The Spread Eagle Tavern & Inn is a bed-and-breakfast in Ohio, highly regarded for its cozy atmosphere and delicious food. Every day, the Spread Eagle’s inbox fills with emails from inquisitive travelers. The potential customers ask questions ranging from general to specific, basic to bizarre.
Last June, the Eagle received its strangest email yet. A San Francisco-based journalist named Lee Fang asked for an interview regarding the inn’s relationship with an advocacy group called Broadband for America.
Fang sought material for a piece on “net neutrality,” the idea that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should treat all content equally. Proposals to strike down net neutrality and allow some sites to pay ISPs more in exchange for faster speeds have ignited recent debate. Broadband for America lobbies in favor of creating these internet “fast lanes,” distributing persuasive content online and in print.
Fang’s email baffled the Spread Eagle’s staff. Not only was the inn unaware they supported the group — they had never even heard of them.
“I’m not aware of them and I pay all the bills,” wrote Keith Jackson, the Eagle’s accountant. “I’ve never heard of Broadband for America.”
Interview requests from Fang perplexed more recipients than just Jackson. A Texas organization representing rural hospitals, an environmental conservation group from Ohio and a small-town talk-radio host all expressed confusion at their supposed involvement in the net neutrality battle.
What kind of organization has members who are completely unaware of their cause?
On Broadband for America’s website, the campaign claims to represent a broad coalition of concerned citizens and citizen groups. Digging a bit deeper reveals the faction’s true nature.
Broadband for America is political “Astroturf”: an artificially manufactured grassroots movement. Rather than a coalition of concerned citizens rallying around a cause, Astroturf groups are bought and paid for by financial giants and political elites. These organizations pose as “people’s movements,” while actually representing the interests of a select few.
Broadband for America’s budget consists largely of a single, $2 million donation from the National Cable and Telecom Association. This trade group represents Comcast, Cox, Time Warner Cable and other major ISPs that would directly benefit from net neutrality’s defeat.
In order to disguise their lobby’s singular motive, organizations like Broadband for America collect a broad assortment of community groups and individuals to list as supporters.
Sometimes, Astroturf groups acquire these “members” by offering substantial donations in exchange for use of their name.
In other cases, they present their cause in a deceptive manner, duping citizens into pledging support. For example, the rural Texas hospital group told VICE News that they joined Broadband for America believing the group fought for greater internet access in underserved areas.
Telecom giants represent just one example of Astroturf clientele. The phony organizations operate in a wide variety of policy areas, and the strategy becomes increasingly viable as more and more voters turn to the internet to form their opinion.
Edward T. Walker, a professor of sociology at UCLA, studies corporations and their response to public policy threats. Walker defines Astroturfing as, “a fully formed industry, ready to mobilize ordinary Americans on behalf of corporate America.”
The professor describes an exploding market of “grassroots for hire” firms, specifically marketing their ability to orchestrate phony movements. One of the largest firms of this type, the Washington-based “DCI Group,” created Broadband for America.
Astroturfing can also be executed on an individual level. “Sock puppets” write or speak publicly in favor of certain policy decisions without disclosing a corporate or political sponsorship. Posing as an average citizen, the paid agent makes compelling arguments on internet forums, radio shows and “letter to the editor” sections of the newspaper.
Disguised as community movements and internet bloggers, Astroturf campaigns operate everywhere.
A “29-year-old from Beverly Hills” made a YouTube video in 2006, criticizing Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The parody went viral, garnering over 600,000 views. The Wall Street Journal later reported that the DCI group actually created the video at the request of oil and gas giant Exxon Mobil.
An organization called the “Association of American Physicians and Surgeons” (AAPS) has actively protested the Affordable Care Act since its original proposal. Claiming to represent, “private physicians around the nation,” the AAPS lobbied against indoor smoking bans and widely disseminated the view that abortion causes cancer before turning its attention to Obamacare. The AAPS represents mainstream doctors in name only and largely consists of ultra-conservative politicians.
Corporations and political groups have every right to seek out their supporters and help them mobilize toward a cause. But Astroturf campaigns actively deceive the public, using financial might to manipulate citizens through fraudulent campaigns.
As with most political trickery, these movements do not target informed voters. Like a viral video with painfully obvious product placement, a trained eye can spot a phony campaign fairly easily.
Astroturf’s true victims are those who lack the time, money and resources to become politically informed. These low-information voters get swept up by the rhetoric of a “people’s movement,” and duped into supporting causes that directly harm them.
Political and financial entities have a right to support their interests, but the deception of Astroturf tactics interfere with citizens’ abilities to make informed decisions.
True grassroots movements represent everything “romantic” about the democratic process. Concerned citizens rallying together to demand change is an intoxicating and empowering concept.
Astroturfing represents a sinister response to popular movements. The campaigns use voters against themselves, manipulating their earnest belief in the process to further cloud an already dense political landscape. Avoiding this treachery requires vigilance and skepticism.
Before pledging support to a cause, citizens should probe the movement’s supporters and origin. This additional effort will illuminate a phony campaign’s true nature. Astroturf cannot claim a voter who refuses to accept a movement without digging to its … ahem, “roots”.
Matthew Meyer regrets to report that “those” are not, in fact, real.