in American English is a neologism
for formal public relations
campaigns in politics
which seek to create the impression of being spontaneous "grassroots
" behavior, hence the reference to the artificial grass
The goal of such a campaign 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 pushing a personal agenda or highly organized professional groups with financial backing from large corporations, non-profits, or activist organizations. Very often the efforts are conducted by political consultants who also specialize in opposition research.
The term is said to have been used first in this context by former US Senator Lloyd Bentsen
. It is wordplay based on grassroots democracy
efforts -- truly spontaneous undertakings largely sustained by private persons -- as opposed to politicians
, or public relations
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, the national association for members of the public relations profession in the United States. As a private organization, the most significant punishment PRSA can hand out to members who engage in astroturfing is revocation of membership in the association. Although the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), does not specifically mention astroturfing, it does require honest communication.
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.
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."
The National Smokers Alliance, an early astroturf group created by Burson-Marsteller on behalf of tobacco giant Phillip Morris, 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.
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.
In 2003, apparent "grass-roots" letters 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 5 "GOPoints" for sending one of their letters to a local paper plus an addition 2 "GOPoints" if the letter was published.
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 .
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 CIPR Social Media Guidleines , 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.
In the late 1800s, King Léopold II
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
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. Other examples include political "clubs" which front for voter fraud and intimidation.
In one case, documented in the book 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.
Manipulation of public opinion was also used in the Soviet Union. Political decisions were often preceded by massive campaigns of orchestrated 'letters from workers' (письма трудящихся, pisma trudyashchikhsya) which were quoted and published in newspapers and radio. In Stalin's era, massive "public demonstrations" were organized against "the enemies of the people"; those attending were often forced or intimidated into doing so.
Examples from the 1990s
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.
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.
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, including Wendy's, Pilgrim's Pride and Tyson Foods.
- In January 2003, On the Media reported on an astroturfing campaign involving identical letters-to-the-editor sent to many newspapers in support of Bush's economic policies.
- In August 2006, a science journalist for the Wall Street Journal 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 acknowledged leaders all have ties to the Republican Party and 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 was actually paying to have the alleged amateur film promoted was in itself suspicious.
- In July 2006, an article by Vladimir Socor, a veteran analyst of East European affairs for the Jamestown Foundation, claimed that a report on Transnistria issued by the International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty, "State Sovereignty of Pridnestrovie (PMR) under international law", was a Russian-sponsored attempt at disinformation. A spokesperson for the organization, Megan Stephenson, has denied these charges. Shortly afterwards The Economist published two articles highlighting the ICDISS's lack of a physical presence and its disinclination to provide independent verification of its activities and previous existence. The Economist also reported that prominent academics cited as sources in the ICDISS report on Transdniestria disclaimed any connection with the organization. The Economist noted the Wikipedia entry for ICDISS created as part of the apparent disinformation exercise.
- In September 2008, dutch columnist Margriet Oostveen wrote about her experiences ghost-writing letters for the McCain presidential campaign. Her editors at Salon magazine 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.
- 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.
- 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" (www.freedomofmusicchoice.org) and slashed the prices of its songs to below that of iTunes. It backfired, as many posters reacted negatively and accused RealNetworks of astroturfing.
- In December 2006, the "All I want for Xmas is a PSP" marketing campaign by Zipatoni and Sony sparked outrage from the gaming community when it was discovered that the fake blog was in fact assembled by a marketing team. (See PlayStation Portable#Controversial advertising campaigns)
- 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. Additionally, Comcast created their own marketing campaign "Putting Fans First" on radio and on the web. At that time Comcast and the Big Ten Network were involved in very public and acrimonious negotiations.
- In January 2008 Daniel DiFiore, the customer service manager of social networking site Moli.com was caught posting 'booster' comments under an alias on several web sites, including GetSatisfaction.com, Techcrunch and Digg.
- In January 2007, an Australian writer blogged that a Microsoft employee had offered to pay him to edit Wikipedia articles regarding Microsoft products. This qualifies as astroturfing as it involves dissimulation of a grassroots movement and the disguise of a campaign.
Political & 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.
- 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. 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. The Save Our Species Alliance web site portrays itself as a grassroots organization , 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.
- Working Families for Wal-Mart portrays itself as a grassroots organization, but was really started and funded by Wal-Mart. It paid former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young to head the organization. Young created a significant controversy in his response to a journalist's questions; when asked by a California newspaper about Walmart hurting independent businesses, he said that, "But you see, those are the people who have been overcharging us—selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables... I think they've ripped off our communities. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it's Arabs. Very few black people own these stores
- In February 2008 Comcast paid individuals to take up seats at an 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.
- Anderson, Walter T. "Astroturf - The Big Business of Fake Grassroots Politics." Jinn 5 January 1996.
- Astroturf. 17 October 2004. Sourcewatch. 6 November 2005.
- Miller, Laura. "Powers Behinds the Throne." Center for Media and Democracy 21 February 2005.
- National Youth Advocacy Assembly. Teens from Across the Country Rally in Washington DC to call on the Beer Institute to Honor its Marketing Code and Stop Targeting Teens. National Youth Advocacy Assembly press release, 27 January 2003.
- Odegard, Peter H. Pressure Politics: The Story of the Anti-Saloon League. NY: Columbia University Press, 1928.
- Rampton, Sheldon and Stauber, John. "Keeping America Safe from Democracy." Center for Media and Democracy 30 October 2004.
- Shin, Annys. "FTC Moves to Unmask Word-of-Mouth Marketing." Washington Post 12 December 2006.
- "Playing on astroturf," The National Journal, April 19, 1986 - 'the "grass roots is AstroTurf in many cases, artificial turf," says Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas.' - quoted in
- DISPATCHES: Undercover with New Labour, "The Dirty Tricks Election". Channel Four (Hardcash Productions) first broadcast 25 May 2005.
- Primer on Grassroots Lobbying Disclosure from Center for Competitive Politics
- Outside Lobbying, by Ken Kollman
- Who Will Tell the People?, by William Greider
- Letters From Iraq from Sourcewatch
- 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.
- Wolves in Sheeps Clothing: Telecom Industry Front Groups and Astroturf (.pdf) a special report prepared by the Common Cause Education Fund, March 2006.
- Anti-Astroturfing campaign from the New PR Wiki
- Political parties and their use of modern media in obtaining information superiority
- StopRacismCa.com and FriendsOfST.com are two sites allegedly set up by The Home Depot corporation (even though they deny involvement) to promote their proposed store in the Sunland-Tujunga community of CA. Both of these websites are very similar, are hosted by the same company, yet take starkly different approaches to advancing the business goals of Home Depot.
- Berman and Company a PR firm; owner and creator of many "Competitive Research" sites. Accused of astroturfing for hire.
- P.& G. Link in Amex Contest Raises Questions of Fairness, NY Times article on alleged astroturfing by Procter & Gamble in the American Express Members Project.