The art of the artificial
Some things in life just aren't what they seem. This is particularly so in the case of astroturfing. Here are some nefarious examples of the art of astroturfing.
Some things in life just aren’t what they seem. This is particularly so in the case of astroturfing.
The little-known term refers to a cunning trend in the highly enterprising world of lobbying. It describes a nefarious practice whereby special interest groups cast themselves as sincere and worthy grassroots organizations in order to achieve entirely self-interested goals.
Astroturfing was born as a verb after being used in 1986 by US Democratic Senator from Texas Lloyd Bentsen, himself a Washington insider. Astroturf, of course, refers to the somewhat tacky artificial grass product used in sports stadiums. “The grassroots,” Bentsen scoffed at the time, referring to fake lobby groups, “is Astroturf in many cases–artificial turf.”
Astroturfing reflects a violation of the Code of Ethics of the Canadian Public Relations Society, according to Sara K. Jones, speaking for the group last December. The Public Relations Society of America also gives a thumbs-down to astroturfing.
That said, the record strongly suggests that North American public relations practitioners have not all been entirely pure.
The End Justifies the Means
The reason few care to be associated with this practice is because it’s adirty business.
Astroturfers seek to mislead public opinion by being less than honest about their true motivations. They deploy mass mailings, phone banks, and computer databases. They mobilize people to write lettersto the editor, place advertisements, lobby governments, and, occasionally, launch lawsuits.
A garden-variety example of the practice occurred in Canada back in 1998 when BC politician Paul Reitsma wrote letters to newspapers under the false name of Warren Betanko. The letters praised himself and lambasted his political opponents. The jig was up when an editor consulted a handwriting expert and outed “Betanko.” Reitsma was expelled from the Liberal caucus; his political career was over.
But such artifice often goes undiscovered and citizens get hoodwinked. The Reitsma case, when boiled down, reflected small potatoes. Astroturfing becomes far more dangerous when big-money special interests, be they corporate or political, set out to manipulate public opinion–in which case a lot more is at stake than just one individual’s reputation.
It is often the more controversial enterprises in society that seek to gain influence through astroturfing: producers of tobacco, alcohol, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals, as well as oil companies.
Environmental Friend or Kyoto Foe?
An example of just this sort of astroturfer is a group calling itself the Friends of Science.
The name would suggest a coterie of environmental activists, tree huggers who embrace the scientific consensus reached in support of the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Think again.
On its website, Friends of Science states its goal is to “encourage and assist the Canadian federal government to re-evaluate the Kyoto Protocol by engaging in a national public debate on the scientific merit of Kyoto and the Global Warming issue.” The group castigates “warmists,” and insists the sun, not human activity, is behind climate change. In its six years of operation the organization has produced dozens of papers on climate change and sponsored speakers who do active astroturfing before business breakfast and luncheon groups.
Friends of Science, based in a city that serves as the headquarters for Canada’s petroleum set, includes in its ranks geologists and engineers who have worked in the oil industry.
The surest way to determinewhat a group is about is to scrutinize its funding sources: no simple task for those curious about the Friends of Science.
Its website describes an “extremely limited” budget. An undisclosed portion of funds reportedly derives from the Calgary Foundation, which transfers grant money to the University of Calgary. From there it’s directed toa special science fund managed by Friends member Barry Cooper, a right-leaning political scientist at the university. The arrangement helps keep things anonymous.
When pressed in a 2006 newspaper interview about where donations originate, Cooper admitted: “There were some oil companies.” Group founder Albert Jacobs, himself a retired oil exploration manager, was quoted in 2007 as saying, “Some of the smaller oil and gas companies have occasionally contributed.”
Friends of Science briefly had company in its efforts to rain on the Kyoto Protocol parade.
Irresponsible Lobbying for Environmental Responsibility
In September 2002 a group callingitself the Canadian Coalition for Responsible Environmental Solutions (CCRES) launched its operations with the help of Canada’s largest PR company, National Public Relations. Some 25 Canadian business and industry associations came together as the CCRES, launching a pitch for a “made-in-Canada solution” for the country’s environmental challenges.
It lobbied for a plan that would “allow Canada to stand proud among nations as a leader on the environment while ensuring our future prosperity.” Not only did the made-in-Canada tag have homegrown appeal, but the group’s name lent an air of credibility.
The folks behind the group promptly sponsored a $225,000-a-week TV advertisement in which the notion was put forward that “we deserve a Canadian approach that… reduces emissions without costing jobs, damaging our economy or our standard of living. Ask your MP to stop the rush to ratify.”
The goal was to have it look as though the CCRES had grassroots support. If that could be achieved, the government would then have cover for adopting a less vigorous environmental approach, an outcome that would have served the interests of those backing the coalition.
Among those behind the CCRES were mining and automobile interests, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
While the CCRES was upfront in disclosing who its principals were, members of the public watching a fleeting television or radio ad obviously would be left to believe this particular group had the country’s–and its citizens?best interests at heart.
In the end, the Liberal government of Jean Chretien opted to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The coalition folded its tent within months. As a result of its efforts, however, the made-in-Canada tag came to be used frequently by the subsequent Conservative government of Stephen Harper, which initially was less than enthusiastic about implementing climate change policy.
Unlike the CCRES, a US lobby opposed to Kyoto-type initiatives is still going strong.
Enterprising Pitch for Corporate Freedom
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, since its establishment in 1984, has received funding from the Ford Motor Company Fund, Philip Morris, Texaco Foundation, Coca-Cola Company, Pfizer, ExxonMobil, and other corporations. The $3-million-a-year outfit believes free markets do a better job than government in protecting the environment. Predictably, it pushes for less government red tape and regulation.
It is to be expected that free market types would not appreciate the inevitable strictures on economic activity that might flow from any effort to combat climate change. The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s website features numerous links to the Cooler Heads Coalition, a group believing “the risks of global warming are speculative; the risks of global warming policies are all too real.”
Based in Washington, DC, the Competitive Enterprise Institute works to protect Corporate America under the guise of championing the rights of ordinary individuals: “We believe that individuals are best helped not by government intervention but by making their own choices in a free marketplace.”
Based on its funding sources, it’s fair to assume that the Competitive Enterprise Institute is working first and foremost on behalf of the cold cash interests ofthe corporations backing it. Make no mistake; this crew toils on behalf of consumers only when consumer interests happen to coincide with those of the corporate sector.
In addition to opposing policies aimed at fighting global warming, the institute lobbies against alcohol restrictions, policies that would force auto manufacturers to engineer cars with greater gas mileage, and what the institute would consider drug over-regulation. It points to delayed availability of pharmaceuticals resulting from US Food and Drug Administration rules. It warns downsizing cars to meet fuel economy standards could lead to less-safe vehicles.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute boasts of having “a full service approach,” fighting for its interests through policy papers, lawsuits, media publicity, paid advertising, and appearances before government committees.
Another clutch of lobbyists with similar goals is assembled under a separate canopy–the Center for Consumer Freedom, also in Washington, DC.
Safeguarding the Freedom to Mislead
These astroturfers came together in 1995 with a $600,000 grant from the Philip Morris tobacco company, which has continued to generously support the group as its financing has broadened.
Their website declares the organization is “promoting personal responsibility and protecting consumer choice. Defending enjoyment is what we’re all about!” Now, who wouldn’t enthusiastically support a group fighting for personal enjoyment, especially one with a moniker as positive sounding as the Center for Consumer Freedom?
But this group is doing battle solely on behalf of its financial backers–restaurants, hotels, casinos, and other establishments serving food and drink. More appropriately, the group shouldbe calling itself the Center for Hospitality Industry Freedom. It works for freedom from regulation for those involved in restaurant, bar, casino, and hospitality businesses.
Only those taking the trouble to examine the group’s $3.6-million-donor list would get an accurate picture of its true motivations. Among the supporters: Wendy’s, Coca-Cola, beer company Anheuser-Busch, Overhill Farms frozen food, Philip Morris tobacco, Standard Meat Company, Cargill (processed meat products), and cigar producer Davidoff.
Interestingly, PepsiCo and Kraft Foods have refused to donate, saying they oppose the group’s advocacy.
In pursuit of its goals, the centre opposes environmentalists, animal rights activists, and anti-drinking organizations. Its aim is to fight the “growing cabal of food cops, health care enforcers, militant activists, meddling bureaucrats, and violent radicals who think they know what’s best for you.” Others would argue that it is this same “cabal” that is working to ensure that the food and drink peddled in public establishments is safe.
Never mind. Any who dare criticize tobacco, alcohol, fatty foods, or sodapop are characterized as extremists bythe Center.
In a series of attack-style websites, the Center targets a “nanny culture” fostered by the likes of the Humane Society of the US, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. It even has its claws out for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The Center also has done battle with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for what it says was a 2004 exaggeration in the estimate of Americans who die each year as a result of obesity.
“Americans have been force-fed a diet of bloated statistics hyping the problem of obesity. These statistics have been used by Big Brother government bureaucrats and greedy trial lawyers to justify a host of noxious solutions, such as extra taxes on certain foods and lawsuits against anyone who grows, makes, or serves food.”
They also characterize concern expressed about contaminants such as mercury in fish and seafood consumed by Americans as so much bunkum.
The lobby released a report in 2006 on a Washington, DC-area study it carried out to determine mercury levels in 142 samples of albacore and ahi tuna, swordfish, salmon, Chilean sea bass, and rockfish. It reported having worked with an independent lab and said it discovered “fish sampled for this study is safe to eat.” Declares the Center’s website: “Fish is still good for you. But swallowing mercury hype may indeed be hazardous to your health.” What should be of concern, they assert, is that millions of women are denying their unborn children the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids because of their fear of fish.
For all the creative confusion sewn by astroturfing lobby groups, the public may owe them a debt of gratitude. These enterprises, after all, serve to remind us that it is dangerous to take anything at face value. In a world of competing interests, citizens have an obligation to look beyond the obvious when confronted with splashy and seductive marketing campaigns.
Self-interest is a powerful force in society–and everyone out there, from Paul Reitsma to National Public Relations to the Exxon Mobil Corporation, has something to peddle. Buyer, beware. Citizens, be skeptical.