This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin. This article is part of the Coal Issues portal on SourceWatch, a project of CoalSwarm and the Center for Media and Democracy.
Astroturf 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.
Campaigns & Elections magazine defines astroturf as a "grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them."
Journalist William Greider has coined his own term to describe corporate grassroots organizing. He calls it "democracy for hire."
Senator Lloyd Bentsen, himself a long-time Washington and Wall Street insider, is credited with coining the term "astroturf lobbying" to describe the synthetic grassroots movements that now can be manufactured for a fee by companies like Beckel Cowan, Bivings Group, Bonner & Associates, Burson-Marsteller, Davies Communications, DCI Group, Direct Impact, Hill & Knowlton, Issue Dynamics Inc., National Grassroots & Communications, or Optima Direct.
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.
William Greider's 1992 book, Who Will Tell the People, described an astroturf campaign run by Bonner & Associates as a "boiler room" operation with "300 phone lines and a sophisticated computer system, resembling the phone banks employed in election campaigns.
Articulate young people sit in little booths every day, dialing around America on a variety of public issues, searching for 'white hat' citizens who can be persuaded to endorse the political objectives of Mobil Oil, Dow Chemical, Citicorp, Ohio Bell, Miller Brewing, United States Tobacco Company, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and dozens of other clients. This kind of political recruiting is expensive but not difficult. ... Imagine Bonner's technique multiplied and elaborated in different ways across hundreds of public issues and you may begin to envision the girth of this industry. ... This is democracy and it costs a fortune."
Astroturf techniques have been used to:
# block the transfer of federal licenses that WorldCom uses for its long distance and Internet services by Issue Dynamics Inc.
# Using non-profit groups like the United Church of Christ defeat the Clinton administration's proposed health care reform, through a front group called "Rx Partners" created by the Beckel Cowan PR firm, and the Coalition for Health Insurance Choices, created by public relations consultant Blair Childs
# Harass environmentalists through the Wise Use movement
# Loosen automobile fuel efficience standards support clear-cutting American forests, through a front group called Citizens to Protect the Pacific Northwest and Northern California Economy
# Oppose restrictions on smoking in public places, through a front group called National Smokers Alliance, which was created by Burson-Marsteller
# Generate a dossier of newsclips orchestrated by Edelman to assist Microsoft lobbyists persuade U.S. state attorney generals not to join a class action against the company.
# Encourage people to buy Coke
Sometimes genuine grassroots organizations are recruited into corporate-funded campaigns. In June 2003, for example, the Gray Panthers participated in protests against WorldCom that were funded largely by the telecommunications company's competitors such as Verizon.
According to the Gray Panthers, this reflected a policy decision that the organization made prior to and independently of its funding. However, an article in the Washington Post raised questions about failures to publicly disclose the corporate funding which paid for full-page advertisements that the Gray Panthers took out in several major newspapers that called on the federal government to stop doing business with WorldCom.
The ads said they were paid for the Gray Panthers but did not mention that Issue Dynamics Inc. (IDI), a PR firm that specializes in "grassroots PR," had provided most of the $200,000 it cost to place the ads. Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe has declined to say how much the company is paying IDI, and Gray Panthers Executive Director Timothy Fuller has declined to say how much of the funding for its "Corporate Accountability" project comes from IDI.
Notwithstanding the egregious nature of WorldCom's corporate crimes, the lack of transparency in these funding arrangements by WorldCom's corporate competitors raises the question of whether the Gray Panthers campaign should be considered genuine grassroots or astroturf.
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SEE ALSO WAR STORIES AND ASTROTURF BLOGGING
Cynthia Brumfield wrote May 21, 2006, at IP Democracy that for the past several
months, she had noticed that "a group of commenters to blog posts related to
network neutrality tend to say the same things over and over again" and that "a
core group of the same commenters" "show up time and again saying the same
things (although not always phrased the same way) repeatedly" "typically
[saying] in one form or another: we don’t need network neutrality regulations
because there is no evidence of abuse and in any event government intervention
in the Internet marketplace will mess everything up."
"Now, along comes another commenter," Brumfield wrote, called
'sagecast', who wrote March 30, 2006, in the comments section: "this group is
an organized tag-team of industry representatives, semi-sock puppets if you
will, who troll the Internet making such comments to give the false impression
of broad-based support of industry-friendly positions. ... By tag-teaming the
blogs, this small handful of individuals gives the false impression of broad
popular support for an industry-friendly position."