Astroturfing refers to founding and supporting political groups which appear to be spontaneous "grassroots" expressions of popular will, but which are in reality founded and funded by some government, corporation or other organization as an instrument of political influence1.
Astroturfed demonstrations can often be identified by the presence of large numbers of identical, professionally printed banners (genuine grassroots groups tend to have a lot more home made, 'unique' banners or smaller numbers of printed ones), suspicously well rehearsed songs and chants (unless they're a minor variation on an already popular song), lack of "grouping" when the rally is idle (astroturfed rallies will tend to be composed of people who don't know each other whereas grassroots ones will often be based around local networks and friendship groups), large quantities of transport from the same provider and issued refreshments. Of course rallies organised by professional 'mass movements' like trade unions have many of the same characteristics and this may provoke questions about what is and isn't astroturfing.
Another aspect of the phenomenon are charities and other campaigning organisations, supported by government grants and created with the sole object of lobbying government and/or generating "buzz" for their cause by masquerading as a genuine organisation. Such groups can then be used to add sock-puppet endorsements for government policies and/or create reports and petitions calling for the implementation of a policy which the administration already favours (or, alternatively a radical version of such a policy, allowing the regime to look "moderate" by watering it down). Again, it can be hard to tell an "astroturf" version of one of these organisations from a (more or less) genuine example that happens to be founded by members of the media/political class.
There is also the potential for what is effectively hostile Astroturfing - running a false flag operation in which one or more shills pose as supporters of a cause you wish to undermine - unlike an agent provocateur (who aims to divert the actual actions of the cause), the hostile astroturfer works to generate a negative image of the cause they claim to be supporting through their behaviour and statements. This is particularly easy with modern social media, but can be fed back into legacy media if lazy, stupid or compliant journalists can be persuaded to interview or cite the shill(s) as typical supporters. Any attempt to disavow the shills can be spun as internal conflict and disorder within the target organisation2.
Game and Story Use
- Astroturf organizations can be very effective and frustrating villains for the PCs, especially if they oppose something the PCs do or support, or vice versa.
- It doesn't help that most Astroturf organizations contain plenty of members who genuinely believe in their "cause".
- And conversely, it provides a very useful label for an establishment trying to marginalise a genuine movement … telling grass from astroturf is harder that you think … and de-legitimising dissent is far from being a modern disease.
- Also, what starts off as an artificial meme can become a popular movement, even if that is not what the creators intended.
- Now there's a campaign hook for you - a strawman enemy created by a government that transforms into a real opposition.