Astroturf refers to grassroots groups or coalitions which are actually fake; often created or heavily funded by corporations, public relations firms, industry trade associations, and political interests. Astroturfing is used by organisations to give the illusion of genuine public support to their cause, manufacturing public opinion in what some commentators have called "democracy for hire". As a deceptive use of Third Party Technique, Astroturfing can be considered a form of Propaganda.
Unlike genuine grassroots activism, which tends to be people-rich but cash-poor, Astroturf activism is normally people-poor but cash-rich. Astroturf campaigns work by recruiting the support of less-informed activists and individuals to their cause, often my means of Deception. Astroturfing can mislead the public into believing that the views of the astroturfer are mainstream and that widespread genuine support actually exists, when in most cases it does not. Deceptive Astroturf campaigns are thus most likely to occur where the interests of wealthy or powerful interests come into conflict with the interests of the public.
A lot of Astroturf campaigning occurs in both local and national newspapers, especially in the letters to the editor section, where 'concerned citizens' and 'expert organisations' attempt to convey their biased agenda.
As the size and importance of online debate increases, Astroturf campaigns are increasingly targeting the Internet to further their agenda. The forums and comment sections of popular blogs and newspaper websites are often prime targets for Astroturfers, who can leave scripted comments anonymously without fear of detection. For wealthy interests, publicly crowding out opposing views with a stream of Astroturf support online is an increasingly prevalent phenomenon.
This online presence can be efficiently and automatically generated, through the use of 'Persona Management Software', which gives organisations the ability to multiply their Astroturf capabilities across the Internet; generating fake online profiles for their use, complete with their own individual backstory and IP address, in order to crown out genuine debate on website comment forums.
The establishing of Front Groups is one Astroturf technique. Front Groups may also present themselves as championing the public interest when they are really working on behalf of, or sponsored by, corporate and political elites. Front Groups are notorious for campaigning against legislation and speaking out about scientific consensus that is damaging to their sponsor's interests by emphasising extreme minority viewpoints, sowing widespread doubt, and fabricating contradictory research.
When an individual creates a fake identity for purposes similar to a Front Group this is known as a Sock puppet. As a technique of Astroturfing, Sock Puppets are extensively used on the Internet, and can be used to post reviews endorsing consumer products, attack political opponents, and post negative comments about competitors; all under the guise of a fake profile. Astroturfing organisations can even encourage its staff to manufacture public opinion by linking their pay to the number of posts/comments they can successfully upload to sites without being flagged by moderators.
Gifts and Non-Disclosure
It has been argued by some that bloggers, journalists and reviewers who receive free products, paid travel expenses, accommodation costs, or any other gifts/incentives from an organisation, and do not disclose this up-front to their readers are Astroturfing.
Examples of Astroturf Organisations
- Hands Off the Internet
- Freedom's Watch
- Citizens for a Sound Economy
- Americans for Prosperity
- Citizens for Access to the Arts
- Andy Gittzlitz, I was a political astroturfer, Salon, 14 April 2013
- Wikipedia, Astroturfing: Overview of subject
- SourceWatch, Astroturf: Critical look at corporate Astroturfing
- Adam Bienkov, Astroturfing: what is it and why does it matter?: Opinion piece on astroturfing
- George Monbiot, The need to protect the internet from 'astroturfing' grows ever more urgent: A look at online astroturfing
- Corporate Watch, Online Astroturfing: Astroturfing on the web
- PR Wiki, Astroturfing: Astroturfing in public relations industries
- SourceWatch, Astroturf, SourceWatch website, accessed 23 March 2015
- George Monbiot, The need to protect the internet from 'astroturfing' grows ever more urgent, The Guardian website, 23 February 2011, accessed 23 March 2015
- Adam Bienkov, Astroturfing: what is it and why does it matter?, The Guardian website, 08 February 2012, accessed 23 March 2015
- George Monbiot, The Denial Industry, The Guardian website, 19 September 2006, accessed 23 March 2015
- Cheng Chen, Kui Wu, Venkatesh Srinivasan, Xudong Zhang (2011). Battling the Internet Water Army: Detection of Hidden Paid Posters, Cornell University Library website. University of Victoria and Beijing University. 18 November 2011, accessed 23 March 2015
- Jeff Roberts, The ethics of astro-turfing: sleazy or smart business? Gigaom website, 26 April 2012, accessed 23 March 2015