BT and the AstroTurf wars
For the past week BrokenTelephone has been conducting a private correspondence with Peter Barrington who goes by the internet handle of Somerset.
Barrington has been a prolific commentator on BrokenTelephone, as noted here. His comments have been partial, and biased towards fulfilling BT’s agenda with respect to next generation broadband. Although often invited to debate issues, he refuses to reply when the answer may be unfavourable to BT.
BrokenTelephone has tolerated Barrington’s comments, whose volume amounts to spam, in the interests of free speech. However, one of his private letters in the correspondence noted above gave pause for thought.
In response to the earlier story about a business park in the Bovey Tracey exchange area, Barrington sought help establishing how one could work out how many businesses there might be in a post case area. We published his email address so that people could help Barrington directly as the issue was peripheral to the story. As it turned out, a reader simply replied in a comment.
Even before that, Barrington asked that his email address be removed. I demurred. Barrington then wrote, more politely, “Would you please remove my email details from your website. We contribute to these sites on the basis that email details will not be published, particularly due to the possibility of spam and disclosure of personal information.”
Why “We”? Why “sites”?
As anyone who has an interest in how the government is spending £1.4bn of taxpayers’ money with BT knows, this subject area is full of commentators who push the BT line exclusively, who will not acknowledge contrary evidence, safe in the knowledge that “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”.
This is known as “Astroturfing”. According to Wikipedia, this is “the practice of masking the sponsors of a message (e.g. political, advertising, or public relations) to give the appearance of it coming from a disinterested, grassroots participant. Astroturfing is intended to give the statements the credibility of an independent entity by withholding information about the source’s financial connection.”
Barrington claims BT doesn’t pay him. However, he also claims to be a former BT engineer, so as a BT pensioner he has a pecuniary if indirect interest in BT’s fortunes.
Wikipedia goes on, “Some studies suggest astroturfing can alter public viewpoints and create enough doubt to inhibit action.”
It adds astroturfing threatens the legitimacy of genuine grassroots movements.
The authors of an article in the Journal of Business Ethics, quoted by Wikipedia, argue that astroturfing that is “purposefully designed to fulfil corporate agendas, manipulate public opinion and harm scientific research represents a serious lapse in ethical conduct.”
If BT has to resort to astroturfing to make its case, how strong can its case really be?