convincing. Those who viewed the astroturf sites didn’t tend to trust the organization behind it and didn’t believe the information provided was particularly credible. Nevertheless, they still felt more uncertain about the causes and importance of climate change after reading the claims than they had before….

A car covered in astroturf, shot by Ingolfson

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