Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Today's Word: astroturfing

Every football fan and marching band geek knows that astroturf is that fake-grass green stuff that covers football fields both inside and out. But recently (I believe within the last decade, though I'm not positive of that), astroturf has taken on new life (and has been verbed), and it's something you should consider during these election times.

astroturf: The creation of a false impression that an orchestrated campaign actually grew from a spontaneous outpouring of the public. It's called astroturfing because it's a false grassroots campaign. Astroturfing is by definition is dishonest; so dishonest that the Public Relations Society of America strictly prohibits it.

Astroturfing can be used both commercially and politically.

Political Astroturfing

The government of China has, for quite a while, been paying some of its citizens per comment to visit online forums, blogs, and bulletin boards and leave comments that put China in a favorable light.

Closer to home, accusations of astroturfing have been flung from both sides of the aisle. One such accusation involves the "Al Gore's Penguin Army" video, a video that looks like an amateur spoof of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. When a link to that video appeared as the top paid search result for "Al Gore," someone looked closer. The video was apparently created by DCI Group, a public relations lobbying firm whose clients included General Motors and Exxon Mobile.

Astroturfing in Business

Have you ever heard of Working Families for Wal-Mart? Originally billed as a grassroots organization to combat all the negativity that was (rightly) being thrown at Wal-Mart, it was soon discovered that the Wal-Mart corporation itself was bankrolling the group, and blogs written for the group were created not by Wal-Mart employees and their families but by employees of a PR firm hired by Wal-Mart. Working Families for Wal-Mart has since disappeared.

On the opposite side, The Daily Show recently revealed some astroturfing on the anti-Wal-Mart side when Aasif Mandvi found that people picketing Wal-Mart in protest over low wages and the lack of benefits were actually hired hands who -- you guessed it -- were making minimum wage and got no benefits. That's not just astroturfing, that's irony.

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My point is this: In politics and commerce alike, what you see might not necessarily be what is actually happening. Don't rely on what others say is right or is popular: you have to make the decision for yourself. Snake oil salesman haven't been completely relegated to the past.