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Astroturf is a term used to describe organizations or movements that are created or funded by large corporations, rich benefactors, or professional full-time activists, that have been contrived to appear to be "grassroots" movements formed by regular folks.
It is named for a brand of artificial grass used in sports arenas and elsewhere (pioneered at the Astrodome — get it?).
The term is cited in the Jargon File, a "compendium of hacker slang", as follows:
- The use of paid shills to create the impression of a popular movement, through means like letters to newspapers from soi-disant `concerned citizens', paid opinion pieces, and the formation of grass-roots lobbying groups that are actually funded by a PR group (AstroTurf is fake grass; hence the term). See also sock puppet, tentacle.
- What an individual posting to a public forum under an assumed name is said to be doing.
This term became common among hackers after it came to light in early 1998 that Microsoft had attempted to use such tactics to forestall the U.S. Department of Justice's antitrust action against the company. The maneuver backfired horribly, angering a number of state attorneys-general enough to induce them to go public with plans to join the Federal suit. It also set anybody defending Microsoft on the net for the accusation "You're just astroturfing!".
Fake it to make it
For example, a slick glossy publication called The New Hampshire Smoker tried to present itself as the journal of a grassroots group formed to "protect smoker's rights". However, in the fine print it said "Published by Philip-Morris" — a major cigarette manufacturer. The tobacco industry was notorious for its astroturf groups, such as TASSC. In political contexts, use of the word "Citizens" in a group's name is a strong (though not absolute) sign of astroturfing.
In the real world, it is sometimes difficult to discern between hard-core "astroturf" and genuine "grassroots" organisations, since interested commercial entities will often provide some funding to groups that were formed by real people. Although it is theoretically possible for a determined group of individuals to take over and wrest control away from a corporate sponsor, turning astroturf into the real thing, the odds are strongly against this, since money is the backbone of modern political activism. It's also possible, and much easier, for a genuine grassroots organisation to be co-opted by a corporate sponsor and turned into astroturf.
Examples of astroturfing on the Internet
All of the examples in this section meet the following criteria:
- It's unclear who is behind it and/or the relationship between the site and the company is not disclosed[note 1]
- Obvious bias towards a product/company/organisation (reads like a puff piece)
- Amateurish feel[note 2]
Nivea Oxygen Blog
The Oxygen Blog was launched to praise Nivea's scientifically-dubious 'face oxygen' products. These were also accompanied by their now infamous "Too busy to breathe?" adverts. Leaving aside the dubious nature of this product range, the blog itself has a few characteristics that are indicative of astroturfing.
There is no clear statement as to who made the site or their reasons for doing so. There are some references to Nivea in the "we" sense, but then other comments refer to Nivea as if it's a separate entity. Who is the maker of the blog? The blog appears to have been made by the DBM Group. This company describes itself as a "Social Media Consultancy", i.e. marketing, and describes "word of mouth advocacy" as the way in which brands can become "the next big thing". Such sites blur the lines a little since it's difficult to know where the corporation ends and the genuine fans begin. The main poster on the blog is Candice, a woman with a very wide range of interests. She has blogged about Nivea, Lego, Tresemmé and Jebus knows how many other products. Candice can always be trusted to have unique access to special offers and to show an almost slavish devotion to whatever product she's 'blogging' about this week. In fairness to Candice, she did publish my slightly critical comment. I was in a minority though, since everyone else seemed to rate the products so highly as to warrant a street parade.
Astroturfing and other forms of PR
Astroturf shares a number of similarities with other tools and tactics used in public relations, and while there is definitely a large degree of overlap among them, they should not be confused.
Astroturfing vs. front groups
The difference between a front group and astroturfing are subtle. A company offering an unsafe or morally objectionable product would go to a PR firm like Berman and Company to help them. If the company released excessive amounts of carcinogens into the air, they would create a website called "Americans for Cleaner Air" or "Citizens Against Excessive Regulations". They would then set up a website with half truths, cherry-picked facts, and out-and-out lies to confuse people. This would be a front group. A grassroots campaign would be made to feel more personal. Capitalizing on people's frustrations as corporations raised prices and lowered wages, greedy billionaires decided this would be a good way to advance their personal agendas. In spite of taxes being at their lowest level in over 60 years, they convinced naïve rubes that the Democrats had in fact raised taxes. They then started "The Tea Party". Ordinary people who flocked to Tea Party events were unaware of the financial origins of the movement.
Astroturfing vs. shills
Shills tend to be paid agents of some industry, well-established pressure group, or other entity who spread false, skewed, or whitewashed information on behalf of the entity or entities sponsoring them. Some are "experts for hire" who make a living offering dubious information as witnesses in legal proceedings. While many shills certainly engage in astroturfing to further their agendas, the astroturf itself generally relies on recruiting and organizing large numbers of unpaid volunteer participants to give the impression of a grassroots movement, at least in the non-virtual world. On the Internet, it's much easier to run an astroturf campaign with only one person or a handful of people, as the example of the Nivea bloggers shows. Astroturfing on the internet is made easier by the benefit of anonymity (or, as is more often the case, pseudonymity) and the force-multiplying effects of large-scale digital social media and mass amateurization. Either way, it's much cheaper to drum up support from a horde of ordinary people or gullible netizens than it is to hire an entire army of shills.
- General outline of the practice on About.com
- Astroturfing entry on SourceWatch (YMMV on this source)
- There may be a number of links or references to the company being hawked, but there's no obvious link to state that the page was created by (or for) the company in question. References to the company are more commonly delivered in the style of "Wow, our friends at RationalWiki have a treat in store for you!". We understand naturally that actors in adverts are being paid to enjoy the product they're selling, but these websites are designed to blur the line. Infomercials have been doing the same for a long time, but they are required to clearly identify themselves as being adverts.
- This is somewhat vague, but astroturf websites will typically try to mimic the ways in which normal people would communicate, or create an informal style of communicating. This to give the impression that the content was created by fans of the product - not corporate shills!
- The Jargon File 4.4.7, jargon-file.org, 29 December 2003.
- Nivea hawks its pseudoscientific Oxygen products with a delightfully moronic advert. Too busy to breathe? Just use oxygenated skin cream! They may as well suggest holding the anus open as an alternative method of respiration (video no longer available here)
- Comment made by Sean: Oxygen rich foods make me fart