Hotspot 4 – Mowing the Astroturf

(See also the series overview for this Hotspot on astroturfing.)

Kari Storla

Whenever I think of astroturfing, I think of The Brady Bunch.

The grass in the Brady’s backyard was obviously fake, but this didn’t stop the Brady kids from having to mow the lawn. There are a lot of potential reasons for this, but one was that it helped add to the sense of realism. Cutting the grass worked as a way of making the backyard seem like a real place, as if the grass were alive rather than just AstroTurf. This performance of mowing in order to make something artificial appear real is astroturfing—in this case in a very real sense.

Basically, astroturfing is the idea of creating an artificial grassroots campaign in the same sense that Astroturf is artificial grass; popular involvement is manufactured instead of being grown organically. Money may or may not be involved, but often astroturfing is connected to corporate interests. In other words, rather than the push for change coming from the people, it’s coming from an organization with specific goals that makes it seem as if this change is what the people want. Connecting it back to the Brady’s, astroturfing often functions as a performance in order to get a particular message across—that both the grass and the popular sentiment are real. In other words, astroturfing often involves stagings designed to hide the manufactured nature of the action; the performance acts out a real activity in an attempt to convince you that the entire production is genuine.

While political astroturfing is often associated with letter writing and protests, one particular twist on astroturfing comes from the issue of legislation. The idea behind electing officials to serve in our legislatures is that they’re supposed to serve our concerns, to make decisions based on the interests of their constituents. However, what happens when legislation they propose and vote for actually comes from somewhere else?

The simple answer might seem to be astroturfing. You have third party organizations (whether they be lobbyists, businesses, NGOs, single-issue interest groups, etc.) that are sponsoring and even writing legislation. Astroturfing in this sense works in that the legislation supposedly comes from the politician representing the people, but instead actually represent the interests of the third party. One example of this is the recent case of multiple states passing multiple states passing near identical laws requiring women to have an ultrasound before they can have an abortion, which were written by the pro-life organization Americans United for Life (AUL). The AUL claims that:

No matter how well intentioned a law is, it won’t have the intended effect if it isn’t worded correctly; in fact, sometimes it can actually make matters worse. AUL attorneys are highly regarded experts on pro-life legal language and the Constitution, consulting on bills and amendments across the country. In addition, our model legislation enables legislators to easily introduce bills without needing to research and write the bills themselves, helping ensure that their efforts will have the desired impact and withstand judicial scrutiny [….] we educate legislators on the issues and provide them with model legislation and legal advice on legislative language.  We work hand-in-hand with legislators to minimize avoidable problems so activist judges can’t easily tie a good law up for years in court or strike it down completely.

The problem with this, of course, is that when the “model” legislation is used wholesale in multiple locations, concerns related to local populations are not taken into account. The third party’s interests override the concerns of the people. This is the equivalent of a Brady kid mowing the Astroturf; the legislator’s pushing the law as their own hides its true nature in the same way Marcia or Greg pushing the lawnmower was designed to cover up the true nature of their grass. The performance of introducing and attempting to pass the law serves as a way to distract its manufactured origins.

This of course raises the question: can a third party sponsor legislation without it being astroturfing?

I would argue that the answer is yes. There are several key differences between astroturfing and a third party being involved in legislation, but one of the most important ones is transparency.

In the interest of being transparent, I previously worked for a non-partisan political non-profit that worked to improve ethics in government. While it wasn’t necessarily the majority of our work, one of the things we did was work with politicians on issue-specific legislation.

What makes that, however, any different than astroturfing?

Importantly, we were transparent about the process. Our involvement in drafting and proposing the legislation was known. Similarly, we had polls that showed the people in our state supported our position on this issue, as well as the support of our own members. In other words, our involvement in drafting legislation was based more on the interests of our members rather than on manufactured interests. In this sense, the transparency serves as an acknowledgement of some of the realities and complexities of creating legislation– legislators, after all, rarely write laws themselves, and third party input is not uncommon. The difference between that and astroturfing is the openness and acknowledgement of the involvement that allows people to understand and what interests other than their own might be influencing their legislators. It’s like the line in The Brady Bunch movie where a neighbor breaks the fourth wall and comments on “that AstroTurf lawn they treat like real grass.” Whether or not the push is manufactured is debatable and likely varies from on a case-to-case basis, but it’s not astroturfing in the sense that the true nature or source of the legislation is being hidden.

The importance of this transparency can’t be overstated. Astroturfing isn’t always as easy to detect as the Brady’s AstroTurf backyard. According to the Sunlight Foundation, for example, even computer software couldn’t always detect nearly identical legislation if a single word was changed, such as from that to which. When legislation comes from a third party, the ability to see where it’s coming from is crucial– to see when someone is mowing the astroturf isn’t just a joke anymore, it’s a matter of understanding how legislation is written and the interests behind it.