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John Oliver Tackles Astroturfing, or the Real Paid Protesters, on Last Week Tonight

"Pure, straight up opposite world."

Yesterday’s Last Week Tonight talks about racists (or, “the reason that 911 now has to answer calls with ‘Is this a real emergency, or is there just a black person nearby?’), the Unite the Right rally that also happened on Sunday, Saudi Arabia suspending ties with Canada, and Lithuanian tourism campaigns.

The main story, however, was astroturfing—”the practice of corporations or political groups disguising themselves as spontaneous or authentic popular movements.” Basically, they’re fake grassroots. Examples host John Oliver provides include the generically named “Americans Against Food Taxes” (started by food and beverage companies), “Save Our Tips” (an anti-minimum wage group funded by restaurant owners), and the National Wetland Coalition (which worked on behalf of oil companies and real estate developer).

Oliver calls the deception “pure, straight up opposite world”. The practice is, needless to say, full of misinformation, mendacity, and fake fronts. (There’s also some legally cautious talk around regarding Rick Berman, president of the Center For Consumer Freedom, who’s also literally known as “Dr. Evil”. Oliver assumes you can read between the lines.)

The host also dives into the business behind it, and how companies will hire crowds or individuals to gather, protest, and repeating talking points—one big example being Entergy buying a crowd to support their gas plant and another being actors appearing at town halls.

Despite all of Donald Trump’s talk about paid protesters (we’re still waiting on that check), there doesn’t seem to be much action against holding false experts accountable and Oliver shares his concerns about the mere existence of these groups.

“It can do real damage that goes way beyond the narrow issues that each group is trying to influence”, he says, pointing out conspiracy broads often wrongly cite groups like Crowds on Demand as suppliers of “crisis actors” for real tragedies like mass shootings.

“That is hugely dangerous”, says Oliver. “The outcome of this cannot be that everyone assumes that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is astroturf […] While skepticism is healthy, cynicism—real cynicism, is toxic.” Last Week Tonight ends with a commercial with all the tools of an astroturf commercial: B-roll, sensational accusations, dubious claims, and “Hey, we’re not under oath.”

(image: screencap)

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