Edward T. Walker: Exposing 'grassroots for hire' hucksters

FresnoJuly 12, 2014 

In just a few weeks, the Federal Communications Commission will conclude its public comment period over whether Internet service providers can give some packets of data priority — dismantling what's become known as net neutrality. During this period, regulators will surely hear quite a bit from companies like Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon.

They're also likely to hear from groups like Broadband for America, which claims to be an independent group that just happens to oppose net neutrality.

When asked, however, many of the groups listed as "members" of Broadband for America claimed to have no knowledge of ever being involved with the campaign, according to a recent report in Vice. The bulk of funding for Broadband for America comes from the National Cable and Telecommunications Association — a trade group for Internet service providers — and the group has retained the DCI Group, a "grassroots for hire" firm known for orchestrating similar corporate front groups on issues ranging from climate change to computer technology.

There's a word for this: Astroturfing — a term coined nearly 30 years ago by U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Bentsen, when faced with a barrage of postcards and letters facilitated by insurance companies, famously said he could "tell the difference between grassroots and AstroTurf."

Many have fears about the role of money in politics, especially laundering money into political power with little or no disclosure. But what may be more consequential is a sort of "opinion laundering," in which corporations and industry groups convert their ideas into those expressed by everyday citizens.

I've spent the better part of the last decade investigating campaigns like these and the lucrative consulting firms hired to manufacture grassroots participation. We assume that these strategies are "weapons of the weak," when in fact even Fortune 500 behemoths — by my estimates, 40% of them — frequently find that they need to mobilize the grassroots when facing threatening policy changes.

To be sure, there's absolutely nothing wrong with a corporation or any other group finding its backers and encouraging them to speak out on issues that will affect them. This is a basic cornerstone of American politics, and it's vital for businesses to be able to communicate honestly with policymakers.

The issue is when this is done in a fashion that involves fraud, deception or substantial material incentives for participants.

For example, in April it came out that Intuit — the company behind Turbotax software — engaged in an Astroturfing campaign. Alarmed that an IRS proposal to simplify tax filing would threaten the market for its software, the company and its consultants enlisted members of minority groups and local community organizations to write letters and op-eds opposing the proposal. A report by ProPublica made clear that many of these leaders had no idea that industry groups were behind the requests.

In some cases, apparent supporters can't even be confirmed to be real people. In an effort to secure a New Jersey regulatory agreement to let itself out of commitments to expand broadband, Verizon facilitated a mass letter-writing campaign this year. When investigative journalists tracked down the ostensible authors, they found that many emails bounced as invalid. Of the writers they did find, some denied sending a letter and others were either Verizon retirees or from groups with Verizon funding. None seemed to understand the policy for which they were lobbying — some even opposed it.

Evidence suggests that when their backing isn't revealed, people can be unwittingly swayed by their appeals. What's more, these practices are especially troubling for American democracy because they offer plausible deniability to policymakers who want to support a special interest's policy preferences while appearing to be accountable only to constituents.

Many campaigns never get exposed. And while it's tempting to continue relying on watchdog groups, investigative journalists and professional associations in the PR industry to discourage these practices through the soft pressure of shaming, this hasn't had enough of an impact. If anything, the rise of social media has opened vast new possibilities for Astroturfing in the form of ghostwritten blogs and fake product reviews.

We need federal legislation requiring disclosure of those who are behind campaigns to create "grassroots" support. And, while the FCC debates the creation of a two-tiered Internet, its regulators need to make efforts to separate the grassroots from the Astroturf. In the absence of real transparency, front groups like Broadband for America could end up undermining a more open and honest debate about the future of the Internet.


Edward T. Walker, an associate professor of sociology at UCLA, is the author of "Grassroots For Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy," which was published June 3. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square (www.zocalopublicsquare.org).

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