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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.
Astroturf refers to apparently grassroots-based citizen groups or coalitions that are primarily conceived, created and/or funded by corporations, industry trade associations, political interests or public relations firms.
- 1 Definitions
- 2 NeoCon Astroturf
- 3 Libertarian Astroturf
- 4 Coal industry Astroturf
- 5 Astroturf in the Gas Industry
- 6 Astroturfing the judiciary
- 7 Telecom astroturf
- 8 Virtual astroturf (the "Echo Chamber" approach to advocacy)
- 9 Educational Astroturf
- 10 Articles and resources
Campaigns & Elections magazine defines astroturf as a "grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them." Journalist William Greider has coined his own term to describe corporate grassroots organizing. He calls it "democracy for hire."
Senator Lloyd Bentsen, himself a long-time Washington and Wall Street insider, is credited with coining the term "astroturf lobbying" to describe the synthetic grassroots movements that now can be manufactured for a fee by companies like Beckel Cowan, Bivings Group, Bonner & Associates, Burson-Marsteller, Davies Communications, DCI Group, Direct Impact, Hill & Knowlton, Issue Dynamics Inc., National Grassroots & Communications, or Optima Direct.
Unlike genuine grassroots activism which tends to be money-poor but people-rich, astroturf campaigns are typically people-poor but cash-rich. Funded heavily by corporate largesse, they use sophisticated computer databases, telephone banks and hired organizers to rope less-informed activists into sending letters to their elected officials or engaging in other actions that create the appearance of grassroots support for their client's cause.
William Greider's 1992 book, Who Will Tell the People, described an astroturf campaign run by Bonner & Associates as a "boiler room" operation with "300 phone lines and a sophisticated computer system, resembling the phone banks employed in election campaigns. Articulate young people sit in little booths every day, dialing around America on a variety of public issues, searching for 'white hat' citizens who can be persuaded to endorse the political objectives of Mobil Oil, Dow Chemical, Citicorp, Ohio Bell, Miller Brewing, United States Tobacco Company, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and dozens of other clients. This kind of political recruiting is expensive but not difficult. ... Imagine Bonner's technique multiplied and elaborated in different ways across hundreds of public issues and you may begin to envision the girth of this industry. ... This is democracy and it costs a fortune."
Astroturf techniques have been used to:
- block the transfer of federal licenses that WorldCom uses for its long distance and Internet services by Issue Dynamics Inc. using non-profit groups like the United Church of Christ
- defeat the Clinton administration's proposed health care reform, through a front group called "Rx Partners" created by the Beckel Cowan PR firm, and the Coalition for Health Insurance Choices, created by public relations consultant Blair Childs
- harass environmentalists through the Wise Use movement
- loosen automobile fuel efficience standards
- support clear-cutting American forests, through a front group called Citizens to Protect the Pacific Northwest and Northern California Economy
- oppose restrictions on smoking in public places, through a front group called National Smokers Alliance, which was created by Burson-Marsteller
- generate a dossier of newsclips orchestrated by Edelman to assist Microsoft lobbyists persuade U.S. state attorney generals not to join a class action against the company.
- Encourage people to buy Coke
Sometimes genuine grassroots organizations are recruited into corporate-funded campaigns. In June 2003, for example, the Gray Panthers participated in protests against WorldCom that were funded largely by the telecommunications company's competitors such as Verizon. According to the Gray Panthers, this reflected a policy decision that the organization made prior to and independently of its funding. However, an article in the Washington Post raised questions about failures to publicly disclose the corporate funding which paid for full-page advertisements that the Gray Panthers took out in several major newspapers that called on the federal government to stop doing business with WorldCom. The ads said they were paid for the Gray Panthers but did not mention that Issue Dynamics Inc. (IDI), a PR firm that specializes in "grassroots PR," had provided most of the $200,000 it cost to place the ads. Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe has declined to say how much the company is paying IDI, and Gray Panthers Executive Director Timothy Fuller has declined to say how much of the funding for its "Corporate Accountability" project comes from IDI. Notwithstanding the egregious nature of WorldCom's corporate crimes, the lack of transparency in these funding arrangements by WorldCom's corporate competitors raises the question of whether the Gray Panthers campaign should be considered genuine grassroots or astroturf.
The rise of the Super PAC has formalized funding for many political groups that would otherwise have little or no financial support. Crossroads GPS (Grassroots Policy Strategies), the sub-Super PAC of Karl Rove's American Crossroads, lists no grassroots groups that it backs, but funded more than $9.7M of anti-Obama television ads by Larry McCarthy, known for the Willie Horton Ad that helped tank Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in the 2012 election campaign cycle . Rove is a classic Neo-Conservative (NeoCon) who was the architect behind George W. Bush's presidential campaign, and the election of a slate of NeoCon Republican candidates in the late 1990s and the early part of the 21st century.
Groups like "Americans for Prosperity" (AFP) are largely funded by very wealthy Americans like the Koch Brothers, who use AFP to engage unwitting voters in doing their bidding to bust unions, further deregulate energy industries, and avoid the imposition of regulation in commodities trading. AFP spends generously to elect Tea Party candidates, and has been a primary funder of controversial Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's election and bid to avoid a recall after his crusade to break union negotiating power for government workers in his state. The Kochs are classic Libertarians who see the government as the source of all ill, and desire to dismantle it to its bare functioning minimums, allowing capitalists free reign to do as they will. The Kochs father was a key player in the John Birch Society and David Koch was the Vice Presidential candidate in 1980 for the Libertarian Party.
Coal industry Astroturf
ACCCE and Bonner & Associates
In July 2009, public relations firm Bonner & Associates was caught forging letters to Representative Tom Perriello. The letters were supposedly from Virginia-based minority groups, like the Charlottesville NAACP or Creciendo Juntas -- complete with their stationery -- and urged him to oppose the Waxman-Markey Climate Bill. Bonner & Associates apologized, saying the letters were sent by "mistake." Perriello is one of the co-sponsors of the Clean Water Protection Act, which would slow the practice of Mountaintop removal.
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a coal industry front group, later admitted that Bonner was working on its behalf, as a subcontractor for the Hawthorn Group. ACCCE said it didn't know about the fake letters beforehand, or condone them. In total, the House of Representatives has identified 14 fake letters sent by Bonner to three Democratic Representatives -- Tom Perriello, Kathy Dahlkemper (Dem-PA) and Chris Carney (Dem-PA). Carney and Dahlkemper voted against the Waxman-Markey bill.
Congressman Ed Markey, the co-author of the climate bill and the Chair of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, opened an investigation into the faked letters. He wrote the firm's founder, Jack Bonner, "asking a dozen lengthy questions about the letters," reported the New York Times, including "who hired it to lobby on their behalf, how much it was paid, in which congressional districts it operates in, the extent of its activities in those districts as well as information about the employee that was responsible for the mailing of the letters." Markey gave Bonner August 12, 2009 as the deadline to respond. The Sierra Club asked Attorney General Eric Holder to open a separate Justice Department investigation into the matter.
Head of ACCCE testifies before Congress
On October 29, 2009, ACCCE president and CEO Joe Miller testified before the House Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee about the forged letters sent by subcontractor Bonner & Associates. In his testimony, Miller claimed that his organization had never opposed the Waxman-Markey Climate Bill. However, an official June 2009 press release specifically stated, "ACCCE cannot support this bill, as it is written, because the legislation still does not adequately protect consumers and the domestic economy or ensure that the American people can continue to enjoy the benefits of affordable, reliable electricity, which has been so important to our nation." Miller also said that ACCCE has only lobbied Congress since April 2008, despite extensive records of the group's lobbying efforts for many years prior. The comments sparked accusations that Miller lied under oath and suggestions that the Justice Department may open a criminal perjury probe.
FACES of Coal
FACES of Coal, which stands for Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security, is a coal industry front group. The group, which is affiliated with West Virginia Coal Association front group Friends of Coal, launched in August 2009. The group is attempting to gain support for the coal industry as climate change legislation works its way through Congress.
FACES of Coal claims its membership includes 70 different coal and non-coal organizations, businesses, and individuals, including representatives of the tourism industry and state and county governments. However, its website provides no list of members. The group describes itself as "an alliance of people from all walks of life" and a "grassroots movement" to communicate the importance of coal in the U.S. to legislators and the general public. However, the "faces" featured on the group’s website -- including a woman working at a flower shop, a boy playing golf with his father, a family walking with a baby by a white picket fence, a fireman, and a grandmother waving an American flag -- turned out to be royalty-free stock photos from a company called iStockphoto.
Energy in Depth (EID) is a pro-oil-and-gas drilling industry front group formed by the American Petroleum Institute, the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) and dozens of additional industry organizations for the purpose of denouncing legislation proposed by Colorado U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette to regulate underground hydraulic fracturing fluids. Hydraulic fracturing of underground geological formations, commonly called "fracking," was invented by the Halliburton Company. It is done to increase the amounts of oil and gas that can be extracted from existing wells. 
Energy in Depth attempts to paint grassroots opposition to shale gas fracking as being part of a conspiracy of NGOs.  How such a conspiracy applies to grassroots opposition in Quebec, Bulgaria, France and the UK is not clear - since the conspiracy theory of opposition exists primarily in Energy In Depths Power Point presentation.
Energy in Depth hires locals as bloggers and "political organizers" with varying degrees of credulity and effectiveness. 
Energy in Depth denounces DeGette's proposed fracking legislation as an “unnecessary financial burden on a single small-business industry, American oil and natural gas producers.” In June, 2009, Energy in Depth started a multimillion dollar lobbying and public relations campaign aimed at derailing public health legislation that would require the disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking fluids. In addition to a Web site, EID's campaign includes a Twitter feed, a Facebook group, a YouTube channel and an aggressive advertising campaign. 
Energy in Depth trumpets the economic benefits of shale gas industrialization - which have been grossly overstated, most recently in New York.Frackonomics
When, in New York, dry gas from shale is not currently economic. 
Energy in Depth is, in a sense, one of the most conspicuous manifestations of the gas industry's avowed "counter-insurgency" to attempt to discredit grass roots environmental activists; even to the extent of employing ex-military "psy-ops" specialists. Industry Use Psy-Ops On Critics.
Energy in Depth have been featured speakers at gas industry conferences explaining how to counteract grass roots opposition to fracking. "Counter Insurgents"
In this regard, Energy In Depth is part of a subculture of gas industry consultants that specialize in dealing with local opposition to fracking.Shils
Energy in Depth is funded by the El Paso Corporation, XTO Energy, Occidental Petroleum, BP, Anadarko, Marathon, EnCana, Chevron, Talisman, Shell, API, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, Halliburton, Schlumberger and the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.
Astroturfing the judiciary
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Joel Connelly wrote September 11, 2006, that in Washington state "an outfit called" CHANGEPAC — "which is listed as a sponsor of personal attack ads running against Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander and touting his challenger, John Groen"—"reported a huge $400,000 donation from the Building Industry Association of Washington." The "$400,000 check did not travel far", Connelly wrote, as the "BIAW and ChangePac can be found at the same Olympia post office box."
- The domain / website VOTINGFORJUDGES.ORG calls itself "An information resource for Washington voters." As of September 8, 2006, CHANGEPAC (PO Box 1909, Olympia) had received an estimated $600,000 in revenues, with $400,000 attributed to donations on September 1, 2006, by the Building Industry Association of Washington (PO Box 1909, Olympia). "Advocacy" total expenditures to date are $336,704.82, with $291,377.09 spent on John Groen and $45,327.73 on Stephen Johnson. 
On the east coast, Connelly writes, an additional $320,000 was spent "on anti-Alexander ads ... aired by a group identified as 'Americans Tired of Lawsuit Abuse'," which "gives an address in Virginia and is the spawn of the American Tort Reform Association."
- Americans Tired of Lawsuit Abuse WA PAC, with an Alexandria, Virginia, address, also links with VOTINGFORJUDGES.ORG. It shows a single contribution of $355,000.00 from Americans Tired of Lawsuit Abuse, also located in Alexandria, Virginia . "Advocacy" expendures total $320,000.00: $80,000.00 to support John Groen and $240,000.00 to support Stephen Johnson in Washington. 
Other ads attacking Washington state "Supreme Court Justice Tom Chambers and backing challenger Jeanette Burrage" were "placed by a committee named Citizens for Judicial Integrity," Connelly wrote. "Public Disclosure Commission records reveal that the 'citizens" group has a single contributor:" On August 25, 2006, it received $72,000 from a political committee called Constitution First PAC, which "also has a limited list of contributors."
Richard Roesler, staff writer for the Spokesman Review, wrote August 31, 2006, in the Eye on Olympia Blog that CIJ, which had then been "formed just a week ago", was bankrolling the ads with $72,000 it had raised "in just a few days", with all the money coming "from yet another week-old political action committee: the Constitution First PAC", in turn supported by "just three donors: $50,000 from Sabre Venture, Inc. of Poulsbo and $12,500 each from J.R. Sherrard and A.L. Sherrard, also both of Poulsbo. (The Sherrards also donated the maximum $1,400 each to Burrage's regular campaign fund.)"
Dionne Searcey, in the article "Consumer Groups Tied to Industry", in the Wall Street Journal, Tuesday March 28, 2006, p. B4, names some telecom groups as astroturf:
- Consumers for Cable Choice. Funding from Verizon Communications, Inc. and AT&T, Inc.
- Keep It Local New Jersey. Funding from New Jersey Telecommunications Associates; the WSJ indicates this is a coalition of various telecoms including Time Warner Cable and Cablevision Systems Corp.
- New Millennium Research Council. Funding from Verizon Communications Inc.
Virtual astroturf (the "Echo Chamber" approach to advocacy)
A 1998 memo, written by John F. Scruggs of Philip Morris Management Corporation's Federal Government Affairs Office (lobbying office), describes a public relations technique that corporations use to dominate virtually the entire decisionmaking environment in which legislators operate. The "Echo Chamber Approach to Advocacy," as Scruggs describes it, involves making a chosen corporate message, or slight variations this message, emanate from virtually all major sources that influence legislators' decisionmaking: constituents, colleagues, opinion leaders, local and national media (TV, radio, newspapers), fundraisers, advertising, etc. Scruggs says "...[T]his repetition, or 'piling on' approach works" because the message emanates from those who have " 'the greatest degree of credibility' with the legislator."
Bill Gates by way of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, funds a number of astro-turf grass groots groups to challenge teachers' unions in education, including Teach Plus, the Education Equality Project, Educators for Excellence , the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Center on Education Policy, the Education Trust and former Florida governor Jeb Bush's Foundation for Educational Excellence. Bush has extensive ties to educational testing companies that make millions off of teach-to-the-test statewide testing programs.
"It's Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education, said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who said he received no financing from the foundation." 
According to the [New York Times, the foundation paid millions to set up the same labyrinth of groups, think-tanks and research fellows that Grover Norquist established to effect control of the Republican Party over a 35 year period. The Gates Foundation paid a New York philanthropic advisory firm $3.5 million to mount and support public education and advocacy campaigns. It also paid universities to support pieces of the Gates educational agenda. Harvard received $3.5 million to place what it termed strategic data fellows to be entrepreneurial change agents in school districts in Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere.
The foundation gave money to unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), nearly $6.3 million over the last three years, but the money seems to go to influence policy debates, and foster political members careers who will challenge the thinking of the current union leadership. Mr. Gates spent $2 million on a social action campaign using the film Waiting for 'Superman,' which demonized Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT.
It's easier to name which groups Gates doesn't support than to list all of those they do, because it's just so overwhelming, noted Ken Libby, a graduate student who has pored over the foundation's tax filings as part of his academic work.
Articles and resources
SourceWatch case studies
- Astroturfing in Australia
- Grassroots PR Activists Swap War Stories
- Journalists who have been taken in by astroturfing
- Energy in Depth
Related SourceWatch articles
- Astroturf Marketing
- Beckel Cowan
- Bivings Group
- Bonner & Associates
- Davies Communications
- DCI Group
- Direct Impact
- front groups
- The Hawthorn Group
- Hill & Knowlton
- Issue Dynamics Inc.
- National Grassroots & Communications
- New West Public Affairs
- Optima Direct
- Phase Line Strategies
- Brian McNeill, "Forged letters to congressman anger local groups," Daily Progress (Charlottesville, Virginia), July 31, 2009.
- "Tom Perriello Cosponsors Clean Water Protection Act (HR 1310)", ArticleXI.com!, April 30, 2009.
- Alex Kaplun, "Coal Industry Group Linked to a Dozen Forged Cap-And-Trade Letters," New York Times, August 4, 2009.
- David A. Fahrenthold, "House Unearths a 14th Forged Letter from a Lobbyist," Washington Post, September 10, 2009.
- Alex Kaplun, "Sierra Club asks DOJ to investigate forged climate letters," E&ENews PM, August 3, 2009.
- Arthur Delaney, [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/29/pro-coal-lobby-boss-claim_n_338794.html "Pro-Coal Lobby Boss Claims Never To Have Opposed Climate Bill," Huffington Post, October 29, 2009.
- Zachary Roth, "Could Coal Lobby Chief Be Probed For Perjury?," TPMMuckraker, October 29, 2009.
- "FACES of Coal Plans to Highlight Industry’s Importance," WVNS-TV, August 20, 2009.
- Michelle Saxton, "Another pro-coal group enters the energy debate, Charleston Daily Mail, August 20, 2009.
- FACES of Coal, accessed August 2009.
- "FACES of Coal Campaign Launches in Charleston," FACES of Coal, August 19, 2009.
- Kate Sheppard, "Who are the faces behind FACES of Coal?," Grist, August 20, 2009.
- "FACES of Coal are iStockPhotos?!," Appalachian Voices Front Porch Blog, August 26, 2009.
- Alexandra Kougentakis, Brad Johnson What The Frack? Gas Industry’s Multimillion-Dollar Campaign Demonizes Hydraulic Fracturing Bill, Think Progress; The Wonk Room. June 12, 2009
- Barry Russell, Independent Petroleum Association of America President and CEO Hydraulic Fracturing Under Attack, memo/newsletter to IPAA members, June 5, 2009
- John Scruggs, Philip Morris Management Corp. The "Echo Chamber" Approach to Advocacy Memorandum. December 18, 1998. Bates No. 2078707451/7452
- Term: "astroturf", Center for Media and Democracy
- "United Church of Christ Stooge for the Baby Bells?" UCCTruths.com. Note: link to dated article not available. Yes, it is:  The Internet Archive is a good source for "missing" webpages.
- Monsanto: "Monsanto's Web of Deceit" posted by Norfolk Genetic Information Network, various dates.
- John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1995).
- Sharon Beder, Public Relations' Role in Manufacturing Artificial Grass Roots Coalitions, Public Relations Quarterly 43(2), Summer 98, pp. 21-3.
- Tim Craig, "Community Leaders Decry Lobby Firm's Fax," Baltimore Sun, March 9, 2002.
- George Monbiot, "The Fake Persuaders. Corporations are inventing people to rubbish their opponents on the internet," The Guardian (UK) (posted by Norfolk Genetic Information Network), May 14, 2002.
- "Gray Panther Ads Targeting WorldCom Funded by IDI," Corporate Crime Reporter, June 2, 2003.
- Christopher Stern, "WorldCom Opponents In Sync," Washington Post, June 19, 2003.
- "Bogus Sites & Startups: From Web Astroturf To Turf-toe," alarm:clock, February 9, 2005.
- "Lobbying: Astroturf reform dead?" SpinWatch, March 2, 2006.
- John Eggerton, "Groups Target 'Astroturf' Telecom Lobbies", Broadcasting & Cable, March 28, 2006.
- Claire St. John, ‘Astroturf’ legislation could work in Davis, too, Davis Enterprise, April 27, 2006.
- Dawn Holian, "Astroturf Sightings," Common Cause Blog, June 22, 2006.
- Public Relations Institute of Australia, "Where the grass is not greener: Astro-turfing not an import Australia wants to grow", PRIA News, July 19, 2006.
- Teresa Nielsen Hayden, "No intention of playing fair," Making Light Blog, August 1, 2006.
- Raven, "Global Warming Astroturf courtesy of Exxon," Buy Blue, August 3, 2006. re Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth
- Dawn Holian, "Wolves in Sheep's Clothing: Telecom Industry Front Groups and Astroturf" (Part 1) and (Part 2), Common Cause Blog, August 10, 2006.
- Dawn Holian, "New Astroturf," Common Cause Blog, August 25, 2006.
- R. Scott Raynovich, "Astroturf, Anyone?" Light Reading, August 29, 2006.
- Richard Roesler, " Eye on Olympia Blog/Spokesman Review, August 31, 2006.
- Brad Shannon, "Money pours into court races," The Olympian Online (WA), September 5, 2006.
- Press Release: "Rash of Negative Ads in Court Races. Bring 'New Politics of Judicial Elections' to Washington State," Brennan Center for Justice, September 8, 2006.
- Joel Connelly, "Attack ads on judges paid for by fake PACs," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 11, 2006.
- Esc and Ctrl part 1 
- Esc and Ctrl part 2 
- Esc and Ctrl part 3 
- Coal Industry Paid Astro-turfers to Influence EPA Hearing on Greenhouse Gases