What Is Astroturfing in Politics? Definition and Examples

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In political science, astroturfing is an attempt to give the false impression that a certain candidate or policy enjoys widespread grassroots support of the community when little such support exists. Descriptive of its intent, the term “astroturfing” refers to AstroTurf brand synthetic carpeting designed to mimic natural grass. Astroturfing campaigns attempt to mislead the public into believing that their opinion or position is shared by most people. Because people tend to adopt the opinions they believe to be held by the majority—the so-called herd instinct— astroturfing campaigns can become an obstacle to independent thinking. 

Key Takeaways: Astroturfing in Politics

  • Astroturfing is the practice of creating the illusion of widespread grassroots support for a candidate, policy, or cause when no such support exists.
  • The political strategy takes advantage of the “herd instinct” of people to adopt the opinions of the majority.
  • Astroturfing campaigns may be orchestrated by corporations, lobbyists, labor unions, nonprofits, or activist organizations. They may also be undertaken by individuals with personal agendas or by highly organized groups.
  • While there are laws in the United States against astroturfing in commercial advertising, they do not apply to political advertising. 

Astroturfing Definition

Now often associated with the derogatory term “fake news,” astroturfing in politics is defined as attempting to manufacture a false illusion of wide-spread, “grassroots” public opinion favoring or opposing a particular candidate, legislative measure, or cause. From a psychological perspective, a person’s beliefs on a particular subject are often influenced by the beliefs of others. In this context, astroturfing takes advantage of the bandwagon effect—a phenomenon that occurs when more people do something simply because they believe other people are doing it. The more people who “hop on the bandwagon,” the harder it is to stop it. Victims of astroturfing become so anxious to join the crowd riding the bandwagon, they may ignore or reject underlying evidence as well as their own beliefs.

The term astroturfing was coined in 1985 by U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, when he said, “A fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grassroots and AstroTurf... this is generated mail,” in describing the “mountain of cards and letters” he had received demanding his support for a bill favorable to the insurance industry.

Astroturfing may be undertaken by individuals with personal agendas or by highly organized groups funded by large corporations, lobbyists, labor unions, nonprofits, or activist organizations.

As opposed to true grassroots movements, which are generated spontaneously, astroturfing campaigns do not reflect the authentic engagement of people who have organized on their own. Instead, astroturfing movements can be created and conducted by any organization or individual with enough money. While astroturfing campaigns can at least temporarily alter public opinion or create doubt, they typically fail when confronted by facts or when opposed by true grassroots movements.

Forms of Astroturfing and Examples

The first political astroturfing efforts were simply letter writing campaigns, such as that referred to by Sen. Bentsen in 1985. In such campaigns, otherwise uninterested people are paid by corporations to inundate elected representatives with letters seemingly from their constituents attempting to convince them that their cause had wider voter support than actually existed. Since then, the growth of the internet, identity masking software, and online crowdsourcing, along with a general increase in the public’s interest in government and social reforms, has spawned more sophisticated forms of astroturfing. 

Front Groups

A front group is an organization that claims to be a nonpartisan voluntary association or charity but represents the interest of an organization whose identity is hidden. While appearing to represent grassroots movements, front groups are funded by political groups, corporations, labor associations, or public relations firms. Front groups are one of the most easily exposed forms of astroturfing.

For example, the National Smoker’s Alliance (NSA) was formed in 1993 to oppose the passage of anti-smoking legislation in the U.S. Congress. While the NSA presented itself as a grassroots organization of private citizens concerned for the rights of adult smokers, it was exposed as being a public relations group created, funded, and operated by tobacco industry giant Philip Morris.

Sockpuppeting

In politics and public policy, sockpuppeting—an analogy to the simple hand puppet made from a sock—is the creation of false online identities to manipulate public opinion to support or criticize particular candidates, causes, or organizations. In internet-based astroturfing campaigns, the sock puppeteer poses on blogs, websites, and forums as an independent third party, but is funded by another entity. Using persona management software, each paid sock puppeteer can create and post as multiple unrelated identities.

In 2011, for example, the U.S. Central Command paid a California company $2.76 million to create multiple “fake online personas to influence net conversations and spread US propaganda” in Western Asian languages including Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Pashto. On September 11, 2014, several individuals posting on Twitter reported a major explosion at a chemical plant in Louisiana. However, U.S. authorities revealed that the posts were part of sockpuppeting effort sponsored by the Russian government’s Internet Research Agency. In 2016, the U.S. intelligence community claimed to have found evidence that Russia had used paid sockpuppets to influence the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump

Is It Wrong?

While many countries have laws prohibiting astroturfing, these laws predominantly target companies that pay sockpuppets to post fake product reviews or testimonials on the internet. However, in October 2018, the Louisiana-based energy company Entergy was fined $5 million for using actors paid by an astroturfing firm to demonstrate and speak at city council hearings in favor of a controversial power plant development project in New Orleans. In assessing the fine, the city council found that Entergy had prevented the voices of real citizens from being heard in an attempt to show false grassroots support—a common danger of astroturfing.

In the purely political arena, however, while the Federal Election Commission enforces strict laws governing political advertisements in newspapers and on television, they do not currently regulate online astroturfing campaigns. This omission has come under increased scrutiny since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government cannot limit corporations, labor unions, or associations from spending money to influence the outcome of elections in its landmark 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. This opened the floodgates for “dark money,” such as money spent to fund astroturfing efforts, to flow through political campaigns in the United States.

Critics of the practice fear that, given the relative ease with which public opinion can be swayed through deception and confusion, astroturfing campaigns could eventually replace true, hard-fought grassroots movements. Further, they argue that the proliferation of astroturfing conspiracy theory movements such as 4chan and QAnon, coupled with the still largely unregulated nature of the internet, will make it harder to prevent the influence of disinformation on politics.

Astroturfing, however, is not without its defenders. Drawing on the old saying that, “All is fair in love, war, and politics,” some contend that rather than “cheating,” the use of astroturfing techniques to garner support goes back to the earliest days of politics. Yet others, like the public relations firm Porter/Novelli, have defended astroturfing as an alternative, stating that, “There will be times when the position you advocate, no matter how well framed and supported, will not be accepted by the public simply because you are who you are.”

Sources and Further Reference