What Do We Know about Astroturfing?

A Monkey Cage reader writes:

My question is how many organizations are there that are “astroturfing“? How do you distinguish between a legitimate group and an astroturf one? I didn’t find anything primarily about this topic when I searched the website and I’ve been wanting to hear more about this since reading Theda Skocpol’s Diminished Democracy.

My own searching didn’t turn up much either.  Do readers have suggestions?

12 Responses to What Do We Know about Astroturfing?

  1. Andrew Gelman September 16, 2011 at 8:37 am #

    To start with, there’s the NFL and Major League Baseball.

  2. Trey September 16, 2011 at 9:08 am #

    Here is one effort by researchers at the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at Indiana. I have not studied it so I can’t speak to its quality.

  3. Jack September 16, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    According to the Hans Noel article in The Forum (linked on this site in yesterday’s Potpourri), everything we consider “grassroots” is, in some form, astroturfing. A quote: “If a movement is astroturf if some outside force is organizing it, then all movements are astroturf. People do not spontaneously wake up and go to rallies. Someone hosts the rally and invites them to come.” Probably not exactly what you were looking for, but I found Noel’s discussion of astroturfing pretty interesting nonetheless.

  4. Tim September 16, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    The term “astroturf” is really just a negative connotation for most outside lobbying tactics…see Jack’s quote of Noel is right on. Ken Kollman’s Outside Lobbying and Ken Goldstein’s Interest Groups, Lobbying, And Participation in America are the most extensive on this. And, the Baumgartner et al’s Lobbying & Policy Change measures outside lobbying as one of many advocacy tactics, and find that it’s a relatively uncommon strategy (at least not as common as “inside advocacy”).

  5. Gregory Koger September 16, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    Let me add to Jack & Tim’s claims that legit “grassroots” and synthetic “astroturfing” are blurred. Perhaps it is best to think of this as a continuum. On one end, elites/organizations manufacture the appearance of popular interest. In the middle, organizations funded by a few donors/corporations go out and build membership organizations, and mass-based organizations institutionalize by finding steady sources of revenue outside membership dues. And on the other end, there are pure low-budget movements.

    The term “astroturfing,” narrowly construed, applies to the top-down end of the spectrum, in which public opinion is essentially manufactured. While Telecom reform was pending in Congress in 1995, legislators were treated to maximum-size trash bags full of “telegrams” purporting to be from average citizens who had intense views on the balance between long-distance and local providers. Except, when staffers opened the telegrams, they found messages from their own MCs, their families, defeated opponents (saw it with my own eyes), and dead people. It soon came to light that some of the telecom companies had contracted with a DC firm to solicit citizen telegrams and the firm had simply cut out the middleman by obtaining address lists and sending telegrams without, you know, asking the “senders”.

    Now, how many such firms exist? No idea.

  6. Kevin September 16, 2011 at 10:55 am #

    It’s true that some local political movement activity that is funded and even coordinated by national organizations is labeled astroturf, erroneously so for all of the reasons noted above. However, I think that the term is useful for identifying lobbying efforts that fraudulently claim to be on the behalf of large grass roots organizations that do not have the membership they claim. Some of the coal-industry lobbying documented by SourceWatch seems fall under this definition: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Astroturf

    As a side note, I think its interesting how much American political culture values “grassroots” advocacy but dismisses “activists.” Rosa Parks was a committed activist well before she refused to give up her seat, but the narrative promoted by the civil rights movement was that she was just tired and fed up after a hard days work. Similarly, survey research shows that Tea Party activists were, on the whole, active partisans well before the Tea Party Movement had that name. Yet we’ve seen the construction of a similar narrative of fed-up citizens who were not engaged but couldn’t stand idly by anymore.

    So I pose an alternative question: Why does the charge astroturf carry so much meaning? Why is participation in issue advocacy less meaningful if the participant has been engaged in the political process before, or has the backing of national supporters?

    • Bill Harshaw September 16, 2011 at 2:31 pm #

      “large grass roots organizations that do not have the membership they claim. ” Doesn’t every organization exaggerate? The American Farm Bureau Federation claims to represent 5-6 million “farmers”, while the census has trouble finding much more than 2 million. I’m sure AARP claims to represent me, but I haven’t renewed my dues in more than a year.

      There perhaps is a meaningful distinction between organizations which have local and state chapters as well as a national office versus those which have only a national office.

  7. Edward Walker September 16, 2011 at 11:44 am #

    I’ve written about this and have a book under contract with Cambridge about the role such consulting firms play. Like others here, I very much hesitate to use the term “astroturf.” What we’re really talking about are elite efforts to mobilize public participation, and much of the time that doesn’t look all that different from other efforts by interest groups and social movements to facilitate public engagement. Of course there are still resource inequalities.

    Now, how many such firms exist? No idea.

    I’ve done an analysis of the founding of such firms that was published in the ASR in 2009. Available ungated here and gated here.

    For undergrads, I’ve written this magazine-style article for Contexts.

    Others might be interested in this piece that I wrote with Baumgartner and McCarthy in the most recent AJS on the place of non-membership advocacy organizations in public life, as similar sorts of concerns come up here.

  8. Matthew Beckmann September 16, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    Ken Kollman’s book, Outside Lobbying, is terrific in conceputalizing astroturf within a broader framework of grassroots mobilization. The data are great too.

  9. dickerson3870 September 16, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    THE KING OF ASTROTURFING: Richard Berman – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Berman

  10. John Mashey September 16, 2011 at 8:41 pm #

    Interesting topic and references, so far.

    So, of entities that do climate anti-science,
    http://www.desmogblog.com/sites/beta.desmogblog.com/files/crescendo%20climategate%20cacophony%20v1%200.pdf
    pp.93-95 gives a matrix of funders vs organizations, some of which seem astrotruf:

    I think there are various flavors of astroturf, i.e.,:
    a) Organization A is trying to fake being grassroots [TASSC]
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advancement_of_Sound_Science_Center

    b) Organization A may actually accumulate a fair number of people, but it’s goals may not exactly be what those people think. [FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, i.e., tea party sparkplugs, funding from Koch brothers, Scaife, etc.] The Environmental Literacy Council (ELC) might be another that is often doing something different, as is the Science and Public Policy Institute.

    c) Organizations A, B, and C are doing similar things, funded by the same sources, but having 3 of them makes it look like broader participation. It also keeps A, B, and C competing for funding. See the charts pp.93-95.

    One must look carefully at any entity that has both a 501(c)3 and 501(c)4, especially when it is the same people in one office. that may be OK, may not be.

  11. Edward Walker August 13, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    An Op-Ed related to this was published in the NYT a few days ago: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/11/opinion/grass-roots-mobilization-by-corporate-america.html