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Astroturfing denotes political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular "grassroots" behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.

The goal of such campaigns is to disguise the efforts of a political or commercial entity as an independent public reaction to some political entity—a politician, political group, product, service or event. Astroturfers attempt to orchestrate the actions of apparently diverse and geographically distributed individuals, by both overt ("outreach", "awareness", etc.) and covert (disinformation) means. Astroturfing may be undertaken by an individual promoting a personal agenda, or highly organized professional groups with money from large corporations, unions, non-profits, or activist organizations. Very often, the efforts are conducted by political consultants who also specialize in opposition research. Beneficiaries are not "grass root" campaigners but distant organizations that orchestrate such campaigns.



[edit] Word origin

The term is said to have been used first in this context by former US Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas[1]. It is wordplay based on grassroots democracy efforts – truly spontaneous undertakings largely sustained by private persons – as opposed to politicians, governments, corporations, or public relations firms. AstroTurf refers to the bright green artificial grass used in some sports stadiums, so "astroturfing" refers to imitating or faking popular grassroots opinion or behaviour.

This practice is specifically prohibited by the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), and the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA), the national associations for members of the public relations and communication profession in the United States and Australia.[2] As a private organization, the most significant punishment the PRSA and PRIA can hand out to members who engage in astroturfing is revocation of membership in the associations. Although the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) does not specifically mention astroturfing, it does require honest communication.

[edit] Techniques

Astroturfing is a form of propaganda whose techniques usually consist of a few people attempting to give the impression that mass numbers of enthusiasts advocate some specific cause. In the UK this technique is better known as "rent-a-crowd" after the successful "rent-a-crate" business.

US Senator Lloyd Bentsen, believed to have coined the term, was quoted by the Washington Post in 1985 using it to describe a "mountain of cards and letters" sent to his Senate office to promote insurance industry interests, which Bentsen dismissed as "generated mail."[3]

The National Smokers Alliance, an early astroturf group created by Burson-Marsteller on behalf of tobacco giant Philip Morris,[4] worked to influence Federal legislation in 1995 by organizing mailings and running a phone-bank urging people to call or write to politicians expressing their opposition to laws aimed at discouraging teens from starting to smoke.[5]

In 1998, a combination of television ads and phone-banks were used to simulate "grassroots" opposition to a bill aimed at discouraging teenage smoking. According to The New York Times, "Those smokers who are reached by phone banks sponsored by cigarette makers, or who call the 800 number shown in television ads, are patched through to the senator of their choice."[6]

In 2003, apparent "grass-roots" letters favouring Republican Party policies appearing in local newspapers around the US were denounced as "astroturf" when Google searches revealed that identical letters were printed with different (local) signatures. The signers were electronically submitting pre-written letters from a political website that offered five "GOPoints" for sending one of their letters to a local paper plus an additional two "GOPoints" if the letter was published.[7]

Black propaganda is information that purports to be from a source on one side of a conflict, but is actually from the opposing side. Most astroturfing is black propaganda in that the identity of the source is falsified. However, the ostensible source of the evidence planted is usually not a grassroots organization. When black propaganda uses the same means as astroturfing, the distinction is less clear, as in the case of forged letters being sent to congressman Tom Perriello by a Washington lobbying firm working against 2009 clean energy legislation.

Journalist Ben Smith of The Politico has observed, "Interest groups across the spectrum have grown expert at locating, enraging and turning out authentic Americans. And the operatives behind the crowds say there's nothing wrong with a practice as old as American politics."[8] Regarding the 2009 health care debate, author and blogger Ryan Sager has argued in a New York Times editorial: "Organizing isn't cheating. Doing everything in your power to get your people to show up is basic politics."[9]

In business, astroturfing is one form of stealth marketing, which can include the manipulation of viral marketing. Several examples are described as "undercover marketing" in the documentary The Corporation.[10]

The term "astroturfing" is also used to describe public relations activities aimed at "falsely creating the impression of independent, popular support by means of an orchestrated and disguised public relations exercise....designed to give the impression of spontaneous support for an idea/product/company/service," according to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Social Media Guidelines,[11] which cautions members that an astroturfing campaign is "self-evidently likely to contradict the CIPR Code."

It has become easier to structure a commercial astroturfing campaign in the electronic era because the cost and effort to send an e-mail (especially a pre-written, sign-your-name-at-the-bottom e-mail) is so low. Companies may use a boiler room full of telephones and computers where hired activists locate people and groups who create enthusiasm for the specified cause. Also, the use of psychographics allows hired supporters to persuade their targeted audience.

For several years, the People's Republic of China has employed paid "astroturfing bloggers", known as "red vests", "red vanguard", or the "50 Cent Party", the last being a reference to the 5 mao they are paid for each supportive post.[12][13] (Cf. Amazon Mechanical Turk.)

[edit] Examples

[edit] Early examples

In the late 1800s, Léopold II, King of Belgium used extensive astroturf lobbying in the US and Europe, including setting up a front organisation known as the International African Association, to facilitate his private colonialism and economic exploitation of the Congo Free State.[14][unreliable source?]

The National Smokers Alliance was an astroturfing group funded by the tobacco industry to oppose regulation of tobacco products.

[edit] Examples from the 1990s

  • In the early 1990s, the federal American Stop Smoking Intervention Study (ASSIST) program used federal funding to create the appearance of concerned citizens groups lobbying for the levy and allocation of state tobacco taxes. The beneficiaries of this program were tax-exempt voluntary health associations (VHAs) such as the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association who could not lobby for federal funding without violating tax laws, but who could lobby state governments. The plan was hatched in the wake of California's Proposition 99 of 1988, where in-fighting over allocation of the revenues almost scuttled the proposition. The federal program, administered through the National Cancer Institute, including hiring the Advocacy Institute to teach the ASSIST and VHA staff to set up interlocking front organizations. These front organizations presented themselves as a groundswell of concerned citizens' groups, but were wholly staffed by employees of the federal offices and beneficiary VHAs.[15]
  • In 1991 a memo from PR firm van Kloberg & Associates to Zairian ambassador Tatanene Tanata referring to the "Zaire Program 1991" was leaked. The memo outlines steps the firm was taking to improve the image of Mobutu Sese Seko's regime, including placing dozens of letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, and articles in the American press praising the Zairian government.[16]
  • The Clinton health care plan of 1993 failed due to heavy opposition from conservatives, libertarians, and the HMO industry. Wendell Potter, who used to work for one of the largest American health insurance companies and testified in June 2009 against the HMO industry in the US Senate as a whistleblower,[17] described in a commentary written for CNN Politics from personal experience how opposition against health care reform proposals is manufactured behind the scenes:[18]
The big PR firms that work for the industry have close connections with those media outlets and stars in the conservative movement. One of their PR firms, which created and staffed a front group in the late '90s to kill the proposed "Patients' Bill of Rights," launched a PR and advertising campaign in conservative media outlets to drum up opposition to the bill. ... The industry goes to great lengths to keep its involvement in these campaigns hidden from public view. I know from having served on numerous trade group committees and industry-funded front groups, however, that industry leaders are always full partners in developing strategies to derail any reform that might interfere with insurers' ability to increase profits.
  • In 1996, Philip Morris funded the creation of the "Guest Choice Network," which opposed regulation of smoking in restaurants, bars, and hotels. The group, now called the Center for Consumer Freedom, today is primarily funded by agribusiness and food companies[19]. A complaint was filed with the IRS by Citizens for Consumer Ethics, alleging that the organization had violated the conditions of its tax-exempt status.[20]
  • In 1998, Paul Reitsma, former member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, was accused of writing letters to newspapers under assumed names praising himself and attacking his political opponents. A Parksville newspaper had asked a former RCMP handwriting expert to compare a sample of Reitsma's handwriting to that of letters to the editor submitted by a "Warren Betanko", and then ran a story titled "MLA Reitsma is a liar and we can prove it". For this, Reitsma was expelled from the caucus of the British Columbia Liberal Party and then compelled to resign his seat after it became obvious that an effort to recall him would succeed.[21]

[edit] Recent examples

[edit] Political

Organizations representing opposing schools of political thought in the US and worldwide have engaged in this activity.

Examples include:

  • Since 2005, schools and political party organizations in the People's Republic of China are recruiting paid-per-comment bloggers countering unfavorable information on websites, bulletin boards, and other internet-accessible sources; they are collectively known as the 50 Cent Party.[28]
  • In August 2006, a science journalist for the Wall Street Journal[29] revealed that a YouTube video, "Al Gore's Penguin Army", which was claimed to be an amateur work, in fact came from the computers of DCI Group, a Washington, D.C.-based PR firm whose client list includes ExxonMobil and General Motors. (See Al Gore's Penguin Army video controversy.) This hoax was discovered when journalist Antonio Ragalado noticed that the YouTube video was the first sponsored listing when he performed a Google search for Al Gore. The fact that someone paid to have the alleged amateur film promoted was in itself suspicious.[30]
  • In September 2008, Dutch columnist Margriet Oostveen wrote about her experiences ghostwriting letters for the McCain presidential campaign. Her editors at asked her for proof that she had ghost-written letters, and she provided sample letters and lists of talking-points that the McCain campaign had provided to her.[31]
  • In December 2008, Russian human rights defender Sergei Kovalev wrote that the Public Chamber of Russia failed to intervene in major human rights violations around the country. He wrote that the government set up the Chamber by the Soviet-era recipes for puppet non-government organizations, GONGOs.[32]
  • In August 2009, Washington DC-based lobbyist firm Bonner & Associates acknowledged sending forged letters in opposition to the American Clean Energy and Security Act. The letters, sent to Rep. Tom Perriello, appeared to be from members of the NAACP and the Latino organization Creciendo Juntos. Bonner & Associates has in the past been caught astroturfing for organizations such as Philip Morris (now Altria) and PhRMA, as well as defrauding the U.S. Government.[33][34] A NAACP response stated, “Bonner and Associates are exploiting the African-American Community to achieve their misdirected goal.″[33]
"They stole our name. They stole our logo. They created a position title and made up the name of someone to fill it. They forged a letter and sent it to our congressman without our authorization," said Tim Freilich, who sits on the executive committee of Creciendo Juntos, a nonprofit network that tackles issues related to Charlottesville's Hispanic community.

—Charlottesville Daily Progress[35][36]

[edit] Business

  • In 2001, the Los Angeles Times accused Microsoft of astroturfing when hundreds of similar letters were sent to newspapers voicing disagreement with the United States Department of Justice and its antitrust suit against Microsoft. The letters, prepared by Americans for Technology Leadership, had in some cases been delivered via a mailing list to deceased people or incorrect addresses, where the recipients forwarded them without correction.[41][42][43]
  • In 2002, The Guardian newspaper revealed the philosopher Roger Scruton had offered to place pro-tobacco opinion pieces in major newspapers and magazines in return for a fee £5500 from Japan Tobacco International.[44]
  • In July 2004, RealNetworks tried to press Apple Inc. to open up their FairPlay DRM for the iPod with the Harmony plug-in. The work-around allows users to purchase songs from RealNetworks' Rhapsody and then convert it for use for the iPod. They also set up an internet petition "Hey Apple! Don't break my iPod" and slashed the prices of its songs to below that of iTunes. Many posters reacted negatively and accused RealNetworks of astroturfing.[45]
  • In March 2006, the Save Our Species Alliance was exposed as a front group created by a timber lobbyist to weaken the Endangered Species Act.[46] Its campaign director is Tim Wigley, the executive director of Pac/West Communications. Wigley was also the campaign director for Project Protect, a front group which spent $2.9 million to help pass President Bush's Healthy Forests legislation, which has been criticized for its pro-industry bias.[47] The Save Our Species Alliance web site portrays itself as a grassroots organization,[48] but is criticized by environmentalists for being a front group for wealthy cattle and timber interests which consider federal environmental legislation an impediment to profit.
  • In March 2006 video game manufacturers faced over seventy anti-games bills across the country. Embattled, they established the Video Game Voters Network, “a new grassroots political network for gamers” which publicly portrayed itself as a populist effort to lobby state and federal legislators against supporting violent video game-related legislation. In April 2007, in an interview on video game news website GameDaily, consumer advocate and founder of the Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA), Hal Halpin, stated that "The Videogame Voters Network is very needed and wanted by the industry, but it's supported by the industry, so it's called 'astroturfing', where[as] our organization is grassroots and the difference in the two pieces of terminology is significant when it comes to legislators because they'll look at an astroturf organization as one that's backed by the industry; funded by them, run by them, organized by them." The following day Entertainment Software Association (ESA) spokesperson Caroyln Rauch responded in a written statement, "...calling the VGVN 'astroturf' is not only counterproductive and just not correct, but it also demeans the passion and energy of its members."[49]
  • Working Families for Wal-Mart portrays itself as a grassroots organization, but was started and funded by Wal-Mart.[50] It paid former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young to head the organization.
  • In December 2006, the "All I want for Xmas is a PSP" marketing campaign by Zipatoni and Sony sparked ridicule[citation needed] from the gaming community when it was discovered that the fake blog was in fact assembled by a marketing team.[51] (See PlayStation Portable#Controversial advertising campaigns)
  • In early 2007, a number of advertisements appeared on London Underground trains warning commuters that 75% of all the information on the web flowed through one site (implied to be Google), with a URL for Links also appeared on the homepage of and in videos on YouTube. Both the adverts and website were designed in shades of red, white and black associated with anarchist movements. The website was intended to foster debate about the use of search engines, with messages such as "One source isn’t choice". However, when web users found out that the site was actually built for by the marketing company Profero, the site's forum became overwhelmed with negative messages.[52][53]
  • In August 2007 Comcast Corporation's public relations representatives were accused of astroturfing by posing as fans on internet college team message boards in an effort to spread their negative views about the newly created Big Ten Network.[54][55] Additionally, Comcast created their own marketing campaign "Putting Fans First" on radio and on the web.[56][57] At that time Comcast and the Big Ten Network were involved in acrimonious negotiations.
  • In January 2008 Daniel DiFiore, the customer service manager of social networking site was caught posting 'booster' comments under an alias on several web sites, including, Techcrunch and Digg.[58][59][60]
  • In February 2008 Comcast paid individuals to take up seats at a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hearing into Comcast's network management practices, including RST packet spoofing using Sandvine. These individuals fell asleep, applauded on cue, and took up so much room that a number of people with anti-Comcast sentiment were shut out.[61]
  • Hands Off The Internet (HOTI) purports to be a campaign for internet users' rights but in fact the site is owned by big telecom companies and is actually a front to push the telecom industry's objections to internet neutrality.[62]
  • In late 2008, in Osaka, Japan, McDonald's acknowledged hiring people to stand in line for a new hamburger release. The part-time workers were given a stipend for the product that were to be included in the store's sales figures.[63]
  • In 2009, in Montreal, Canada, Morrow Communications, a marketing company, acknowledged creating a dummy blog[64] falsely pretending to be managed by 3 individuals to promote the use of bicycles in Montreal. They also created videos for the Blog and a Facebook webpage. Everything was in fact a marketing campaign, to prepare the launch of Bixi,[65] the new public bike system in Montreal.[66]
  • Lifestyle Lift was charged a $300,000 penalty by the State of New York for anonymous positive reviews about the company in Internet message boards and other Web sites[67]
  • BusinessWeek has stated that the public relations firm ASK Public Strategies, which works on behalf of clients including Chicago Children's Museum, ComEd, AT&T and Comcast, has helped set up front organizations that were listed as sponsors of public-issue ads. Some industry insiders have called this astroturfing. ASK's managing partner, Eric Sedler says opponents mischaracterize what ASK does, saying "I reject the notion that a company can't advocate a public policy."[68]
  • October 2009, administration at North Carolina State University (NCSU) are leading a campaign for new Student Center. Although all money for the campaign came from the administration, they have recruited student leaders to campaign to the rest of campus, and student senate. Students have now formed their own Grassroots campaigns in response to the Rally[69] and have voiced their opinions directly to the student government.[70]

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

  1. ^ Keep Off The Astroturf
  2. ^ PRSA code of ethics
  3. ^ Linguist List
  4. ^ The Nation, 2007
  5. ^ New York Times, 1995
  6. ^ New York Times, 1998
  7. ^ Slate, 2003
  8. ^ a b c Ben Smith (August 21, 2009). "The Summer of Astroturf". Politico. Retrieved August 28, 2009. 
  9. ^ Sanger, Ryan (August 19, 2009). "Keep Off the Astroturf". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-08-26. 
  10. ^ Interview from the documentary The Corporation.
  11. ^ CIPR Social Media Guidelines, Chartered Institute of Public Relations
  12. ^ China's internet 'spin doctors', BBC News, December 16, 2008
  13. ^ China joins a turf war,
  14. ^ Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost,1999)
  15. ^ Bennett, James T. and DiLorenzo, Thomas D. (1998), CancerScam: a diversion of federal cancer funds to politics, Transaction Publishers, ISBN 1-56000-334-0
  16. ^ Josh Marshall (2003-10-13). The TPM Blog by Joshua Micah Marshall. (Talking Points Memo).
  17. ^ "“They Dump the Sick to Satisfy Investors”: Insurance Exec Turned Whistleblower Wendell Potter Speaks Out Against Healthcare Industry". Democracy Now!. 2006-07-16. Retrieved 2009-08-23. 
  18. ^ Potter, Wendell (2009-08-17). "Commentary: How insurance firms drive debate". CNN Politics (CNN). Retrieved 2009-08-23. 
  19. ^ J. Justin Wilson. Just say no to 'lifestyle' taxes, Detroit Free Press, Aug. 28, 2009
  20. ^ Melanie Sloan. "Re: The Center for Consumer Freedom, EIN 26-0006579. formerly known as The Guest Choice Network, EIN 52-2170218", Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, November 16, 2004
  21. ^ Robert A. Patterson. "People Power", Electoral Insight, November 1999
  22. ^ The Miama Herald; August 8, 2009 The return of the Brooks Brothers Brigade?
  23. ^ NPR; August 4, 2009 Health Care Debate: Myths Vs. Facts
  24. ^ Salon; November 28, 2000 Miami's rent-a-riot
  25. ^ New York Times; Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman; August 6, 2009 The Town Hall Mob
  26. ^ Wall Street Journal; August 4, 2009 White House Brushes Off Health-Care Protests
  27. ^ Rachel Maddow (August 4, 2009). "Reviewing the history of fake conservative protests". MSNBC. Retrieved August 17, 2009. 
  28. ^ "China’s Guerrilla War for the Web". Far Eastern Economic Review. 03-09-2006. 
  29. ^ "Where did that video spoofing Gore's film come from?". Wall Street Journal. August 3, 2006. 
  30. ^ Episode Two Fake Grass and the Cyber City. 23/09/2006. Retrieved 2006, September 29
  31. ^
  32. ^ An open letter to the Public Chamber,(Russian) Sergei Kovalev, December 24, 2008. Computer translation.
  33. ^ a b Victor Zapanta (July 31, 2009). "NAACP-Forgery Group, Bonner & Associates, Has A Decades-Long History Of Astroturf Tactics". 
  34. ^ "Washington Lobbying Firm Caught Sending Fake NAACP Letters". Democracy Now!. August 3, 2009. 
  35. ^ Charlottesville Daily Progress
  36. ^ Zachary Roth (31 July 09). "Lobby Firm Sent Forged Climate Change Letter To Congressman". Muckraker (Talking Points Memo). 
  37. ^ a b "The Browning of Grassroots". Newsweek. August 20, 2009. Retrieved August 26, 2009. 
  38. ^ Pulling Strings from Afar : Drug industry financing pro-drug industry groups, AARP Bulletin, July 3, 2006
  39. ^ Greenpeace uncovers "astroturf" campaign to challenge US climate bill, BusinessGreen, August 17, 2009
  40. ^ Paul Krugman "Stop 'Stop Too Big To Fail'." April 21, 2010
  41. ^ USA Today Microsoft funded 'grass roots' campaign
  42. ^ Robyn Weisman Phony 'Grassroots' Campaign Orchestrated by Microsoft August 23, 2001
  43. ^ Thor Olavsrud Microsoft Supported by Dead People August 23, 2001
  44. ^ Guardian Unlimited | Archive Search
  45. ^ Jo Best (2004-07-18). "Real v Apple music war: iPod freedom petition backfires".,39024649,39123271,00.htm. Retrieved 2007-10-10. 
  46. ^ The charge was made by Public release
  47. ^ Paul D. Thacker, "Hidden ties: Big environmental changes backed by big industry Lobbyists and industry officials who once pushed for the president’s Healthy Forests legislation now collaborate with Rep. [Richard] Pombo to alter the Endangered Species Act", Environmental Science & Technology, March 8, 2006.
  48. ^ the word "grassroots" is mentioned no fewer than five times on their "Take Action Now" page
  49. ^ ""ESA Corrects ECA's Comments"". 
  50. ^ Young faces criticism in position on Wal-Mart, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 25, 2006
  51. ^ New Sony viral marketing ploy angers consumers | Games | Guardian Unlimited
  52. ^ "Ask’s Anti-Google Campaign". 2007-03-18. Retrieved 2007-03-28. 
  53. ^ Patrick, Aaron O (5 April 2007). "Ask.Com's 'Revolt' Risks Costly Clicks - Web Users Feel Duped By Anti-Google Tack In U.K. Campaign". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2009-04-19. 
  54. ^ Wake up Martin Waymire Advocacy Communications! (Comcast hired site posing as BT fan) - - Michigan State Spartans Forums
  55. ^ An apology from Martin Waymire - - Michigan State Spartans Forums
  56. ^ Fans First
  57. ^ Comcast Astroturfing The Big Ten Network - Bothering fans and non-fans alike -
  58. ^ """". 
  59. ^ ""Daniel DiFiore: Hawk5721 & Lawn Boy for"". 
  60. ^ ""Valleywag: Privacy-obsessed social network's promoter proves public embarrassment"". 
  61. ^ ""Comcast F.C.C. Hearing Strategy"". 
  62. ^ "Hands Off the Internet", Common Cause - Astroturf Groups
  63. ^ ""1,000 McDonalds 'customers' who lined up for release of new burger were hired"". 
  64. ^
  65. ^
  66. ^ Patrick Lagacé. Bixi, blogue et bullshit, Cyberpresse
  67. ^ Lifestyle Lift
  68. ^ "The Secret Side of David Axelrod". BusinessWeek. March 14, 2--8. 
  69. ^ . Technician (newspaper). Monday, October 26, 2009. 
  70. ^ . Capitol Broadcasting Company. October 14, 2009. 

[edit] References

[edit] External links

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