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Grassroots or Astroturfing

By Niels Lameijer on May 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM in General, Sustainable Alliances and Leadership



In many political campaign and conservation movements people are talking about  creating a "Grassroots"-movement. What is a grassroots movement actually? Wikipedia describes a grassroots movement as:

"A grassroots movement (often referenced in the context of a political movement) is one driven by the politics of a community. The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it are natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures. Grassroots movements are often at the local level, as many volunteers in the community give their time to support the local party, which can lead to helping the national party. For instance, a grassroots movement can lead to significant voter registration for a political party, which in turn helps the state and national parties."

Looking at the current political campaigns being run in my home town regarding a slant oil and gas drilling project (see also my blog on Measure J) there has definitely a grassroots movement been created. If you look at the "No on Measure J" and the "Yes on Measure J" campaigns one distinct difference immediately jumps out: the involvement of the local community. Even thought Venoco Inc. (the oil company in question, who wrote the ballot initiative) originally called their Oil and Gas initiative the "Carpinteria Community Initiative," the No-voters actively involved in their campaign enormously outnumber the involved yes-voters.

Funded by the oil company, the “Yes”-campaign is being headed up by consultants specialized in creating grassroots experiences. There is something in-authentic about this however. Even though the Yes-campaign will tell you they are 100% grassroots, they hire “volunteers” to protest and attend meetings, they pre-write letters to local media and have them sign by locals, and the number of volunteers involved in precinct walking, event organizing etc, are much, much lower. It sure looks like, Venoco Inc. tries to make it seem like "Yes on Measure J" is a "Grassroots" campaign.

There is actually a name for this "make it seem like a grassroots movement": it's called Astro-Turfing. Wikipedia describes "Astro-Turfing" as:  

"To disguise the efforts of a political or commercial entity as an independent public reaction to some political entity—a politician, political group, product, service or event. Astroturfers attempt to orchestrate the actions of apparently diverse and geographically distributed individuals, by both overt ("outreach", "awareness", etc.) and covert (disinformation) means. Astroturfing may be undertaken by an individual promoting a personal agenda, or highly organized professional groups with money from large corporations, unions, non-profits, or activist organizations. Very often, the efforts are conducted by political consultants who also specialize in opposition research. Beneficiaries are not "grass root" campaigners but distant organizations that orchestrate such campaigns."

In the end the outcome of the elections will tell us which campaign was most supported by the community. However, walking around in town and observing the activities from both sides it is easy to tell what the real grassroots campaign is, and how powerful it can be. People really come together and it creates a strong sense of community among supporters of the same side. I do hope that people continue to be open and tolerant toward people who have a different point of view. Also after the election we will still all be neighbors!