How Corporations and Special Interest Groups Can Influence Citizens Through Astroturfing

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I recently came across the documentary [Astro] Turf Wars, released last year, where Australian filmmaker Taki Oldham goes undercover to try and answer the question: “Just how real are the roots of the tea party’s supposed grassroots uprising.”

Grassroots movements are usually considered the “community’s voice” and key to any democratic institution. At Ecopreneurist, we earnestly cover “real” grassroots organizations and encourage their growth. But apparently they are not always what they seem. Some grassroots organizations and actions are actually “astroturfing”, that is really the antithesis of the above definition. In light of recent political debates and issues of green jobs, climate change and energy policies, this issue affects how key political issues are perceived and presented to citizens.

Image Credit: Stephanie McMillan

So What is “Astroturfing”?

Per Sourcewatch “Astroturfing refers to apparently grassroots-based citizen groups or coalitions that are primarily conceived, created and/or funded by corporations, industry trade associations, political interests or public relations firms. Journalist William Greider has coined his own term to describe corporate grassroots organizing. He calls it “democracy for hire.”

Corporations use this tool to spread their agenda through “hired citizen groups” and try to appear legitimate.

How is “Astroturfing” Unlike Genuine Grassroots Activism?

“Unlike genuine grassroots activism which tends to be money-poor but people-rich, astroturf campaigns are typically people-poor but cash-rich. Funded heavily by corporate largesse, they use sophisticated computer databases, telephone banks and hired organizers to rope less-informed activists into sending letters to their elected officials or engaging in other actions that create the appearance of grassroots support for their client’s cause.”

In his documentary, Oldham, examines the role these corporate-funded grassroots groups have played in the health-care and climate debates and their central role in the tea party movement.

Through his film, Oldham helps throw light on this practice and helps citizens identify signs of ‘Astroturfing’.

How Does Astroturfing Work?

  1. It centers around an issue that could affect company profits.
  2. A company (or industry association) works with their PR firm to create a seemingly independent group whose messages just happens to benefit the company.
  3. TV ads, media appearances, demonstrations and calls to congress are organised to give the appearance of public support.
  4. When the campaign is over the group usually disappears.

How Can We Identify Astroturfing?

Oldham through his reasearch points to some ways, these fake grassroots organizations can be identified. Look out for the following-
  1. Names of organizations They mostly sound like they have been formed by concerned citizens- with titles like: “Americans for…” or “Citizens for…” etc
  2. Look for the underlying message and who will directly benefit from the campaign’s goals.
  3. Astroturf groups crop up quickly, unlike “real” grassroots that are built from the ground up, over time.
  4. Does the group have real members, a telephone number?
  5. From where is the campaign getting money and how much are they spending?
  6. Follow media coverage and watch how the campaign unfolds.

A campaign is underway to try to force grassroots groups who lobby, to reveal their funding sources and pass the 2010 Lobbying Reform Act, read about MoveOn.org’s campaign.

The Guardian says that Astroturfing is not far from internet campaigns as well.

“The need to protect the internet from ‘astroturfing’ grows ever more urgent, astroturfing – the use of sophisticated software to drown out real people on web forums – is on the rise.”

Astroturfing has emerged as a powerful and malignant form of corporate lobbying that has potential to change the political direction of this country. What are other ways we can see through this corporate money-rich scheme?

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