“A fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grass roots and AstroTurf.”
—former Senator and Vice-Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen
When most people hear the word astroturf, they think about synthetic grass used in ballparks all over North America. But did you know it has another meaning?
“Astroturfing” is a form of propaganda that’s sole purpose is to mislead. Specifically, its aim is to misrepresent that a larger number of people are supportive of a cause than is truly the case. It’s a play on words: a grass roots movement reflects action that is gathering steam but astroturfing is a fake version of it, just as AstroTurf is fake grass.
The term was first coined by Lloyd Bentsen in an interview with the Washington Post in 1985 (quoted above), in response to a number of cards and letters he had received opposing some insurance provisions. He argued it was generated mail and not really reflective of a true groundswell of opposition.
There are a variety of ways to use “astroturfers.” One is to have real activists pose as regular people. This can be done by having them attend rallies or disseminate propaganda. Examples include submitted Letters to the Editor or posted YouTube videos that are meant to imply they come from everyday folks newly adding their support to a cause, but they’re actually from lobbyists and activists already connected to that cause.
Another way that astroturfing is achieved is through attracting everyday folks who turn up at events and pose as supporters. And how do you do that exactly? Well, you give them incentive. Money usually works. For example, in 2009 the American Petroleum Institute encouraged its members—companies like ExxonMobil, Shell and British Petroleum—to send employees to rallies aimed at fighting a climate change bill. (If you got paid by your boss to go to a rally instead of doing your job, you might be inclined to go.)
A more recent example just occurred this past week. At Environmental Protection Agency hearings in Chicago and Washington, D.C., a number of people showed up wearing T-shirts supporting the fossil fuel industry. The purpose of the hearings was to discuss new carbon standards for new power plants, what would amount amount to a reduction of about 62 million tons of carbon dioxide annually if enforced. A number of folks were present clearly in support of coal and oil based on their attire.
Nice way to show your support for the fossil fuel industry. Only problem? They weren’t supporters at all. They were simply students looking to make a quick buck. And how did this make them any money? Because they were paid $50 to show up and wear the T-shirts. The Environmental Law and Policy Center found a Craigslist posting by a coal group offering exactly that. The ad has since been removed and it hasn’t been confirmed which group put up the ad, but it’s pretty clear it was from someone or some group in support of fossil fuel industries and against any environmental changes that might hurt profits in any way. (But hey, to a student $50 is $50.)
Astroturfing is yet another example of what I can’t stand with strategies used by some people who oppose any move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy. So frequently their tactic is to spread misinformation. In the case of astroturfing, rather than misleading people about facts pertaining to climate change (e.g. “volcanoes produce more carbon dioxide than people do”), the misinformation is to misrepresent the number of people who actually support their opposition. It would be nice if they could simply use the truth in their efforts so that people could be more properly educated and better decide for themselves how they feel.
Perhaps since the facts aren’t in their favour when it comes to global warming, maybe they feel they don’t have much alternative.