What’s less romantic than a grassroots movement? An AstroTurf one.
AstroTurf is synthetic grass. And like its namesake, astroturfing is when sponsors of a message make it appear as though the message originates from and is supported by grassroots participants.
Astroturfing is usually a strategy for-profit companies use to lobby the government. For example, the Internal Revenue Service has tried to simplify tax filing to improve the lives of millions of Americans and reduce their dependency on proprietary software like TurboTax. Intuit (the company that makes TurboTax software) enlisted members of minority groups and local community organizations to write letters and op-eds opposing this obscure proposal. The people who wrote had no idea that industry groups were behind the requests.
Edward Walker, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, explores the concept in greater detail in his book, Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy.
There are laws against astroturfing. The laws are established by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an independent agency of the US government to protect consumers.
Sadly, there is no equivalent of the FTC for the constituents (“beneficiaries”) of philanthropy.
As a consequence, big foundations (just like big corporations) can astroturf —pretend to create a groundswell of popular support for their initiatives— by just paying for it.
And pay they can. There are 86 private grant-making foundations with assets over $1 billion. This doesn’t include the increasing number of philanthropic organizations that are registering as limited liability corporations.
Take, for example, a foundation astroturfing for teacher effectiveness reforms. In her piece, Plutocrats at Work: How Big Philanthropy Undermines Democracy, Joanne Barkan explains how a foundation paid $3.5 million for the creation of a nonprofit organization that would help it astroturf or drum-up seemingly “grassroots” support.
Barkan writes that,
“Well-financed astroturfing suffocates authentic grassroots activity by defining an issue and occupying the space for organizing. In addition, when astroturfers confront grassroots opposition, the astroturfers have an overwhelming advantage because of their resources.”
Feedback—and specifically closing the feedback loop— is a mechanism to incorporate constituents’ voices into the decisions that affect their lives. It carries much of the same intentions of grassroots movements.
So it’s important to consider: as feedback becomes a bigger part of aid and philanthropic agendas, how do we preserve its integrity?
How do we prevent feedback from being astroturfed?
One way is with government oversight of aid agencies and foundations, like with the FTC’s regulation of private companies.
There’s slightly similar oversight for US federal agencies: a federal agency can promote its own policies but by law, it cannot engage in propaganda, which entails covert activity intended to influence the American public.
Recently, the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) broke this law by using social media to encourage grassroots lobbying—urging the public to contact Congress to support the EPA’s Clean Water Rule. In its use of certain social media, the EPA did not clearly identify its sponsorship of particular messages.
What if a foundation did what the EPA did? If it used propaganda to get its constituents to show a “grassroots” type support for its initiatives? Would this be considered a kind of astroturfing?
The reality is that philanthropy is lacking this level of government oversight. There is no FTC (as in the case of Intuit) or Government Accountability Office (as in the case of the EPA). Even aid agencies don’t have this regulation in place.
Lacking a stick, is there a carrot we can use to get aid and philanthropy to preserve and value the authenticity of voices?