35 Understanding Astroturf

“Grassroots” political efforts emerge from the “bottom-up”, with small local groups banding together to put pressure on city, county, state, or federal government to take (or oppose) specific action. They are “people-powered”, usually relying on volunteer labor and small donations from local people and organizations. In the age of social media, the phrase “grassroots” has also been applied to national movements that start by a small group of citizens organizing online.

Being “grassroots” is not a technique limited to Republicans or Democrats. The “Tea Party” revolts against President Obama’s health care plan, for example, had many grassroots elements, being organized on the local level by loosely connected people and local organizations. Moms Demand Action, a gun control advocacy group, was started when a stay-at-home mother was shocked by her son’s response to the Sandy Hook school shooting. She put up a Facebook page to organize action, and slowly built a movement.

Citizens tend to look more favorably on people-powered, local politics than on corporate funded initiatives funded by people from somewhere else. The desire to portray corporate and non-local efforts as local has led to a practice called astroturfing, where large corporations or rich individuals use “front groups” that look like local groups of activists, but are funded and organized primarily by national corporations or rich individuals from elsewhere.

When deciding whether an organization is astroturf, you should be able to say:

  • Who funded it (Was it a corporation, national foundation, or local money?)
  • Who founded it (Was it founded locally, and by whom?)
  • What interest that group might have in the action or initiative proposed (Is it financial, for instance, or related to larger social concerns?)

There is a bit of a sliding scale here for what qualifies as astroturf. A locally founded initiative that receives primarily national money is (a bit) less astro-turfy than an organization founded directly by a corporation. An initiative that receives money from a foundation dedicated to a larger social goal (such as elimination of poverty) is less astro-turfy than a corporation spending money to boost its stock price or get rid of regulations that constrain it. In general, what is most important is whether the organization’s reality matches the story that they are publicly telling.

 

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