Opinion + Voices

What’s the difference between political grassroots and big-interest Astroturf?

How corporations — from Verizon to Wal-Mart — manufacture citizen lobbyists

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Astroturf
Amy/Creative Commons

Edward T. Walker is an associate professor of sociology at UCLA and the author of “Grassroots For Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy.” This piece is part of Thinking L.A., a partnership between UCLA and Zócalo Public Square. It was posted July 8 on Zócalo.

In just a few weeks, the Federal Communications Commission will conclude its public comment period over whether Internet service providers can give some packets of data priority — dismantling what’s become known as net neutrality. During this period, regulators will surely hear quite a bit from companies like Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon about how allowing a two-tiered system of Internet access will benefit consumers in the coming years.

But the message against net neutrality won’t just be coming from lobbyists and some supportive regular citizens.

They’re also likely to hear from Broadband for America and the American Consumer Institute, both of which claim to be independent groups that just happen to oppose net neutrality. In fact, these supposedly independent groups have used industry funding to play a major role in the telecom industry’s push to create an Internet with separate fast and slow lanes.

Related news release: When grassroots activism becomes a commodity

Broadband for America claims to represent diverse citizen interests but, when asked, many of the groups listed as “members” claimed to have no knowledge of ever being involved with the campaign, according to a recent report in Vice. The bulk of funding for Broadband for America comes from the National Cable and Telecommunications Association—a trade group for Internet service providers — and the group has retained the DCI Group, a “grassroots for hire” firm known for orchestrating similar corporate front groups on issues ranging from climate change to computer technology.

There’s a word for this: astroturfing — a term coined nearly 30 years ago by U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Bentsen, when faced with a barrage of postcards and letters facilitated by insurance companies, famously said he could “tell the difference between grass roots and AstroTurf.”

A vibrant conversation is happening today about the fears many have about the role of money in politics—laundering money into political power, with little or no disclosure. But what may be more consequential is a sort of “opinion laundering,” in which corporations and industry groups convert their ideas into those expressed by everyday citizens.

I’ve spent the better part of the last decade investigating campaigns like these and the lucrative consulting firms hired to manufacture grassroots participation. As a scholar of social movements, I initially became interested in these firms because they challenge our assumptions about why people and organizations engage in grassroots organizing. We assume that these strategies are “weapons of the weak,” when in fact even Fortune 500 behemoths — by my estimates, 40 percent of them — frequently find that they need to mobilize the grassroots when facing threatening policy changes. Firms like the DCI Group now represent a fully formed industry, ready to mobilize ordinary Americans on behalf of corporate America, on-demand.

To be sure, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a corporation or any other group finding its backers and encouraging them to speak out on issues that will affect them. This is a basic cornerstone of American politics, and it’s vital for businesses to be able to communicate honestly with policymakers.

The issue is when this is done in a fashion that involves fraud, deception, or substantial material incentives for participants.

For example, in April it came out that Intuit — the company behind TurboTax software — engaged in an astroturfing campaign. Alarmed that an IRS proposal to simplify tax filing would threaten the market for its software, the company and its consultants enlisted members of minority groups and local community organizations to write letters and op-eds opposing the proposal. A report by ProPublica made clear that many of these leaders had no idea that industry groups were behind the requests.

In some cases, apparent supporters can’t even be confirmed to be real people. In an effort to secure a New Jersey regulatory agreement to let itself out of commitments to expand broadband, Verizon facilitated a mass letter-writing campaign earlier this year. When investigative journalists tracked down the ostensible authors, they found that many e-mails bounced back as invalid. Of the writers they did find, some denied sending a letter, and others were either Verizon retirees or from groups with Verizon funding. None seemed to understand the policy for which they were lobbying—and some even opposed it.

Other recent examples of astroturfing are found among for-profit colleges (Students for Academic Choices), big-box retailers (Working Families for Wal-Mart), food and beverage industries (New Yorkers for Beverage Choices), and fracking companies (United Shale Advocates). Astroturf groups tend to follow a shared template: an independent-sounding name, a slick website proclaiming the broad benefits of the firm or industry’s interests, a member list that looks surprisingly broad and diverse (those with a direct economic interest appear to be only a fraction), and ready-made templates for how you, too, can become a citizen lobbyist.

Evidence suggests that when their backing isn’t revealed, people can be unwittingly swayed by their appeals. What’s more, these practices are especially troubling for American democracy because they offer plausible deniability to policymakers who want to support a special interest’s policy preferences while appearing to be accountable only to constituents.

The good news is that many of us have become wiser about detecting astroturfing, and the campaigns often backfire. We are far now more skeptical about groups with generic-sounding names like Coalition for Consumer and Online Protection (pro-online gambling industry) or Nebraskans for Jobs and Energy (pro-Keystone XL pipeline). We are even getting help from data scientists who search for patterns in received letters to identify those that derive from a lobbyist’s script (see herehere, and here).

But many campaigns never get exposed. And while it’s tempting to continue relying on watchdog groups, investigative journalists, and professional associations in the PR industry to discourage these practices through the soft pressure of shaming, this hasn’t had enough of an impact. If anything, the rise of social media has opened up vast new possibilities for astroturfing in the form of ghostwritten blogs and fake product reviews.

We need federal legislation requiring disclosure of those who are behind campaigns to create “grassroots” support. Precisely such a measure was proposed by Congress in 2007 in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal — Abramoff, after all, was no stranger to these tactics — but the needed provisions were stripped from the bill before passage.

In the meantime, while the FCC debates the creation of a two-tiered Internet, its regulators need to make efforts to separate the grassroots from the astroturf. In the absence of real transparency, front groups like Broadband for America could end up undermining a more open and honest debate about the future of the Internet.

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