When the grass isn't real

How Astroturfing manipulates public opinion

There are many terms whose origin and meaning are immediately clear to us, even when we hear or read them for the first time. This is definitely not the case with Astroturfing. Does it have something to do with astronauts? Perhaps with astrology? Astrologers surfing the internet? Not at all! And yet the true meaning is so important that one should definitely know it ...

It didn't take long for the first critical voices to warn of deceptively genuine fakes that can suddenly be created quite easily with generative AI. Now a pope in a white rapper's jacket is just about socially acceptable. At least the danger potential of such fakes is not too high.

The situation is different when an elaborate fake is backed by a campaign that deliberately seeks to influence opinions in society in order to achieve a specific goal. This is a simplified explanation of the term Astroturfing.

But where does the term come from?

Historical derivation: Grassroots movement vs. Astroturfing

To fully understand astroturfing, another term must first be explained. Namely, this is a play on words with a historical background.

When an initiative comes from the grassroots to achieve political or social change, it is called a grassroots movement. The exact origin of the term is not fully understood. However, it appeared at the beginning of the 20th century in the environment of the then US presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt. His Progressive Party had split off from the Republican Party as a left wing before the 1912 presidential elections. Its aim was to "dissolve" the ruling "corrupt economy and politics" and to let politics start again from the grassroots of society.

AstroTurf, on the other hand, is a trademark entry in the US commercial register for an artificial turf from 1965. As an alternative to natural lawns, the artificial turf was primarily intended to reduce maintenance costs and also to "thrive" optimally in the mostly enclosed sports arenas in the USA.

Astroturfing now combines these two terms and is used for artificially produced grass root movements.

Current relevance of astroturfing

The digitalisation of communication through social media is both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, important information can be disseminated very well through the numerous channels. On the other hand, it has also increased the temptation to manipulate public opinion with artificial campaigns, astroturfing.

With relatively simple means, it is now possible to set up masses of fake profiles on various social media platforms and design them in such a way that they appear inconspicuous at first glance. Moreover, such profiles can be rented comparatively cheaply from dubious providers.

With the increasing spread of generative AI, the fake profiles can be used for astroturfing with little effort. AI tools generate matching posts that differ slightly in form but pursue the same goal in terms of content: They represent a certain opinion or attitude to suggest a corresponding social movement that does not exist in this form in reality.

  • Difference to "propaganda"

Propaganda is also an attempt to deliberately influence public opinion. In contrast to astroturfing, however, these campaigns are launched by state-affiliated media or directly by politicians. Examples are often found in totalitarian states where freedom of the press is suppressed.

Examples of Astroturfing

A classic among the artificial grassroots movements is certainly the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN). The non-profit organisation positioned itself as the "voice of science" and made headlines with the surprising realisation that overweight and obesity are not caused by sugary drinks and fast food, but by a lack of exercise. However, research by the New York Times revealed that GEBN was backed by a major soda manufacturer to the tune of 1.5 million US dollars. The subsequent denial was debunked by published internal emails. They showed that the soda giant had not only worked on GEBN's mission statement, but had also been instrumental in appointing its leadership staff. The organisation then ceased its work.

A little earlier, in 1995, the "Waste Watchers" held the Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND) responsible for the growing mountains of waste because the environmental protection organisation had spoken out against the construction of new waste incineration plants. Later it turned out that several founding members had direct connections to a packaging manufacturer. After a corresponding report in Der Spiegel, the Waste Watchers disappeared from the scene again.

The campaign "E-Fuels for Future", which was planned parallel to a week of action by the climate protection activists of "Fridays-for-Future", was intended to present synthetic fuels as a solution for climate protection. The non-profit association LobbyControl uncovered the campaign and researched an interest group for mineral oil companies as the initiator.

In 2010, large-scale astroturfing was uncovered in connection with the much-criticised "Stuttgart21" construction project. Here there was not just one website or organisation that supposedly positioned itself from below against the protest, but a multitude. The various activities can be read here: "Stuttgart 21: With PR agencies against demonstrators"

One of the first examples of digital astroturfing closes the circle to the origin of the term in an almost kitschy way. In 2002, a scientist was massively attacked in various forums because he claimed to have discovered genetically modified maize in Mexico. It turned out that the attacks essentially came from two people. These could be traced in various ways to the controversial biotechnology company Monsanto, which is said to be responsible for the genetically modified maize. Ironically, the artificial turf brand AstroTurf now also belongs to Monsanto.

Conclusion: Something always sticks

There is no question that the risk of a massive loss of reputation is very high when astroturfing is exposed. But it is also clear that some of the manipulated opinion will stick in society because not all people trust the educational work of the media. Considering how easy digital astroturfing is today, the next campaigns seem to be only a matter of time.

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