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When a major corporation routes funds that push an agenda through an organization that appears to be a grassroots group, it is referred to as astroturfing, in a reference to a brand of fake grass which is used all over the United States. Examples of astroturfing vary: a company might, for example, use a shill to plant messages on web bulletin boards. In other cases, a major corporation might fund a group which appears to be independent of the parent company, and therefore supposedly providing clear and unbiased information. The term appears to have been coined by Senator Lloyd Bentsen, a Texas Democrat who has spoken out against astroturfing.
People frequently misinterpret astroturfing as the act of installing artificial grass. However, when someone says they are against astroturfing, they aren’t suggesting that you buy an indoor putting green. Instead, they are objecting to the disingenuousness of large organizations masquerading as local activists. In the same way that literal astroturfing is pretending to be grass, political astroturfing involves people giving you the false impression that they are members of your community. For this reason, many politically active people find astroturfing to be dishonest and unethical.
Grassroots organizing is political organizing on a highly localized level. Most grassroots groups have limited budgets which are supplemented by donations from members and fundraising parties. A grassroots organization works hard to educate the public and promote particular ideals: showing people, for example, why clearcutting is harmful, or why they should care about poor working conditions in other countries. Many grassroots organizations focus on social causes such as the environment, improving living conditions, civil rights, and supporting health care for all. Most grassroots organizations fall to the left of the political spectrum, and are focused on educating people to help them make informed choices, as well as alerting the public to issues of concern.
Astroturfing is heavily criticized by the grassroots organizing community, because it can be very misleading. Consumers who are not attentive to the sources of their information might be led to believe that an astroturf group is providing balanced and useful information about a controversial subject. In addition, astroturfing organizations can usually afford to spend a great deal of money putting up billboards and buying print ads in major publications. As a result, they are far more able to promote their viewpoint than grassroots groups are.
While astroturfing is not illegal, it is questioned as an ethical practice. Many companies stand to gain a great deal of money through their astroturfing efforts, which might be lobbying against the passage of a particular bill, dismissing concerns about the environment, or preying upon fears about public health and education. For example, when a drug company directly lobbies against a bill, legislators, doctors, and consumers can clearly see who is doing the lobbying and take that into consideration when examining the arguments put forward by the drug company. If a drug company founds a group called “Concerned Citizens for Arthritis Awareness” and lobbies through that group, lawmakers, doctors, and other citizens will be unaware of the hidden agenda being promoted by the group.
In addition to speaking out about astroturfing, grassroots organizations have also taken steps to combat it. If the group is public, they obtain financial records, and try to get information about the board members. Grassroots organizations will also expose groups which are known to be astroturf organizations. Most grassroots groups are not opposed to hearing arguments from the other side: they simply object to not being frank about the source of an organization's information, money, and ideals.
Frequently Asked Questions
What exactly is astroturfing?
Astroturfing is a deceptive practice where sponsors of a message or organization create the illusion of a grassroots movement, when in reality, the campaign is funded and orchestrated by a corporation, political group, or other entity with a vested interest. This tactic is designed to give the appearance of widespread, spontaneous public support, while the true origins and drivers of the message are concealed. Astroturfing can occur across various media platforms, including social media, letters to the editor, and public demonstrations.
How can I identify astroturfing?
Identifying astroturfing involves looking for signs of inauthenticity, such as repetitive messaging across different platforms, a sudden surge of support for a cause with little history of grassroots backing, or endorsements from organizations that seem disconnected from the issue at hand. Additionally, a lack of transparency about funding sources or organizational affiliations can be a red flag. Critical thinking and research into the origins of a movement can help discern genuine grassroots efforts from astroturfed campaigns.
Why do organizations engage in astroturfing?
Organizations engage in astroturfing to manipulate public opinion or influence policy outcomes in their favor. By creating the illusion of widespread support, they aim to sway decision-makers and the general public to adopt their preferred stance. Astroturfing can lend credibility to a cause, pressure politicians, and shape media narratives, often without the ethical considerations of transparently disclosing the interests behind the campaign. The goal is to achieve results that might be more challenging to obtain through legitimate grassroots activism.
Is astroturfing legal?
The legality of astroturfing varies by jurisdiction and context. In some cases, it may be considered legal but ethically questionable. However, certain forms of astroturfing that involve false advertising, consumer deception, or violation of campaign finance laws can be illegal. For example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the United States has guidelines against deceptive advertising, which can apply to astroturfing practices that mislead consumers about the origins or popularity of a product or campaign.
What impact does astroturfing have on public discourse and democracy?
Astroturfing can significantly distort public discourse and undermine the democratic process by presenting manufactured opinions as organic public sentiment. This manipulation can drown out genuine grassroots voices, skew public perception, and influence policy decisions based on fabricated support. The deceptive nature of astroturfing erodes trust in public institutions and the media, as it becomes challenging for individuals to discern authentic civic engagement from orchestrated campaigns. Ultimately, astroturfing threatens the integrity of democratic deliberation and informed decision-making.