Yesterday, Joel Pavelski (no, not the San Jose Sharks’ Joe Pavelski, as I and many other hockey fans confusedly thought for a bit) became Twitter famous for a day by doing a bad tweet.
It got ratioed to high heaven, and he deleted it, then posted a mea culpa saying what he was apparently really trying to say.
He also told folks that it was only his freshman year that he paid for.
Which brings me to Astroturfing. If you're not familiar with the term in the political arena, but understand its meaning in the context of being fake grass, you are still familiar with the term in the political arena. While there is absolutely nothing in Pavelski's public writing to demonstrate he is the by-the-book definition of Astroturf we have come to know (where corporations and conservatives fund “grassroots” movements, writers and personalities to pose as liberals in public to try to advance the liberal agenda towards corporate and conservative interests), but it looks as if it is a more natural process with the same end result. I went to a prep high school, so I am familiar with how the elite adult circles you find yourself in can warp your worldview before you have even had a chance to really think about your worldview, and I think I can provide some unique insight to the conversation on the left wondering if Pavelski is a right-wing plant.
He's almost assuredly not, and his job does not seem to be political at all. It's surely far more nuanced than that.
Pavelski's Twitter bio states that he works for GQ, as a self-described “Navel-gazing news nerd doing internet stuff,” but thanks to two seconds of googling from the @refdra Twitter account, Pavelski's complete background came to light.
Pavelski appeared in an article from the New York Times about Millennials in the workplace in 2016, and, well, it’s impossible to properly set this up. Just read:
Joel Pavelski, 27, isn’t the first person who has lied to his boss to scam some time off work.
But inventing a friend’s funeral, when in fact he was building a treehouse — then blogging and tweeting about it to be sure everyone at the office noticed? That feels new.
Pavelski also has written for The Federalist, a right-wing blog that routinely denigrates transgender people and had a “black crime” tag for years. That is far from his only right-wing connection, as his LinkedIn bio states:
“I began my career at The Daily, a Rupert Murdoch-led experiment in creating a dazzling daily magazine specifically for iPads, e-readers and mobile phones.”
What I’m doing here is drawing a line from the right-wing world that clearly surrounded his adolescence to the bad tweet. There’s zero evidence that he has ever been paid to spout any opinion, let alone that bad one about college, and it was a dearly held opinion that I have heard aplenty in my own elite high school circles. For some reason, the notion of free college is really triggering for some of the richest among us.
This is how right-wing talking points permeate the discourse through ostensibly liberal people. Pavelski comes from a world where connections get you jobs, and his jobs have come at (per his LinkedIn) the conservative New York Post and the uber-conservative and massively influential American Enterprise Institute (he has also appeared on his good friend Kat Timpf’s Fox News podcast). Pavelski has also worked at liberal outlets like The Huffington Post, GQ and has been a “speaker for the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association, the CUNY School of Journalism, [and] the Robert Novak Foundation.” He is far from a monolith his tweet and the ensuing tsunami of anger made him out to be, and his ensuing tweetstorm acknowledged the privilege he grew up with.
Liberals asserting that he is Astroturf personified should echo the basic thesis of Michael Wolff’s White House book: the details aren’t true, but it all feels true. As someone who grew up in elite circles, I don’t see him “beginning his career at a Rupert Murdoch-led experiment” as an accident. His friendship with a Fox News anchor is not an accident. Pitching articles to The Federalist is not an accident. No one working at AEI is ever an accident. Power begets power through its ubiquity. Power is so powerful, oftentimes we don’t even see it. Had I not gone to a public university and made friends with poorer folks for the first time in my life, I could have easily been the one to make that bad tweet given my upbringing around power, which created political beliefs that made me subservient to power. It took a decade for me to even realize I had internalized some of these right-wing opinions.
No one is immune to propaganda.
It is far, far more likely that Pavelski is completely legitimate about all of his political beliefs that have been shaped by the right-wing infrastructure surrounding his adolescence, than he is a paid plant by Rupert Murdoch—and that kind of accidental “Astroturfing” is far more difficult to rid ourselves of. Frauds are easy to call out and shame. People with sincerely held fraudulent opinions are much more difficult to dissuade from believing the propaganda foisted upon them by the rich and powerful lurking in the shadows around their upbringing. I should know. I was one of those fraudulent thinkers.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.