How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
Astroturfing is the practice of faking the appearance of local, grass-roots activity.
This is easily done with social media where a number of false identities ('sockpuppets') can be set up and posts and 'conversations' created. Other evidence can be created such as leaflets and posters. Even actual events may be staged using actors and volunteers, or even inviting members of the public along under false pretenses, although keeping the falsehood secret can become increasingly expensive.
The traditional press can be very useful. Always looking for stories, they can be fed news reports and images (although investigative journalists will need to be handled with care).
An indirect way of astroturfing is to simply finance others who are engaged in the area in question, enabling them to build the grassroots organization while you stand at a suitable distance and pull the strings. Wherever people appear to be acting independently but are funded from elsewhere, astroturfing may well be happening. This includes 'independent' scientific research that supports a particular view, and positive reviews of places and products.
The most successful astroturfing eventually creates the opinion that it initially fakes as people accept the promoted views and join in or even set up their own groups.
Astroturfing can be used in various ways, for example to make it appear that:
A politician speaks of widespread opposition to a water treatment plant and encourages local groups to picket it, which they do. The politician gets the press to visit this and report on the situation. An activist group helps the news by staging a scuffle with the police who have also been called in. Before long, water treatment becomes a live political issue in which the politician is seen as a strong champion of the people.
A mother, concerned about road safety outside school, organises a small group of other mothers to complain about this. Her energy gets all kinds of things done, from petitions to local news coverage. Other mothers, seeing this as a significant movement, join in.
A PR company pays individuals to write good reviews online about their client's products and to criticize those of competitor companies.
Astroturfing can found in political campaigns where candidates or their zealous supporters are trying to kick-start a groundswell of opinion about a topic a politician believes will give personal leverage. It can also be used by companies, religions and genuine activists who are trying to make an issue appear bigger than it actually is or that something is popular when there is no real interest in it.
Anyone who selects items for publication can be accused of astroturfing, incoming news editors and movie producers. Even if the effects of bias are unconscious, the effect of people being persuaded by false assumption of popularity may still happen.
Astroturfing is illegal in many countries in specific areas such as politics and business. This is one reason why much of the real work of astroturfing may be done overseas (as well as the lower costs involved). There are many individuals who are happy to earn money by creating falsehood. They do not see themselves as criminals, merely serving their client. In fact there are entire industries that exists to make things look better, worse or more widely perceived.
As with any such activity, astroturfing needs energy, creativity and secrecy. It may also be expensive and always runs the risk of being exposed and causing serious embarrassment, damage and loss of trust.
A way of mitigating the risk of exposure is to really set up a concerned group and then create the illusion of widespread support. People generally prefer to join something that already seems to have momentum rather than a small group than may fail.
The word "astroturfing" was first used in 1985 by Senator Lloyd Bentsen when he described the huge amount of insurance-related mail he was getting as, "a fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grass roots and AstroTurf... this is generated mail".