Astroturf is a term used to describe organizations or movements that are created or funded by large corporations, rich benefactors, or professional full-time activists. Astroturf movements have been deceitfully managed so they appear to be "grassroots" movements formed by regular folks. It is named for a brand of artificial grass used in sports arenas and elsewhere (pioneered at the Astrodome - get it?).

For example, a slick glossy publication called The New Hampshire Smoker tried to present itself as the journal of a grassroots group formed to "protect smoker's rights". However, in the fine print it said "Published by Philip-Morris" -- a major cigarette manufacturer. The tobacco industry was notorious for its astroturf groups. In political contexts, use of the word "Citizens" in a group's name usually but not always implies astroturfing.

In the real world, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between hard-core "astroturf" and genuine "grassroots" organisations, since interested commercial entities will often provide some funding to groups that were formed by real people. It is theoretically possible for a determined group of individuals to take over and wrest control away from a corporate sponsor and turn astroturf into the real thing. Still the odds are strongly against this, since Money is the backbone of modern political activism. It's also possible, and much easier, for a genuine grassroots organisation to be co-opted by a corporate sponsor and turned into astroturf.

Examples of Astroturfing on the InternetEdit

All of the examples in this section meet the following criteria:

  • It's unclear who is behind it and/or the relationship between the site and the company is not disclosed[1]
  • Obvious bias towards a product/company/organisation (reads like a puff piece)
  • Amateurish feel[2]

Astroturfing and other forms of PREdit

Astroturf shares a number of similarities with other tools and tactics used in public relations, and while there is definitely a large degree of overlap among them, they should not be confused.

Astroturfing vs. Front GroupsEdit

The difference between a front group and astroturfing are subtle. A company offering an unsafe or morally objectionable product would go to a PR firm like Berman and Company to help them. If the company released excessive amounts of carcinogens into the air, they would create a website called "Americans for Cleaner Air" or "Citizens Against Excessive Regulations". They would then set up a Web site with half truths, cherry-picked facts, and out-and-out lies to confuse people. This would be a front group. A grassroots campaign would be made to feel more personal. Capitalizing on people's frustrations as corporations raised prices and lowered wages, greedy billionaires decided this would be a good way to advance their personal agendas. In spite of taxes being at their lowest level in over 60 years, they convinced naïve rubes that the Democrats had in fact raised taxes. They then started "The Tea Party". Ordinary people who flocked to Tea Party events were unaware of the financial origins of the movement.

Astroturfing vs. ShillsEdit

Shills tend to be paid agents of some industry, well-established pressure group, or other entity who spread false, skewed, or whitewashed information on behalf of the entity or entities sponsoring them. Some are "experts for hire" who make a living offering dubious information as witnesses in legal proceedings. While many shills certainly engage in astroturfing to further their agendas, the astroturf itself generally relies on recruiting and organizing large numbers of unpaid volunteer participants to give the impression of a grassroots movement, at least in the non-virtual world. On the internet, it's much easier to run an astroturf campaign with only one person or a handful of people. Astroturfing on the Internet is made easier because anonymity is helpful (or, as is more often the case, pseudonymity) and the force-multiplying effects of large-scale digital social media and mass amateurization. Either way, it's much cheaper to drum up support from a horde of ordinary people or gullible netizens than it is to hire an entire army of shills.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit


  1. There may be a number of links or references to the company being hawked, but there's no obvious link to state that the page was created by (or for) the company in question. References to the company or more commonly delivered in the style of "Wow, our friends at ...[What Ever Company]... have a treat in store for you!". We understand naturally that actors in adverts are being paid to enjoy the product they're selling, but these websites are designed to blur the line. Infomercials have been doing the same for a long time, but they are required to clearly identify themselves as being adverts.
  2. This is somewhat vague, but astroturf websites will typically try to mimic the ways in which normal people would communicate, or create an informal style of communicating. This to give the impression that the content was created by fans of the product - not corporate shills!

Adapted from RationalWiki

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