Astroturfing denotes political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.
At any given point in time activists, political parties or business interests are at the forefront of techniques carefully honed to influence public opinion. We never really know for sure which of these has the ascendancy until one of the combatants blows another’s cover.
The nature of the “disguise” has changed over the years. Decades ago, when a vested interest provided a public rationalisation for their actions, they would automatically be met with a variation of the Mandy Rice-Davies response: “well you would say that, wouldn’t you”.
It was clear at this time that those who sought to influence opinion could not credibly do so in their own right. Alternative methods were identified and explored.
As the art of influence became more sophisticated, the players took note of market research that indicated people were most likely to believe what scientists and esteemed scientific institutions such as the CSIRO had to say about contemporary and controversial public policy issues. This finding heralded the “battle of the boffins” era.
This era saw governments and corporates mobilise behind the scenes to identify, solicit and enlist scientifically credentialed third parties to “endorse” their preferred position. Activist and pressure groups refined this dark art even further by strategically placing a number of their field-savvy campaigners into scientific roles in academic institutions, as well as establishing their own think-tanks and creating their own “independent panels of concerned scientists”.
This approach proved to be counter-productive for all concerned. Faced with scientific boffins squabbling over what were generally seen to be esoteric issues, ordinary people turned their backs on the divided scientific community and looked inwards to their core values for guidance.
Arising from this introspective mood is the phenomenon we now know as astroturfing. At its heart, astroturfing is a fake grass roots campaign.
Once the vested interests realised that they had lost the community’s hearts and minds with their battling boffins, they undertook more market research and found that people had reverted to focusing on the mitigation of tangible issues at the local level. Those seeking to influence public opinion studied and learned from the successes of Landcare and Rotary and then established faux local interest groups to support and promote their own interests.
Activist and interest groups followed swiftly with the establishment of similar entities. Some did not make much effort to hide this sleight of hand, with some “local interest” groups publicly sharing fax numbers and postal addresses with high profile activist groups.
Today, the casually interested observer in political and public policy issues is confronted with an array of information sources, some of who may or may not be who they say they are. No wonder there is little confidence in the credibility of most public information sources.
The huge irony in all this, is that people are now demanding that vested interests step forward and publicly defend their own positions. Many people have moved on from the Rice-Davies form of skepticism to a new variation that says “if you are not prepared to publicly defend your own position, product or party then there must be something indefensible about it”.
Activists, political parties and business interests should take note of this change in community expectations. Throw away the Astroturf and step forward. Being prepared to publicly defend your position is the first step in winning new hearts, minds and supporters.