Our mailbox was hit by aggressive, automated campaigns to gin up mass viewer sentiment against two PBS shows. The orchestrated waves of outrage are examples of how our public debates have been hijacked by special interests.
Days after PBS Newshour journalist Yamiche Alcindor was named as the new host of the service’s Washington Week, Mike McKeown of Philadelphia expressed displeasure with the selection, which had followed a search of months and guest appearances by a number of potential hosts.
“I just saw that PBS ‘journalist’ Yamiche Alcindor, who has consistently misrepresented the truth in her reporting, will be the new moderator and anchor on Washington Week. This was a terrible mistake. Before the election, Yamiche made her bias against conservatives clear and that slant has continued since (President Joe) Biden was elected.” he said, in an email dated May 5. He closed with an admonition. “If Ms. Alcindor cannot be an accurate and fair host, she needs to be fired.”
A few hours passed. Then, an identical note from Thomas Bubb of Round Rock, Texas, arrived. Less than a minute later another email, using the same text as Bubb’s, came from Dennis Bulan of Troy, N.Y. Bulan’s message was followed two minutes later by another from Dominick Azzilonna of Manorville, N.Y., matching the others word for word.
This was the start of a torrent. Within days, the number of emails complaining about Alcindor’s appointment was well over 300.
If you’d only read the subject lines and not seen that the messages were using the same template, you might think the whole of PBS’ viewership was peeved enough at Alcindor’s posting to sit down and tap out emails detailing their honest assessment.
If you did, you’d be wrong.
We’ve seen it many times. Our mailbox had once again become an easy nail-head for the trusty old hammer that’s been in the public relations toolkit since the invention of email: The partially automated template campaign that equivocates the anger for you. Just add your name and press enter. It has never been easier to use, now that professional public relations operatives outnumber full-time, professional journalists in most U.S. news markets.
All but a handful of the notes sent to me complaining of Alcindor’s new role were one or another version of the same letter pinged across the country after a Fox News segment highlighted Alcindor’s appointment. (She’s become a favorite punching bag for supporters of former President Donald Trump, who verbally sparred with Alcindor a few, memorable times during his one term in office.)
I raise this as an issue because the anti-Yamiche stream started just as media researchers raised new warnings about faux-community campaigns designed to make a minority view look like mass opinion.
“State-sponsored influence campaigns from Russia received a lot of attention during the last two US presidential election cycles,” said the author of a report from the UK-based company, CompariTech, which recently found an unsecured “bot farm” that controlled nearly 14,000 fake Facebook accounts manufacturing some 200,000 political posts per month on the ubiquitous social media platform.
“Bots can be used to artificially inflate the public’s perceived enthusiasm for a certain cause, person, product, or viewpoint,” the report said. “Astroturfing, for example, masks the real sponsors of a message to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants. If people think bots are human, they are more likely to believe that the message has popular support.”
A similar trick was recently deployed by the government of Eritrea, in east Africa, which convinced hundreds of people to admonish PBS on social media for airing the Frontline TV documentary program, “Escaping Eritrea.” The tweets echoed formulaic complaints that the documentary was unfair and inaccurate, even though most of the negative flow came before the thorough investigative report actually aired, on May 4th.
After the air date, more tweets and emails came in, repeating the same lines as before the broadcast. Some senders did add their own commentary to the top of the form letters. One such was Ogbazgy A. Asmerom, of Cincinnati.
“ ... I am a regular listener to all PBS broadcasts, BBC, VOA, NPR and other call stations.
I am writing this letter to totally protest against the defamatory PBS Frontline report about Eritrea, which WECET/THINK TV, our local station and others across the USA that broadcast on 05/04/2021, at 10 pm. This reprehensible, sensational and misleading report was designed by the producer, Evan Williams, so-called international/independent journalist, his co-producers and the people who participated in the clandestine and smear campaigns to damage the survival of Eritrea, my birth-pace.
The episode has angered many Eritrean-Americans. The broadcast has put a stain on PBS, where many of us and our children grew up watching PBS programs. The episode should have been cancelled right from the beginning. By doing so, you could have saved the anger many Eritrean-Americans and withholding of contributions to the several PBS affiliates … ”
The tone of the letter then switches gears, even font, to lay out a litany of general, boilerplate complaints about the documentary.
We spoke with Mr. Asmerom via telephone, and over 45 minutes he did not offer a single, specific example of an error or something unfair in the documentary.
The flurry of notes were likely produced by the Eritrean government, known for taxing remittances of migrants abroad and coercing large communities of expatriates living in the United States and Europe. At stake: privileges like passports and property ownership back home. Mr. Asmerom’s email came complete with instructions by the National Council of Eritrean Americans on how to deploy talking points with local PBS stations.
“As I have been given to understand it, Eritreans abroad are positively encouraged to campaign against any coverage critical of the current regime,” said Richard Hutt, our counterpart at the BBC in London who’s had years of experience reading complaints from expatriate Eritreans.
The email-writing campaign was not enough, or so it would seem. Without saying that we know exactly who was behind it — because frankly, we don’t — we can say that the PBS Twitter account experienced a tweet storm involving thousands of tweets, ostensibly from outraged members of the Eritrean diaspora. There is a more than reasonable chance that at least some of that activity was driven by bots. (See "Data Expert Answers Our Questions About 'Bot Farms'.")
OK, here’s where you challenge me with the following point: Isn’t it OK to gather up like-minded friends and family and community to raise a unified voice in opposition — or support — of a person, place or thing? Isn’t it OK to help that voice by jotting down a few key words or lines that will resonate, maybe even a whole letter?
Yes, absolutely nothing wrong with that. Writing letters of complaint is a tradition as old as parchment. At the PBS Public Editor’s office, we read dozens each day.
And, organized letter-writing campaigns are as old as politics, having swayed many politicians and policymakers throughout history. Abraham Lincoln gave credit to his regular letter writers, which historian David Mearns described in The Lincoln Papers as being “composed of the laity, that diverse, unclassifiable, resourceful, self-assured and informed group which constituted the American public. Of this last category, many were lowly, illiterate. … ”
I grew up, professionally, in newsrooms that invited public opinion, but required in exchange a reader’s signature, name, address and phone number. That demand for authenticity elicited commentary that news executives often took seriously. It is harder today to be moved by anonymous name-calling and cajoling that flow through social media like so much bad graffiti.
"I think it's a growing problem because bots are getting better ... and there are very few consequences of getting caught," said Paul Bischoff, a consumer privacy expert and editor at Comparitech who authored the bot farm story I quoted above. Social media platforms might “ban their accounts" but not much more, he added. “No legal actions or penalties. ... As more people get on social media it's not going to go away anytime soon."
As PBS public editor, it is my job to respond to genuine and interesting correspondence, from unique commentary to blocs of opinions. I’m a student of political ideologies, and I make it a practice to try to understand where viewers are coming from, even if I might personally disagree with them.
But this is where the authors of the form letters complaining of Alcindor, and the designers of the tweet storm against Frontline’s Eritrea piece strayed into the realm of obviously manipulated consent, exploiting thousands of people to join the kind of artificial movement we see a lot in and around Washington, D.C.
A vast majority of PBS viewers and news watchers see what I see:
Yamiche Alcindor is one of the best political journalists around. (Her hundreds of thousands of named Twitter followers attest to that clout.) Washington Week execs made a well-received decision to elevate her to host.
And, on the Eritrea “controversy,” it’s hard to find a legitimate human rights organization, global governance group or journalism endeavor that doesn’t see that country’s leadership as authoritarian and repressive.
Still, the PR firms and opinion machines have figured out that, as news outlets now move at the speed of social media, it’s easy to gin up a “popular front.”
Real people, real opinions
To test our own gut feelings, the PBS Public Editor team reached out to a number of the email senders who’d objected to Alcindor’s new gig. Not surprisingly, most who had sent in the carbon-copy notes declined to answer more in-depth questions like: How regularly do they watch Washington Week?; How often do they watch PBS?; Why did they feel compelled to send in their anti-Yamiche emails?
We confronted some email senders with the obvious; that they were using a template, and asked if they were communicating to us on behalf of an organization.
One form-letter sender who did reply said, “I did not send that for an organization but I did get an email alerting me to her ‘promotion’ and they included a sample message that I read and decided it said what I wanted to say so I used it.”
But she declined to say who sent her the form letter she relayed to us.
To be fair, there were a handful of written objections to Alcindor’s posting that appeared to be the senders’ original words.
A South Carolina viewer named Janice engaged me in additional, emailed conversation after she sent one of the five emails opposed to Alcindor’s appointment that didn’t seem to roll off a mimeograph. (Yes, I’m that old.)
“I read about Yamuche (sic) being assigned to WW in a news article. ... I’m extremely frustrated with her appointment to act as a reporter/journalist (in the loosest form of the words) because she is blatantly biased and seems incapable of acting unbiased (as a host on Washington Week should be). I point you to her defense of Maxine Waters (in the Derek Chauvin trial), as well as her extremely biased question to President Biden during his press conference. If you cannot separate yourself from your feelings enough to see her very one-sided viewpoint, then I am sad to say that is further evidence of the skewed ‘reporting’ that has taken hold of this country. Someone, somewhere needs to say enough is enough. Can PBS be that voice to bring back non-opinionated reporting??? … You may use my first name only, as I know how the mob-rule mentality works and do not wish to subject myself or my family to danger simply because I am using my freedom to voice my opinion. … ”
Her reply was genuine, something we can work with in starting a conversation in which we would make our case for Alcindor’s qualifications.
The Alcindor email episode and the inflated Eritrea social media kerfuffle remind me, once again, of the power of public opinion. But they also bring to mind the Russian proverb "doveryai no proveryai" (trust but verify), which President Ronald Reagan dispatched to his own political advantage in negotiations with the Soviets during the Cold War. Perhaps we in the digital era are in our own cold war against unseen enemies who are employing information technology to drown out the truth. Whether they use the relatively low-tech email campaign (click here to add your name) or the ever-evolving means to game the algorithms of social platforms (bots, for example), they seek to create realities that suit their missions. Is it raining outside, or is someone holding a garden hose over my window? My job is to investigate that using all the means I have, from the weather report to soles of my own boots to venture outside and have a look with my own eyes. We take our viewers' comments very seriously, and that's why it is more important than ever to know them.
PBS Public Editor Researcher Daniel Macy contributed to this report.