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Astroturf-and-Populism.pdf

Astroturf-and-Populism.pdf

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Astroturf and Populism
Rae Wear (University of Queensland)
Using ‘The Convoy of No Confidence’, a trucking convoy that drove to Parliament House in
Canberra in 2011 in an attempt to force the Gillard Labor government to an early election, this
paper explores the relationship between populism and ‘astroturfing’, the synthetic creation of 
an apparently popular grassroots movement by a behind the scenes organisation. Participants
in the ‘Convoy of No Confidence’ named concerns as diverse as gay marriage, refugees, action
on climate change, the ban on live cattle exports, government waste and the importation of Chinese apples as their reasons for participating. In many respects, The Convoy was similar toother rural populist revolts in Australia. Links with behind the scenes organisors or other signsof manipulative conduct characteristic of astroturfing were difficult to prove. What was clear,however, was the one-
sided nature of the Convoy’s oppositionalism. In
contrast to otherpopulist movements which have been hostile towards all existing major parties, the Convoyparticipants directed their anger almost entirely towards the Gillard government. In this, theywere joined by Coalition politicians and the right wing media.
Astroturfing refers to the artificial formation of apparently spontaneous grassrootsmovements by private interests. The purpose is to convince governments that there is agroundswell of community opinion on a particular issue in the belief that government willtake more notice of seemingly disinterested voters than of corporations with an obvious barrow to push. An Astroturf organization, if well done, should be difficult to pick from agenuinely grassroots populist movement. In this paper I explore the case of th
e
Convoy of  No Confidence
which was formed in 2011 and attracted considerable media attention as wellas speculation that it was an Astroturf movement (Glazov 2011; Keane, 2011). Closeexamination of the Convoy reveals that its characteristics were similar to those of a genuinelygrassroots populist movement with one notable exception, which
is that populism‟s anti– 
system, anti-party bias was notably asymmetrical and was directed almost entirely against
Julia Gillard‟s minority La
 bor government. Like the Tea Party, the Convoy of No Confidencehad strong links with the conservative side of politics and had active support from right wingmedia and significant elements of the Liberal and National Parties. It functioned as a supportmovement for the Coalition, and it is this reciprocity of support that marks the Convoy outfrom other Australian populist movements.The resemblance of Astroturf organizations to authentic populist movements occurs becausemany of the participants recruited to the cause are genuine in their beliefs. Above all else, populism is characterised by an idealisation of the common people and anti-elitism (Canovan1981:294). Beyond this, theorists have struggled to agree on what populism entails but after an extensive literature review Taggart (2000:2) constructed an ideal type of populism whosethemes include hostility to representative politics and identification with an idealizedheartland. It also lacks core values, is a reaction to a sense of extreme crisis, is self-limitingand chameleon-like in the way in which it reflects its backgound Not all movements will in practice conform to this ideal type but as Taggart says, the characteristics are useful for guiding us in an examination of a particular case (2000:3) and I have used them to guide myanalysis of the Convoy of No Confidence.
 
 
 Astroturfing 
The United States Tea Party is the best known Astroturf movement. It seems to have attractedmany genuine followers despite claims that it was created by Republican operative, RichardArmey, director of the far-right Freedom Works and former House majority leader, and is backed by the wealthy Koch Brothers to serve their elite interests (Krigman, 13 April, 2009;Monbiot, 26 October 2010; Street and Dimaggio, 2011:6). Originally the expressionAstroturfing, when used in the political context, referred to the practice of creating ready-made letters by PR firms with which to bombard political representatives or newspaper editors (Reader, 2005: 43). The first use of the term is usually attributed to Texas Senator Lloyd Bensten who applied it to lobbying campaigns generated by PR firms (Lyon andMaxwell, 2004: 562). In addition to letter writing campaigns, some of these firms begancreating front organizations to push particular policy positions. For example, US tobaccocompany, RJ Reynolds, created Get Government Off Our Back (GGOOB) in 1994. Its anti-regulation agenda was presented as an expression of popular will that only coincidentallyadvantaged the tobacco industry. GGOOB organized rallies, lobbied state legislators andsenators and GGOOB affiliates submitted newspaper articles and position papers provided byR. J. Reynolds in support of reduced government regulation (Apolliono and Bero 2007: 421).The success of these strategies was evident in the passage of a Bill through the newRepublican-led House of Representatives in 1995, whose text closely reflected a GGOOBresolution on opposition to unnecessary regulation (Apolliono and Bero2007: 421). Beder (2002) maintains a distinction between the creation of such front organizations bycorporations and astroturfing, which she uses to refer to the artificial creation of coalitionsand the manufacturing of public support (2000:32). In practice, the distinction is a fine one because the intention behind both strategies is to convince policy makers that significantnumbers of disinterested voters support or oppose specific policies. I therefore use the termastroturfing to describe strategies that incorporate all these elements.Early astroturf campaigns focused on mail outs to Senators and Representatives but as thetechnique was refined, letters were personalised to make each look as if it were written by aseparate author (Lyon and Maxwell 2004: 563). The intention of the behind-the scenesorganization generating the mail was to impress recipients with the number of adherents a particular cause had, and thus to enhance its legitimacy. One practitioner cited by Beder (2000: 30) explains:The practical objective of letter-writing campaigns is not actually to get a majority of the people behind a position and to express themselves on it-for it would be virtuallyimpossible to whip up that much enthusiasm-but to get such a heavy, suddenoutpouring of sentiment that lawmakers feel they are being besieged by a majority.The true situation may be quite the contrary.US experience suggests that policymakers are more likely to respond to approaches made byrepresentatives of the public rather than to corporations whose self interested motives areusually transparent (Apollonio and Bero 2007: 419). Politicians readily recognize that thelatter groups are first and foremost concerned with profits, which reduces their credibility asspokespersons for the public or national interest (Beder, 2000: 4). Letter writing tactics to tryto influence politicians and public opinion are not new- in Australia the League of Rights wasan early practitioner of multiple mailings- but developments in information technology havegreatly facilitated the process.
In a further parallel with the League of Rights‟ strategic
 
approach, United States research shows that local newspapers were the dominant targets(Reading, 2005: 47). The internet, has, however revolutionized these activities because itallows a few people to create the illusion of multiple participants in online forums andcomment threads.
Guardian
 journalist George Monbiot cites the example of a whistleblower who claims to have used 70 personae to create the impression of widespread support for his pro-
corporate arguments. (23 Feb. 2011) „
Persona management software
facilitates this kindof deception (Monbiot, 2011). PR companies also use modern telecommunicationstechnology to connect callers whom they have already primed direct to politicians.Conservative talk show hosts in the United States do the same thing: callers to radio programs are routed to a telemarketer who will then patch them through to their Congressional representative. The multiple calls on the same topic then create the impressionthat there is a groundswell of feeling about a particular issue. Revelations of corporatemanipulation are likely to weaken the impact of such strategies and McNutt and Boland argue
that „an Astroturf effort cannot easily continue once it is successfully identified‟
(2007: 169).It appears, however, that the situation is more complex once astroturfing has mobilizedgenuine grassroots support. The Tea Party movement shows that allegations of astroturfingdid little to dampen the enthusiasm of adherents and given that such allegations usually come
from the political left, may even vindicate supporters‟ feelings of b
eing under attack. While polling indicates declining support for the Tea Party, this is more likely related to the episodicnature of populism than to revelations about who is pulling the strings (Brissendon 2012;Taggart, 2000: 1).Astroturfing is big business in the United States where the comparative absence of partydiscipline makes the lobbying of individual politicians worthwhile and where the three levelsof government allow multiple points of contact. A substantial majority of grassroots lobbyingfirms operate at local and state level with many based in California because its system of citizens initiated referenda provides additional opportunities for grassroots lobbying firms(Walker, 2009:84-85). Walker estimates that organizing grassroots support for pro-business positions is a half billion dollar a year industry (2009: 83). Numerous PR and lobbying firmsincorporate the creation of grassroots movements into their lobbying strategies. The greatmajority of United States Astroturf organizations belong to the anti-tax, anti-regulationlibertarian right and many of those involved in them are connected with the Republican Party(Walker: 84). The usual pattern for those setting up a front organization is to choose a namethat sounds like an environmental, consumer public interest or even scientific groups (Beder 2000: 4). The National Wetlands Coalition is not, despite its name and flying duck logo, anorganization dedicated to the protection of wetlands, but a coalition largely comprised of oiland gas companies such as Exxon, Shell and Mobil, who want to be able to drill in wetlandsunimpeded (Beder, 2000:30). Much of the information conveyed to decision-makers byAstroturf organizations is unverifiable (Lyon and Maxwell, 2004:562) and is designed tomuddy the waters. Wilson cites a case uncovered by the
Guardian
newspaper in which
Monsanto‟s
PR firm fabricated expert scientists to cast doubt on peer-reviewed reports of thedangers of GM crops (2006:183). Bivings, the PR firm used by Monsanto (which co-incidentally developed AstroTurfTM the authentic bright green artificial grass), in an articleon its website, shows how firms can conceal their vested interests:There are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let theaudience know that your organization is directly involved. Message boards, chatrooms, and list servs are a great way to anonymously monitor what is being said.Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outletsthat present your position as an uninvolved third party (quoted in Monbiot, 14December 2010).

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