A Penny For My Thoughts: How The Right Uses Paid Commenters to Manipulate Public Opinion And Trash Free Speech

By Mark Esposito, Weekend Blogger

Fascinating book out by NPR media reporter, David Folkenflik, entitled Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires that explores the strange world of publisher Rupert Murdoch. Gobbler of such English-speaking newspapers as The News of The World, The Sun, The Wall Street Journal, and The Times, Murdoch is mostly known for his media collaboration with Roger Ailes in the development and promotion of Fox News, the Right’s mouthpiece of choice. Until his inglorious dismount from credibility in the London Phone Hacking scandal where a Murdoch newspaper employee was convicted of hacking the telephone voice mails of murdered British teenager, Milly Dowler, Murdoch had personified all that is unseemly about tabloid journalism. The personification of Charles Foster Kane, Murdoch fed the Right the red meat of dissention blending news with opinion and relying on practices that were criticized by honest journalists (even conservative ones) around the world calling it right-leaning tabloidism (here).

His right-wing pabulum had the desired effect when a media study by researchers at the University of Maryland found that regular Fox News viewers were more misinformed about American politics than viewers of any other channel. (here). Fox News immediately responded with this “substantive” reply about the merits of the study:

“The latest Princeton Review ranked the University of Maryland among the top schools for having ‘Students Who Study The Least’ and being the ‘Best Party School’ – given these fine academic distinctions, we’ll regard the study with the same level of veracity it was ‘researched’ with.”

As the Huffington Post notes, “For the record, the Princeton Review says the University of Maryland ranks among the ‘Best Northeastern Colleges,” Stelter notes. “It was No. 19 on the Review’s list of ‘Best Party Schools.” (here). Misinformation,it seems, extends beyond the viewership and all the way up to the executive suites at Fox News.

For his part, the foreign-born Murdoch calmly states his place in American politics as the savior of  the GOP. In an interview with Fortune magazine, Murdoch makes that point (here):

Fortune: “Does it bother you at all, Rupert, that there is a view that Fox News has contributed in a big way to the political discontent in the U.S., degraded the political process, and maybe, in spotlighting the Tea Party, even hurt the Republican Party?”

Murdoch: “It has certainly given voice and hope to people who didn’t like all that liberal championing thrown at them on CNN. I think it has absolutely saved it. It has certainly given voice and hope to people who didn’t like all that liberal championing thrown at them on CNN. “

Voice, indeed, as in Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and the myriad of right-wing pundits who keep up a very public drumbeat of Republican position points. Nothing much new there but the fascinating part of Folkenflick’s book is not the public manipulation of stories and ideas but instead the shadow war being waged on fair-minded internet blogs and their like-minded commenters by the paid flacks from Fox News and other Right-wing organizations. Folkenflik  says shills in Fox’s online PR staff maintained between twenty and a hundred fake profiles on each social media account. The fake commenters then used the accounts to promote right-wing agendas.

And it’s not just the hacks on the payroll at Fox News that get into the act but piece workers are recruited into the slime as well. Freelance writer Randa Morris describes the recruitment process:

I have encountered hundreds of help wanted postings for fake right-wing bloggers, paid commenters and bogus survey takers. Most of the positions pay between five and ten cents a post. The “paid commenters” ads usually appear on international freelancing sites, meaning you do not have to live in the United States to help push the tea party agenda here. (here)

Here’s an example of a Craig’s List ad purporting to seek out paid commenters to hawk right-wing talking points (Right click and Use the “Open Image In New Tab” for a better view):

Could this be fake? In the ether of internet guerilla warfare, everything is dubious but we have to admit the possibly it’s true in view of Folkenflik’s book. The placement in a Canadian Craig’s List  lends some credence to Randa Morris’  proposition that foreign recruiters are alive and well in the blog-o-sphere seeking paid commenters.

Folkenflik details that right-wing commenters are using fake profiles and they are getting paid.  He also notes the shadowy tactics used to hide true identities such as wireless broadband connections to block tracing the comments back to their sources. It’s long been known that so-called reputation management firms garner up to $10,000.00 per month to scrub unflattering (and often true) stories about its clients off the internet. (You can read a great exposition of this in the New York Magazine here). It’s no long stretch to conclude that what can be taken away can just as easily be injected into the dialog.

Folkenflik explains that the paid commenters don’t just stick to Fox News blogs but spread out through the internet to spew the talking points and drive off real commenters. The tactics are vicious personal attacks with the goal of stifling liberal or moderate points of view. The attacks usually come in packs and are both immediate and bullying. And since many liberal to moderate voices are well-educated folks with little desire for direct verbal confrontation, the tactics work:

 “They respond to normal people in the comments sections of any number of web-sites, often with aggressive and insulting attacks.Gawker reports that its site is one of many that has been targeted by Fox’s paid commenters, otherwise known as social media trolls. According to Gawker, Folkenflik said that when he was at Fox “even blogs with minor followings were reviewed to ensure no claim went unchecked. The point of these fake commenters is not just to push a specific agenda. It’s also to deceive the unsuspecting public about the actual amount of support that exists for that agenda. Paid commenters use vicious attacks against anyone who posts an opposing opinion. Eventually the attacks have the effect of driving people with opposite views away from the targeted sites. This allows them to dominate the web with their fake profiles, while at the same time discouraging real people from participating in the discussion.” (here)

Armed with this info how do we spot a paid troll versus an ideologue? Here’s my checklist:

1. Immediate response to contrary views.

2. Huge volume of comments.

3. Provocative personal attacks.

4. Gloating over driving people away from the blog.

5. Fawning deference to the blog host to ensure continued ability to post.

6. False professions of fair mindedness as shown over time.

7. Ganging up with other trolls to intimidate.

8. Avoiding the merits of a piece to attack the author or supporter.

9. Similar postings across the web on other sites

10. Stalking opposing commenters to obtain personal information and revealing that information.


You think ISIS is a direct threat to our democracy? Look closer to home.


Sourced Throughout

~Mark Esposito, Weekend Blogger

Kudos to Gene Howington for educating me on the perils and politics of propaganda with his contributions on this blog and sparking my interest.

By the way and for better or worse, the views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not necessarily those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays of art are solely the author’s decision and responsibility. No infringement of intellectual property rights is intended and will be remedied upon notice from the owner. Fair use is however asserted for such inclusions of quotes, excerpts, photos, art, and the like.



316 thoughts on “A Penny For My Thoughts: How The Right Uses Paid Commenters to Manipulate Public Opinion And Trash Free Speech”

  1. FWIW,

    Just announced on

    Flowers For Socrates

    The two writers , Elaine and Mike S. who produced the majority of the material posted there have left the scene.

    For the record, all of Mike Spindell’s posts have been obliterated, by the EIC , as if he never existed, when in fact Mike kept the blog going. He was never asked or told that his posts would be removed. It was never in fact discussed whatsoever. He was not given the opportunity to save his posts for his own later use.

    He was not allowed a farewell post. You will contrast that with Mr. Turley’s blog where he and Gene Howington upon leaving, were given the opportunity to say goodbye. Their posts remain here to this day.

    Who is he kidding? We all know the deal.

    Gene’s best writers have deserted him. I’m sure Mike and Elaine’s departure was not without rancor as he would like his readers to believe. We all know his style. (Remember Buddah IS Laughing aka Gene Howington)

    Since Gene hardly writes – giving one excuse after the other. He worked more this week than he ever had to. Not sure he likes it.

    Mike and Elaine were carrying that blog. They were the reason people went there.

    Now there will be no reason at all, especially with his holier than thou attitude.

    I remember after he left RIL he was trolling this blog and was very proud of it, may I add.
    He is now going to a bi weekly or monthly “magazine” format. Everyone who matters now knows what truly happened and can see past the hypocrisy.

    He is blocking all comments that reveal what truly occurred and showing that free speech is only recognized by approved commenters. He blocked me and so I am writing here.

    Emails are a wonderful thing.

    Flowers for Socrates was set up as a bastion of free speech. They have me their goal.

    1. Goldy – have noticed the lack of trollers on this site, so I guess things have been busy at Flowers for Algernon. Should be interesting.

  2. @Mespo727272 Thank you for a great informative piece…..

    I would give anything to get back the people who 2 years ago, used to comment on this blog….. Most from that era are gone now….
    Either no longer with us, or have left due to the newer commenters here…

    This USED to be a place where BOTH the Liberals and the Conservatives were SMART, they had something to add, it was interesting to exchange ideas….

    Sadly, it is no longer like that here….

    I am not putting ALL the blame on the Right Leaning crowd….
    I see a liberal or 2 here, who could stand to learn a thing or two about debate….
    It makes me sad to see this is NO longer a place to learn MORE about a subject, it is a place that turns into a freaking bar fight, within 5 comments….

    This is why I do not comment here very often…
    I come back once in a while just to see how everybody from a few years back is doing, and see who is still here, and who has left…

    Anyway….. I hope it someday goes back to the way it was here..

    I will still stop in and say HI…

    anyway… LOVE & MIss ya all….

    xoxoxox… JAG

  3. A good primer on the North and South Polls
    What’s the deal with Antarctica and the Arctic?

    Most people I meet don’t spend much time thinking about the polar regions on planet Earth; the poles just seem too far away. I mean, Antarctica, really? Only extreme explorers and a few scientists spend time thinking about those frozen places. Most of us live in areas with moderate temperatures, fantasize about tropical vacations and have barely checked out what the far reaches of our planet look like on a map. And even maps neglect the far north and south by stretching them so much that many people have no real idea what the ends of the Earth look like.

    The gigantic ice sheet expansion of the Antarctic is due to freshwater runoff from continental glaciers…

  4. Blow for giant coal port expansion as US banks opt out

    Two more global banking giants have declared they will not participate in funding for the Abbot Point coal port expansion, adding fresh financial doubts for what are potentially Australia’s biggest coal mines.

    US-based Citi and Morgan Stanley have confirmed to opponents of the proposed Queensland port expansion near the Great Barrier Reef and the related coal mines in the Galilee Basin that they will avoid involvement in Abbot Port.

  5. US Media hiding world news…
    NEWS9: Solar so good!
    Published on Oct 17, 2014
    The city is struggling with frequent power cuts. Those who were smart enough to invest in solar energy are the only ones coping with it. We take you through a few places in Bengaluru that entirely uses solar power. Thanks to solar energy, for these smart cookies, it’s no hassle of electricity bills or the annoying load shedding!

    Base load not needed. Continuous power for over a year 24/7/365+.
    It’s called LOAD SHARING. If you think it can’t be done… think again.

  6. I’m not sure which was more interesting; the article or the reaction of certain commenters.

    That’s quite the litmus test Mark.

  7. Squeeky!!! Fab poems.
    Max-1: try oil-pulling instead of brushing. You´ll love it. Your dentist won´t. 🙂

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