The first of a new series exposing tactics oil companies, climate deniers and media entities use to deflect, dissuade and confuse climate change activism.
Much like its namesake — artificial grass — astroturfing is the process of creating fake “grassroots” organisations. The idea behind these faux ground-up groups is to present opinions as external to the big-business agenda that they tend to originate from, attempting to persuade the public that these views are credible.
The difference between astroturfing and real grassroots lobbying is where the money comes from. Those engaging with astroturfing will often have sponsors from vastly wealthy companies, with this association conveniently being hidden when research is published.
Astroturfing and climate change
As a subject that contains within it the competing interests of the fossil fuel industry on the one hand, and the future of the planet on the other, it should be no surprise that the former is willing to pile substantial amounts of money into remaining a dominant force. But how bad is the situation?
In 2014, a leaked presentation from Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the President of the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), revealed that the non-profit trade association — whose members include Shell, BP and ExxonMobil, to name but a few — was orchestrating a large-scale astroturfing campaign in an attempt to prevent the passing of climate-conscious legislation. Innocuous-sounding groups like the Washington Consumers for Sound Fuel Policy (WCSFP) were formed and given huge financial backing with the aim of shaping opinions into whatever the WSPA pleased.
The sad truth is examples like the above are only the tip of the iceberg, and while companies such as Shell and BP have started to reign in their high-profile lobbying, they have refused to disclose a full list of trade organisations they are part of. Without knowing the true extent of funded anti-environmental lobbying that takes place, the best we can hope for in situations like this is that astroturfing doesn’t work as an opinion-driving force. This leads me to my next question — has astroturfing proven successful?
Does astroturfing work
In short, yes — astroturfing does work. Research in the Journal of Business Ethics has shown that people who view websites employing astroturfing tactics become more uncertain about what causes global warming and how responsible humans are for climate change.
Not only do these tactics confuse the public, but they also lead to reduced support for real grassroots organisations. The same research suggested that the existence of astroturfing is likely to lead to a lack of funding for real lobbying groups on the ground. Once again it appears that those with the most money shout the loudest.
It has previously been proposed that the reason astroturfing is so successful is because it plays on our inner desire to conform, to be part of the crowd. If we see a group of people with shared opinions, we might be more inclined to agree with them. While that seems like fairly normal behaviour, when that group of people is actually a PR firm funded by an oil company this is pure public deception.
And the issues are only getting worse. As the digital sphere becomes ever more ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives, more opportunities are presented for companies to engage in astroturfing. Social media offers a particularly invasive and effective method of advertising and information dissemination. Not only can companies target advertisements to those they know are predisposed to certain views, but they can create colossal armies of bots to push their agenda.
So, in a world where astroturfing threatens to blur the lines between truth and lies, is there a way to cut through the falsehoods, or at least know where the information you’re reading is coming from?
How to spot astroturfing
What will likely become a theme in this series is that you cannot trust everything you read — especially on the internet. But this is far too simple an answer.
To spot astroturfing, the key area you’re looking at is where the information is coming from, or more importantly who is providing financial backing for the dissemination of said info. Following the money tells you who wants you to engage with the information, which should be a telltale sign of whether they have an agenda.
While some laws and regulations exist trying to prevent astroturfing — in the UK, we have the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations — these only really stop companies pretending to be consumers.
In situations where it is unclear how reputable the information is, look for other sources. Finding multiple reputable resources sharing the same opinions should alleviate any worries that you are being deceived.
Despite this, don’t be fooled by a crowd — however big it may seem. Multiple sources do not equate to multiple reputable sources. Checking the medium is often a good start. If information comes from an online publication, check its other resources. Make sure it’s easy to find authors of content and double-check that they actually exist.
If the medium is a social media platform, it may be best to take information with a pinch of salt. With AI becoming a tool for botting and ultimately deception, it can be almost embarrassing how tricky it is to tell a real person from a computer, but if you don’t know where the information is coming from, you’re often better off ignoring it.
And finally, why has this information been disseminated? If there is a clear motive, for example an article on an oil company website severely underestimating human involvement in global warming, this has obviously been written with a corporate agenda in mind. While real world disinformation won’t always be so clear cut, this is a regular occurrence just with a tonne of money changing hands, a marketing firm, and a few extra steps in between.
Can you stop astroturfing from happening?
Sadly, due to the confusing nature of dissemination under these circumstances, it can prove quite hard to stop. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t dampen its dangerous effects.
A start is to support real grassroots organisations. You’ll often find these searching for funding publicly and they’ll often be made up of large amounts of volunteers. Examples include the Goodwin Development Trust in Hull that offers affordable, environmentally friendly family homes, or Friends of the Earth that unites grassroots initiatives across the UK.. When you see genuine, legitimate, grassroots lobbying groups like these pushing for the change, support them where you can.
To truly stop astroturfing, the incentive for it as a deceptive tool must disappear. The only way to do this is to stop the information from having its desired effects — to take hold of the individual that engages with it.
While this article is a good start, this is something that must take place on an individual, epistemic level — you hold the power to stop them from getting away with it — just make sure the grass that’s greener isn’t artificial.