Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

But Is It REAL Astroturf?

August 8th, 2009 · 10 Comments

I’m trying to figure out what to make of claims that angry folks showing up at townhall-style events on health care reform are mere “astroturf” activists. If it’s true, it seems like it must be some spectacularly bad astroturfing: My experience is that when seasoned political professionals are really in charge of stage-managing an event, it tends to look rather more… well… professional.  Which is to say, more printed signs than crudely hand-lettered ones riddled with misspelled and vaguely embarrassing slogans, and polished talking points rather than crazed ramblings that make ordinary people think your side is a bit unhinged.  Manifestly, there are groups like FreedomWorks trying to catalyze or corral opposition to Obama’s policies, but it hardly sounds as though they’re in control—at most, it seems like they’re providing focal points for the kind of genuine, strong sentiment you can’t fake… and that I’d think few political operatives would want to fake.

That said, I think the sharp line between “grassroots” and “astroturf” will probably make less and less sense in the emerging media environment. The Platonic form of a grassroots campaign is, say, a bunch of ordinary parents in Peoria, largely unconnected with and certainly undirected by any larger political entity, banding together to agitate for some change or other. And the Platonic form of astroturf is when Peoria Parents for a Brighter Future turns out to be three bachelors  in a K Street office with some letterhead and a fat check from McDonalds or something. But the lines between local and national politics are much blurrier when all the organizing and reporting are taking place online. Candidates for local office routinely try to identify opponents with a hated national figure—both as a convenient shorthand for voters and as a way of attracting a national donor base. (You remember these ads, right? “Stick it to Bush, help send Shlobotnik to the House!”)  And of course, local activism makes for good visuals outside the community where it occurs.  But this kind of exposure actually makes it a lot harder to run that kind of conventional astroturf campaign where an activist group is a pure front or sham. If PPfaBF is just a couple of dudes on K Street, it becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly—where’s the web activity? Where’s the Twitter trail? Think of what it took to effectively fake a concerned citizens group circa 1988 versus, say, what it would take to fake the current birther movement.

Any “astroturf” campaign on the modern media landscape is going to require actually ginning up some broad-based activism if it’s going to be effective. And any genuinely spontaneous, bottom-up action that seems even moderately interesting and resonant with national issues is going to find a whole lot of political professionals eager to promote, guide, replicate, or co-opt it.  Sure, you can still talk about more or less manufactured movements, but the lines seem a lot blurrier to me.  If a few locals decide maybe there should be a rally in the town square, and a high-profile blogger or Twitter user picks it up and promotes it, is that astroturf? What if it’s the big-name activist who has the idea, and the locals decide to pick it up and run with it? In cases like this, the differences just don’t seem nearly as profound anymore.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Sociology



10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pudentilla // Aug 9, 2009 at 7:23 am

    “at most, it seems like they’re providing focal points for the kind of genuine, strong sentiment you can’t fake… and that I’d think few political operatives would want to fake.”

    But if the “focal points” are outright lies by Republican party leaders (Palin’s death panels for example) designed to foster fear and confusion at the grass roots level, aren’t the efforts of Dick Armey (former Republican congressman and current lobbiest for corporate interests) more disturbing than your analysis would seem to allow.

    For example, if Palin and Armey were urging Republican party faithful to beware the horror of insurance for pre-existing conditions, you’re analysis would make sense. But they’re not. They’re telling the party faithful that insurance coverage for discussion of a living will with your doctor is the same as government compelled euthanasia.

    In other words, the “genuine, strong sentiment ” you applauds is authored by deceit. That’s the stuff mobs are made of. IOKIYAR, I suppose.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Aug 9, 2009 at 9:18 am

    I think I underweight that stuff because I can’t quite believe anyone believes it, but fair point.

  • 3 JustinOpinion // Aug 9, 2009 at 11:04 am

    It seems to me that the difference between “grassroots” and “astroturf” (nowadays, at least) isn’t based on an amateur/professional divide or a local/national divide, but rather an honesty/conniving divide.

    Though “grassroots” surely implies “from the ground up” (small, unorganized, local, amateur, etc.), it has always allowed for growth and formalization. What makes something distinctly “astroturf” is fabrication, misreporting, and outright lying. There’s nothing wrong with being big and organized. But it is wrong to pretend to be a small unorganized underdog when in reality you have letterhead and get fat checks from some sponsor for lying.

    Using this definition, a relatively sharp line is still possible: misrepresentations are astroturf. Honest promotion isn’t. (At which point it hardly matters whether it’s “grassroots” or has become “a movement.”)

  • 4 Pudentilla // Aug 9, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    ” I can’t quite believe anyone believes it”

    Gingrich defends Palin’s ‘death panel’

    People do believe this stuff (which is absurd on its face) because the national leaders of the conservative movement and the Republican party say this stuff for the purpose of making people believe it or giving people an authority to cite when they say it, regardless of what they believe. And the national media provides a forum for them to do it, thus legitimating the patently absurd as one pole in the political discourse. Legitimate political debate is thus rendered impossible because of the deliberate tactics of those that call themselves Republicans and conservatives. America is a country where the rich manipulate the passions of the foolish in order to obstruct the good.

    I do not suggest Palin or Gingrich believe what they say. I do suggest they are moral cretins who will happily destroy republican democracy in order to preserve the economic privileges of the corporate elite. And though, like Diogenes, I read many conservative and libertarian and Republican blogs and though I watch the news and read the papers, hoping to find such tactics condemned by elected leaders, party notables and the media commentariat, with the exception of Frum and occasionally Brooks, I read and watch in vain.

    You should consider how your analysis of the question would change if you discovered that members of the “base” in fact believe this stuff, or whether belief in this stuff has ceased to be relevant (i.e., what is relevant is forcing opponents to debate against an absurd point – cf., evolution, global climate change, etc.)

  • 5 Steve // Aug 10, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    I think Julian is right that the categories are muddied in this instance. But the upshot is what sort of strategic dilemma it poses for liberals/reform supporters. It’s important to note that astroturf is not simply a thing created by activist and special interests —it’s an allegation made by their opponents that attempts to create a connection between ordinary citizens and private or hidden interests. So the question of ‘is it really astroturf or ‘do people believe actually believe this stuff’ is to some extent irrelevant; more important is what sort of effect that allegation will have for different audiences.

    In this situation, the astroturfing charge is probably not the strongest response that liberals/reform supporters could make. It’s not likely to resonate with a broad swath of the public. And if reformers cast town-hallers as pawns of the healthcare-industrial complex, it might even legitimize them among legislators who think their job is to cut deals with insurers. Probably more persuasive to say that town-hall loudmouths are, well, loudmouths who generally don’t know what they’re talking about, don’t have serious criticisms or a substantive set of demands. My sense is that reform supporters have abandoned the first response and are getting more mileage from this latter route.

    More broadly, though, I’m not convinced that the difference between astroturf and grassroots mvmts is evaporating. Certainly, organizational strategies are changing relative to technology—Bill McKibben’s efforts around climate change being notable examples. But being organized, whether by an activist, a blogger, or other prominent public figure, does not equal astroturf. As long as you have a public that accepts a distinction between private and public interests, the charge of astroturfing is a resource that is always available for attempting to skewer the credibility of your opponents.

  • 6 Ryan Sager - Neuroworld – The Brilliance of Astroturfing - True/Slant // Aug 12, 2009 at 11:10 am

    […] as to whether the protests constitute “astroturf.” Julian Sanchez had an excellent post recently explaining why that term is essentially meaningless in the current media landscape: Any […]

  • 7 Turf Wars | Austro-Athenian Empire // Aug 13, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    […] represent genuine grassroots activism or mere “astroturf” coordinated from above, Julian Sanchez has an eminently sensible comment (CHT Jesse Walker): Any “astroturf” campaign on the […]

  • 8 newsrackblog.com » Blog Archive » Grasstroturf, hopeandchange, and Inglewood, CA // Aug 15, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    […] delicious But Is It REAL Astroturf? (Julian Sanchez)"The Platonic form of a grassroots campaign is, say, a bunch of ordinary parents in Peoria, […]

  • 9 Medical Mosh Pits - Reason Magazine // Apr 21, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    […] broad-based activism if it's going to be effective," my former colleague Julian Sanchez recently wrote. "And any genuinely spontaneous, bottom-up action that seems even moderately interesting and […]

  • 10 Club Troppo » Going Astro: Astroturfing and the blogosphere // Nov 13, 2011 at 7:53 am

    […] Julian Sanchez argues that the distinction between grassroots and astroturf is breaking down. Top-down campaigns try to inspire broad-based activism. They attempt to find, motivate and resource people who are already sympathetic to the cause. "And any genuinely spontaneous, bottom-up action that seems even moderately interesting and resonant with national issues is going to find a whole lot of political professionals eager to promote, guide, replicate, or co-opt it." […]