We Need to Talk About Astroturfing

Let me skip the predictions, anticipated trends, and wishes for the year and get down to business. Let’s talk about astroturfing.

This is something that will need to be unpacked over a few posts, because the reality is, there is a lot to talk about. Definition, history, examples/use . . . and most importantly, the ethics of this practice.

But for now, let’s start with the basics. This post is specifically about the idea (and a little history). Astroturfing is the organized activity that is intended to create a false impression of a widespread, spontaneously arising, grassroots movement in support of or in opposition to something (such as a political policy) but that is in reality initiated and controlled by a concealed group or organization (such as a corporation) (Merriam-Webster).

Clever, right? Fake grass. Fake grassroots support. Get it?


But maybe I should step back and really talk about the power of grassroots organizing. Very simply, it is when everyday people grow support for an idea by mobilizing and working with others in their community. This is in contrast to “top-down decision making”. Grassroots organizing is so coveted because it is organic – it shows the strength of the community’s support and can force those in power to take notice.

Astroturfing is a propaganda tool often deployed as a political tactic – the phrase was coined in the 1980s by U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. (Pausing to call out his iconic VP debate moment.) Senator Bentsen was receiving a “mountain of cards and letters” sent to his office to promote insurance industry interests. In response to this, he said, “a fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grass roots and AstroTurf… this is generated mail.” In other words, the letters did not appear to be coming from his constituents with a vested interest in making sure the insurance industry got its way.

In an age of “dark money” and savvier online political campaigns, it has become increasingly easy to put together a fake entity backed by bots. Let’s break down political/advocacy astroturfing.

  • Creating or using a “front organization” to mask the true identities and interests being represented.
  • Citing data from analysts without disclosing financial connections between parties.
  • Creating multiple fake personas (also called “sockpuppets“) and posting on social media to create the illusion that something is popular.

Gross. But this is not limited to politics and advocacy work anymore. Influencers, whether they’re aware or not, have become entangled in this. From food bloggers to Instagram models, influencers have an established audience making them excellent personas for this work. Some of the ways you may generally see it online:

  • A blogger posting about an item without disclosing they received money from the company in question.
  • Undisclosed pay-for-play deals with influencers; exchanging gifts or trips for positive coverage.
  • Campaigns and blogs tied directly to and generated by marketing teams pretending to be created by independent individuals.

Astroturfing is about deception. It is used to harness the power of citizens – or an audience – without facing direct scrutiny; an attempt to create an impartial – albeit non-existent –  third-party to move public opinion.

In a world where “gaslighting” saw a jump in usage in recent years, more people are taking their civic duties seriously, and people are waking up to systemic issues (racism most prominently). We as PR professionals really need to think about the work we’re taking and how it fits into the larger world.

I’ll dive more into the ethics of this in a later blog, but to be very clear, astroturfing is problem and is prohibited by the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America, the national association for members of public relations professionals in the United States. There are also laws that prohibit this in the United States, European Union, Australia, and beyond.

Come back next month when I provide examples of how astroturfing is becoming increasingly sophisticated and pick a part the ethical problems for those still not sure why this is bad. But in the meantime, I’ll let John Oliver provide some additional thoughts.

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