How to Astroturf Without a Football Field

By Taylor Larson

Until today, I associated “astroturf” with football and playgrounds. The pun did not escape me, however, when on today’s trip to Edelman (the world’s largest public relations firm), I learned that “astroturfing” is also used to reference fake grassroots/advocacy campaigns.

Taegan Goddard’s Political Dictionary defines astroturfing as “an artificially-manufactured political movement designed to give the appearance of grass roots activism.”

So think about it this way– a major healthcare company opposes the Affordable Care Act (ACA), so they attempt to lobby Congress to amend or repeal it. Congressmen say, “That’s great, but show me people in my district who feel the same way you do.”

Said company, without a lot of time to wait around for a real movement to begin, pays someone to speak, blog, Tweet on behalf of a fake organization to lawmakers, donors, etc. in order to advance its own agenda (in this case, opposition to the ACA).

If it works, Congress listens.

At the center of an astroturf controversy, according to Businessweek, is the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA). In November, Businessweek reported that many environmentalists West of the Mississippi were concerned about certain activist groups that had come out of the woodwork to speak in favor of fossil fuels. The Oregon Climate Change Campaign, Washington Consumers for Sound Fuel Policy, and AB 32 Implementation Group, they said, were the WSPA’s obvious attempts at astroturfing.

Edward Walker, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, discusses this phenomena in his new book Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy by saying to The Washington Post:

Astroturfing involves one of three features: heavily incentivized participation (sometimes through material compensation), when a campaign masquerades as having mass support without disclosing that the campaign has a sole or small group of sponsors, or, most egregiously, when campaigns use forgery, fraud, or misrepresentation.

He continued by explaining his solution: “What’s more effective is when consultants do two things to preempt the accusation of astroturf: locate arms-length sources of support who have an independent interest in the cause, and be transparent about the client and funding. Doing things this way isn’t just more ethical, it’s more strategic.”

Astroturfing, it seems, has become another double-edged sword in a public relations professional’s belt, second only to declining interviews.

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Students meet with Noelle Smith, Drake grad, at Edelman Public Relations on Wednesday. Photo by Jade Sells

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