Is Astroturfing wrong in an apathetic democracy?

July 18, 2006 — 1 Comment

I’ve been reading with some interest the rise of a new anti-astroturfing campaign speerheaded by Australia’s own Trevor Cook (more here and here), but as much as I share Trevor’s, and others concerns that the act of astroturfing (if you don’t know what astroturfing is, read here) is immoral, and most likely unethical, I’m still not convinced that in all circumstances that it necessarily wrong.

But first, both a big disclosure and admission: yes, I have facilitated and been part of astroturfing campaigns over many years during my time working in politics, and for (and with) political campaigns. I’ve also seen some terrible (in terms of moralilty) astroturfing campaigns, and I’ve also seen some that perhaps weren’t as bad.

My first experience with astroturfing was over 10 years ago, when I was assisting a State Member for the then New South Wales election. The seat was marginal and it looked like the Government would lose the election (indeed they did). Instead of running on his own merits alone, in conjunction with his staff (I’d note I’ve never met an MP yet who really is actually smart enough to do this stuff by themselves, no matter how great and wonderful they all think they are…and tell everyone else they are), he created fake community groups, fake in that they were created with catchy acronyms (one was C.R.O.S.S…but saying what it stood for would really be spilling the beans as to who/ what/ where), where usually authorised at an address of close friends to the member who agreed to their names and addressed being used, and where then utilised in attacking the opposition candidate….and attack they did. They bought up all sorts of innuendo about the candidates personal life, what she stood for…there were newsletters, direct mailings, unaddressed mailings….literally thousands of (taxpayer) dollars spent on it. It was dirty politics, but it worked, the member received a big swing towards him in an election that wiped out many of his parliamentary colleges.

I’ve seen, and been involved in many cases of astroturfing since (including co-ordinating and creating astroturfing campaigns). Indeed, astroturfing is a favourite ploy of Australian politicians of all persuasions. They allow members to look like they care for community issues by beating up what would otherwise be very minor issues into big ones, particularly where there is the possibility where when the issue is addressed (and it doesn’t matter who is in power). They can then claim credit for getting the problem fixed if and when it is fixed, even if in reality they had nothing to do with the decision. (indeed, taking credit for decisions that they had no control or influence over is standard practice for Australian politicians.)

Astroturfing campaigns also allow politicians the ability to target swinging voters on a local issue where support for that local issue may actually be detrimental to their overall standing in an electorate…particularly where the member has a personal interest in the particular issue (say for example the local issue is where he lives in the electorate). In one particular campaign I was involved in, the key was to bankroll (and when I say bankroll I say this figuratively, members of nearly all Australian parliaments have unlimited paper and printing allowances, only their physical stamps are limited…and even then, there are still plenty of them) a couple of older resident who opposed industrial infrastructure being built in a local industrial area which was nearby to their homes. The key to the campaign was not putting the members name on the material, indeed, all the stuff went out under the name of the action group, and personalised letters under the name of the key person in that group (despite the fact I wrote the letter 🙂 ) but to make sure that those people seriously interested in that matter locally knew who was bankrolling this…hence he gets credit on the ground without his stance being exposed necessarily to the media…and hence the great electorate at large which in the vast majority held a different viewpoint on the matter.

But I digress somewhat, because despite many of the activities I’ve been involved in being immoral, and arguably unethical (but I’d hope never illegal…as far as I know they were all legal)…I’m still not convinced that astroturfing is always wrong….but only in opposing astroturfing from others.

It’s fair to say that Australia is an apathetic democracy, in that most people couldn’t give a brass razo about politics, except when it directly effects their own hip pockets. The problem is NGO’s, Greenies, NIMBYs and other fringe view groups know this as well, which is why they are the most successful groups at astroturfing on a regular basis, and no amount of campaigning against astroturfing in the PR industry is going to stop these groups.

So how do we find balance? After all, although penetration of alternative media sources is growing, most Australians still get their news dished out to them by big media, and big media like giving coverage to so-called “community” groups that oppose anything and everything. Astroturfing by the PR industry can actually empower the opposing viewpoint so both sides actually get a fair hearing…and may also result in an upswell of people becoming interested in the issue as well…and that’s not a bad thing. Why shouldn’t both side of any debate be able to present their sides in it, and if the professional protagonists, particularly in the environmental movement use astroturfing, why shouldn’t those in PR who represent the interests of developers? Both can be argued to be unethical and immoral, but allowing one group to do it and the other not to do it will actually do a great disservice to democracy because only one side of the argument will always prevail.