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What is Astroturfing?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 July 2014
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When a major corporation routes funds that push an agenda through an organization that appears to be a grassroots group, it is referred to as astroturfing, in a reference to a brand of fake grass which is used all over the United States. Examples of astroturfing vary: a company might, for example, use a shill to plant messages on web bulletin boards. In other cases, a major corporation might fund a group which appears to be independent of the parent company, and therefore supposedly providing clear and unbiased information. The term appears to have been coined by Senator Lloyd Bentsen, a Texas Democrat who has spoken out against astroturfing.

Grassroots organizing is political organizing on a highly localized level. Most grassroots groups have limited budgets which are supplemented by donations from members and fundraising parties. A grassroots organization works hard to educate the public and promote particular ideals: showing people, for example, why clearcutting is harmful, or why they should care about poor working conditions in other countries. Many grassroots organizations focus on social causes such as the environment, improving living conditions, civil rights, and supporting health care for all. Most grassroots organizations fall to the left of the political spectrum, and are focused on educating people to help them make informed choices, as well as alerting the public to issues of concern.

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Astroturfing is heavily criticized by the grassroots organizing community, because it can be very misleading. Consumers who are not attentive to the sources of their information might be led to believe that an astroturf group is providing balanced and useful information about a controversial subject. In addition, astroturfing organizations can usually afford to spend a great deal of money putting up billboards and buying print ads in major publications. As a result, they are far more able to promote their viewpoint than grassroots groups are.

While astroturfing is not illegal, it is questioned as an ethical practice. Many companies stand to gain a great deal of money through their astroturfing efforts, which might be lobbying against the passage of a particular bill, dismissing concerns about the environment, or preying upon fears about public health and education. For example, when a drug company directly lobbies against a bill, legislators, doctors, and consumers can clearly see who is doing the lobbying and take that into consideration when examining the arguments put forward by the drug company. If a drug company founds a group called “Concerned Citizens for Arthritis Awareness” and lobbies through that group, lawmakers, doctors, and other citizens will be unaware of the hidden agenda being promoted by the group.

In addition to speaking out about astroturfing, grassroots organizations have also taken steps to combat it. If the group is public, they obtain financial records, and try to get information about the board members. Grassroots organizations will also expose groups which are known to be astroturf organizations. Most grassroots groups are not opposed to hearing arguments from the other side: they simply object to not being frank about the source of an organization's information, money, and ideals.

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