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How Astroturf Lobbying Undermines American Democracy

My background includes writing and editing letters for causes. These letters are in newspapers and on decision-makers' desks across the US.

What Is Astroturfing?

Astroturfing is the deceptive tactic of pretending a cause, product, or idea has grassroots support when it does not. This strategy is undertaken by organizations or parties for the sole purpose of shaping public opinion.

Is lobbying an unfair practice? One definition oflobbying as a verb is "to solicit or try to influence the votes of members of a legislative body." All the biggest players in the American—and thus the world—economy pour copious amounts of cash into lobbying efforts. While I argue that lobbying has an important role, astroturf lobbying has no good role in a well-functioning democracy.

Americans must learn to be more adept at identifying astroturf lobbying efforts. Those who understand astroturfing are better-equipped to recognize the lobbying tactic. As a reformed employee of an astroturfing company, I understand the deception the firms will undertake to protect who they are working for and their real motives.

Who Are Astroturfers?

Astroturfers are hired guns who support the cause that pays them. Many astroturfing firms also do traditional lobbying work. You know, going to legislators offices, setting up dinners with them, playing golf, etc. With traditional lobbying, legislators know exactly who the lobbyist represents and what their interests are. That is not always true with astroturfing.

The practice is done by entities ranging from governments, think Russian trolls and meme creators, to corporations. My experience is with corporate astroturfing, so I will focus on that messy business.

Trump's Astroturf Lobbying

A recent example of astroturfing is the Trump campaign paying an event consultant $12,000. That consultant went on to hire people to generate a crowd at a rally.

Capitol Building: The Biggest Astroturfing Customers Work Here

Capitol Building: The Biggest Astroturfing Customers Work Here

Corporate Astroturfing Examples and Strategies

Corporate astroturfing involves more than just paying people to comment on internet forums. Another online strategy is to make websites, often with wholesome-sounding names, that aim to trick people into thinking the page is part of a grassroots effort. Who would suspect that something akin to "Seniors for a Strong American Healthcare System" could be part of an effort to persuade seniors to support a health-insurer-backed bill that runs counter to their needs?

The most infamous astroturfing effort came from the tobacco industry back in the 90s. In America, this effort is mainly attributed to a Phillip Morris-backed firm Burson-Marsteller. These lobbyists created the "grassroots" National Smokers Alliance. The group garnered hundreds of thousands of members and portrayed those against smoking tobacco as anti-American.

With most astroturf lobbying schemes, the goal is to get government officials to support or oppose a certain bill or bills. The utility of astroturfing is two-fold: getting public support for a bill thus putting pressure on lawmakers and providing lawmakers with the ammunition, or confidence, to support the cause. You see, an official who is already on board with an issue needs to know his constituency will not turn on her if she votes the wrong way on an issue. Thus, the lobbyists must garner support and let the official know how much their constituents support the effort. This is truly unfortunate when the effort is counter to constituent needs.

How to Recognize Corporate Astroturfing

The big disappointment with the tobacco astroturfing effort is that not much has changed. The effort's unveiling didn't do much to help consumers recognize future efforts. I personally wrote letters for a firm that often hid behind "grassroot" organizations, which were really front organizations. Such groups were, in reality, created by companies from the following industries: pharmaceuticals, health insurance, gambling, defense contractors, medical device makers, energy companies, and likely more that I can't recall at this time.

Here's an example of a pharmaceutical astroturfing campaign that was called out by a former lobbying firm employee. This was a letter-writing campaign that wrote for a pharmaceutical front group called "Caregiver Voices United." The anonymous former employer calls the effort "antithetical to the spirit of democracy."

Astroturf lobbying strategies range from trolling and making fake news websites, to writing letters to legislators and the opinion section of newspapers. Sometimes they will call constituent's homes and ask leading questions to use the answers as part of a letter to lawmakers. They may begin by asking about broad political views before zeroing in on the real issue. At times, these efforts will target constituents from opposite ends of the political spectrum. They may contact Democrats and explain parts of a bill that are likely to appeal the them. At the same time, they are calling Republicans and relaying pieces of the bill that are likely to gain their support. Of course, neither side is made aware of the parts they are likely to not support. Additionally, the "facts" given to constituents are often cherry picked from biased studies or presented in half-truths.

Lobbyists also target government agencies. A pharmaceutical company will lobby the FDA for approval of a new drug. The FDA has public commenting periods, which are prime targets for lobbyists. However, the new drug may not get the public enthusiasm it needs if it's known who is behind the efforts. Thus, we have something akin to the "Organization for Better Diabetic Treatments." Now that's something people can get behind. This is a grassroots group, made up of diabetics and their loved ones, who are fighting to get the latest and greatest treatments onto the market. See how that works?

The pharmaceutical industry is one of the biggest perps of astroturf lobbying.

The pharmaceutical industry is one of the biggest perps of astroturf lobbying.

How Astroturfing Undermines American Democracy

Fooling people into supporting something they wouldn't otherwise support is unethical. It also seems unethical for a corporation, or an entire industry, to come together under an umbrella of a "grassroots" organization. Paying people to demonstrate, write letters, call representatives, etc. is not a true grassroots effort.

The thing is, in a democratic republic, the best thing the people have going for them is that elected officials may be held accountable for their decisions. However, astroturfing distort the will of the people and the lawmakers' perception of that will.

The US does have laws concerning lobbying and even hold lawbreakers accountable now and then. You may remember Jack Abramoff? However, compared to nations such as the UK and Australia, America is an astroturfing free-for-all. In fact, Australia's law is so broad that it basically states any astroturf activities that mislead the public in any way are illegal.

Intelligence agencies determined that the 2016 American process fell victim to Russian astroturfers. The Russian hacking scandal and Russian-organized political demonstrations should make it clear how foreign governments can use astroturfing to undermine American democracy. So, perhaps it's time for the US to pass real anti-astroturfing legislation. It would help to ease corporate dominance of American politics, but perhaps even more important, it's now a matter of national security.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Comments

Don Shepard (author) on July 01, 2018:

Hmm..yeah Eileen; from my experience, 9 times out of 10, these campaigns--and the shadiest of them--are right-wing Republican initiatives. Of course, left-leaning proposals have some astroturfing also but just not to the same degree ,or quite in the same way.

Unforunately, with Republicans in control of the entire federal government, and so many state govts, these under-handed tactics are paying off in spades.

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on July 01, 2018:

Where to start Don.

Lobbying plays politics in the UK too. The right may say it is by way of the left and unions but big business pulls the strings of any Tory government.

You only need to look at who has the upperhand financially to see who does it the most and maybe most efficiently.

Little wonder the electorate here is a mixture of disenfranchised, could not care less and now supporting extremes.

But thank you for an interesing glimpse into politics across the pond

Don Shepard (author) on June 27, 2018:

Yes ptosis... It's certainly possible to determine the reals and fakes with some research but it's getting more difficult all the time. A site that does the research is a great idea.

ptosis from Arizona on June 27, 2018:

Good article. Too bad there ain't a web page that I can look up to see for real like Charity Navigator.