37 Understanding Astroturfing


An organized activity that is intended to create a false impression of a widespread, spontaneously arising, grassroots movement in support of or in opposition to something (such as a political policy) but that is in reality initiated and controlled by a concealed group or organization (such as a corporation) [1]

Grassroots political efforts emerge from the bottom-up, with small local groups banding together to put pressure on city, county, state, or federal government to take (or oppose) specific action. They are “people-powered,” usually relying on volunteer labor and small donations from local people and organizations. In the age of social media, the phrase “grassroots” has also been applied to national movements that start by a small group of citizens organizing online.

Being “grassroots” is not a technique limited to Republicans or Democrats. The Tea Party revolts against President Obama’s health care plan, for example, had many grassroots elements, being organized on the local level by loosely connected people and local organizations. Moms Demand Action, a gun control advocacy group, was started when a stay-at-home mother was shocked by her son’s response to the Sandy Hook school shooting. She put up a Facebook page to organize action, and slowly built a movement.

Citizens tend to look more favorably upon people-powered, local politics rather than corporate-funded initiatives funded by people from somewhere else. The desire to portray corporate and non-local efforts as local has led to a practice called astroturfing, where large corporations or rich individuals use “front groups” that look like local groups of activists, but are funded and organized primarily by national corporations or rich individuals from elsewhere.

When deciding whether an organization is astroturfing, consider the following:

  • Who funded it? ( a corporation, national foundation, or local money)
  • Who founded it? (if founded locally, by whom)
  • What interest would that group have in the action or initiative proposed? (financial or related to larger social concerns)

There is a bit of a sliding scale for what qualifies as astroturfing. A locally founded initiative that receives primarily national money is a little less astro-turfy than an organization founded directly by a corporation. An initiative that receives money from a foundation dedicated to a larger social goal (such as elimination of poverty) is less astro-turfy than a corporation spending money to boost its stock price or get rid of regulations that constrain it. In general, what is most important is whether the organization’s reality matches the story that they are publicly telling.


  1. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Astroturfing. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/astroturfing


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Web Literacy for College Students 2nd Ed Copyright © 2020 by NSCC and Michael A. Caulfield is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book