Posted by keith on May 26th, 2008
Questioning and exposing the greenwashing activities of corporations, in particular, is something that the seasoned cynic makes light of; but sometimes our job is made more difficult, not so much by the quality of the greenwashing being used, but by the sheer weight of apparent “public” opinion supporting the views of the corporations.
For many years, corporations employed IT-savvy PR companies specifically to post items on newsgroups, chatrooms and bulletin boards, putting a positive spin on whatever company line was being trotted out. Much of this was simple global warming sceptic fare, the kind you still see repeated (usually using stock phrases, uncannily similar IP address ranges and men full of straw) in the comment lists of blogs and newspaper web sites.
But corporations don’t stop at that — they have plenty of money, markets to crack and worlds (well, one world) to change. This is why the Astroturf was born. Astroturf is the green plastic stuff that is made of nylon but looks a bit like grass; but it’s still synthetic, still articificial, and no sane person would think of laying it in their front garden if they wanted a lush, natural lawn. From a distance, though, astroturf can look pretty convincing, and an Astroturf can look just like a genuine grassroots organization if you don’t look that carefully.
Jim Hoggan, founder of DeSmogBlog wrote a good case study of the Astroturf, Friends of Science, in which he explains how they function:
We have an organization that presents itself as grassroots while concealing its corporate connections. We have an overlapping group of experts who have proved themselves willing to take money from one of the most compromised industries in the world (tobacco), as well as from big oil. We have “scientists” who publish almost nothing in the peer-reviewed press, but who contribute frequently to the nation’s opinion pages and who conduct barnstorming tours of the country, urging everyone from newspaper editors to groups of retirees to fight against good climate change policy.
In a previous Unsuitablog article, I introduced a game called “Follow the Links”, explaining how, with just one link to follow, it is possible to open up a whole web of misrepresentation, self-interest and outright denial from just a single individual or group. PRWatch have an ongoing roll of such groups and webs — I recommend you keep an eye on their pages.
How To Spot An Astroturf
You can easily spot Astroturfs by just checking for two or more of the following:
1. Are they making claims that fly in the face of orthodoxy, and would corporations benefit financially from these claims being true?
2. Does the web site look extremely professional, slick and “corporate”, yet does not display name any specific corporations as sponsors or backers?
3. Does the web site / information pack use “false authority”, with corporate-type logos, formal high-level job titles (President, Vice-President), quotes from well-known authority figures and other ways of pumping up its immediate credibility?
4. Is the name composed of a feel-good and/or geographical part, and an “institutional” part like “Foundation”, “Institute”, “Trust” or “Centre / Center”, e.g. Coalition for Clean Coal, American Choice Foundation, Clear Air Trust?
5. Do the people in the Advisory or VP roles work for other Astroturfs or groups with similar roles, or have they been exposed recently as being funded by corporations?
6. When you contact the group, do you have difficulty speaking directly to the authors of articles / opinion pieces in a technical manner; do they have to get someone to make a statement, or arrange a specific interview slot?
7. Has the group’s entry on Wikipedia been edited by a corporation — you can find out by using the Wiki Scanner?
Other information that you may be able to find out, but not without some effort:
8. Is the group run by a skeleton staff, despite appearing to be a large organization?
9. Does the web site / mail server use the same IP address range, or the telephone system use the same number range as that of a known corporation?
10. Is the group completely absent of genuine volunteers (as opposed to work experience positions)?
Once you have found an Astroturf, or a group you strongly suspect to be an Astroturf then make your findings public: make or edit an entry on Wikipedia and SourceWatch; e-mail news blogs and newspapers; add relevant comments to any blogs or articles that mention the Astroturf…make a nuisance of yourself you may be able to get them shut down!