Astroturfing

From Academic Kids

In American politics and advertising, the term astroturfing pejoratively describes formal public relations projects which deliberately seek to engineer the impression of spontaneous public reactions to a politician or political grouping, product, service, event, etc. by many diverse and distributed individuals acting of their own volition, when in fact the efforts are centrally coordinated.

The term is wordplay based on "grassroots" efforts, which are truly spontaneous undertakings, largely sustained by private persons (and not politicians, government, corporations, or public relations firms). "AstroTurf" refers to the bright green artificial grass used in some sports stadia.

Astroturfing is carefully designed to appear as though it is the result of popular feeling, rather than a coordinated campaign, perhaps by spin doctors, or through a front organization.

Examples of these kinds of practices can be found throughout recent political history. Some might suggest that the campaigning techniques of certain non-governmental organizations also embrace aspects of astroturfing.

Because, in an ostensibly democratic society, most successful political movements involve the exercise of existing power to achieve widespread public consent (and hence legitimacy), observers may disagree on the line between acceptable support of grassroots activism and astroturfing.

Contents

Techniques

One technique is to induce a number of supporters to write e-mails, letters to the editor, blog posts, crossposts, and trackbacks in favor of the campaign's goals. The campaign typically instructs the supporters on what to say, how to say it, where to send it, and, above all, how to make it appear that their indignation, appreciation, joy, or hate is entirely spontaneous and independent — and thus "real" rather than the product of an orchestrated campaign. Sometimes, pre-written letters to the editor are distributed for submission to local newspapers, as their theoretically limited circulation makes it unlikely that anyone will notice the same letter appearing in many publications simultaneously. With the advent of news consolidation services such as Google News, though, it has become much easier to spot such campaigns.

With the advent of the Internet, it has become easier to structure an astroturfing campaign, because the cost and effort to email (especially a pre-written, sign-your-name-at-the-bottom email) is so low. The pseudonymity of the Internet can be misused to enable one person to play the role of a whole group of like-minded people (see also Internet sock puppet). At the same time, contact through the Internet may aid those wishing to expose an astroturfing campaign.

Examples

In one case, documented in All the President's Men, the Committee to Re-Elect the President orchestrated several campaigns of "public support" for decisions made by President Nixon in the period preceding the 1972 election, including telegrams to the White House and an apparently independent advertisement placed in the New York Times.

Other examples of alleged astroturfing include a 1991 campaign by PR firm Kloberg where apparently leaked internal documents (http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/kloberg.2.html) claimed to have placed dozens of letters to the editor as well as op-eds and articles praising Mobutu's regime in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

In 2001, the software company Microsoft was linked to an astroturfing scandal when hundreds of similar letters were sent to newspapers voicing disagreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and its antitrust suit against Microsoft. Many of the letters were revealed to be "written" by deceased citizens or residents of nonexistent towns.

USA Next, a seniors' organization which supports the privatization of Social Security, has also been accused of being an astroturf group funded by corporate interests, especially pharmaceutical companies.

In the 2005 general election in the UK the Labour Party packed press conferences with party workers who appeared as genuine concerned members of the public.

Fictional examples

Government astroturfing, as well as other sneaky tricks, are depicted in the film Wag the Dog. Although fiction, the film dissects the process of astroturfing in fine detail. Obviously, these techniques are usually cloaked in secrecy.

In one sequence, spin doctors desire to create the illusion that broad public support exists for a kidnapped war hero (who is actually a nondescript, safe in military prison). Two contemporary musicians are hired to record a song in the idiom of turn-of-the-century acoustic Delta blues, as was archived definitively by Alan Lomax. The modern studio recording is artificially degraded with surface noise, scratches, and hiss; and a single 78 RPM record is pressed with a faded, worn paper label. The fake is inserted into an authentic old blank paper sleeve, and infiltrated into the Library of Congress audio collection. Once there, the song (whose lyrics appear to make reference to the name of the "kidnapped war hero"), is "discovered" and released to radio stations across the country, which are encouraged to air the song: scratches, pops, clicks, and all. This "historical" song provides the theme for an astroturfed wave of mass support for the "hero".

Historical

At the turn of the 20th century, it was common to have newspapers in major American cities sponsored by local political parties. Some were open about this practice, but many of these relationships were hidden under the guise of journalism. Other examples include political "clubs" which front for voter fraud and intimidation, letter-writing campaigns organized by local ward bosses, and some union-organized political activities.

A similar manipulation of public opinion was used in the Soviet Union when political decisions were preceded by massive campaigns of orchestrated 'letters from workers' (pisma trudyashchisya) which were quoted and published in newspapers and radio.

See also

Further Reading

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