Astroturfing: Origin & Applications

“Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” — G.K. Chesterton

My father was a chemist involved with the development of latex paints. Some people would call this “artificial paint” in those days. He used to take business trips now and then with quite a few of them to Texas. On one of these trips in 1966 he had gone to the Houston Astrodome, the first indoor stadium, and the first baseball stadium with artificial grass. I remember him describing how plush the seats were. I also remember him mentioning the Astroturf, the new name for that artificial grass developed by Monsanto.

It’s interesting how slang gets developed. For example, Dr. Kevorkian made a name for himself by his commitment to doctor-assisted-suicide. In the computer world, “to Kevork” became shorthand for killing a program.

So it is that the word Astroturf has morphed into new unanticipated applications. Astroturfing now means to create the impression of being spontaneous “grassroots” behavior. According to Wikipedia Senator Lloyd Bentsen coined the term.

Astroturfing would be a propaganda technique to give the impression of a spontaneous movement which has actually been purposely orchestrated.

Many businesses have attempted to create “viral marketing” campaigns that appear to be naturally viral when in fact they have been orchestrated with this aim in mind. Certain popular YouTube videos were originally failures in their earlier iterations before appearing to spontaneously “catch on.”

In the age of media sound bytes, all kinds of efforts have been made by political parties to create an impression, but which backfire when handled too transparently. Democrat Michael Dukakis, riding in a tank to give the appearance of foreign policy resoluteness, produced an almost comical image during his presidential bid.

Sadly, I witnessed a Republican experience of the same nature during my involvement in that party in 1984. I was at a 5th district meeting in St. Paul in which someone was seeking 17 volunteers to help paint an elderly woman’s house on the upcoming Saturday morning. All three television stations would be present to capture this act of compassion for the weekend news. The aim was to show that Republicans care about the poor. I received an icy glare when I raised my hand and asked why we don’t just explain how our platform and policies will help the poor. I clearly didn’t “get it.”

The MayDay 1971 antiwar protest in Washington D.C. during the Viet Nam era had the appearance of being a groundswell that just suddenly appeared. Unbeknownst to most who participated (like myself) the organizers had been orchestrating this event since shortly after the 1968 Democratic Convention.

In the famous Halloween Blizzard of 1991 here in Duluth, I ventured out on Sunday morning to see what condition the Hillside roads were in. As I stood outside the Twins Bar on fourth street I saw three people walking up the middle of Fifth Avenue. One was then-Mayor Doty, along with a news camera from Channel 3 and Mr. Doty’s handler.

They were seeking (unsuccessfully) people whose cars might be stuck in the snow and needed a push. The aim was to create the impression that the mayor was helping people and cared. There were no cars on the road inasmuch as we were all snowed in. I was the only one out on the street so they walked over to me and I saw the Mayor was wearing make-up. Obviously he had to look his best and they wanted to make sure he didn’t get any glare off the snow to distract from his heartfelt helpfulness.

It’s called Astroturfing, a strategy that fits hand-in-glove with today’s swarms of Fake News stories on social media.

For more on Astroturfing, check out this page on Wikipedia.

As the saying goes, don’t believe everything you hear… or see.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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