Astroturf Attack on Democracy Is Intentional -- and Should Be Illegal

Oct 16, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

You can't convict someone of a crime unless you can prove that the accused was acting with intent -- that they did what they did on purpose. By that standard, Astroturfing specialists at the Washington, D.C., PR firms Adfero Group and Bonner & Associates have demonstrated that they are guilty, even if what they are doing is -- at this point -- not technically a crime.

It should be. Because the Astroturfers are subverting democracy. By their own description, the firms are holding the U.S. democratic system up for sale. They're using the old totalitarian tactic of gathering rent-a-crowds to push around politician. And, as Bonner boasts on its own website, they are doing it in a way that that gives them a specific advantage over lobbyists who, thanks to good legislation, would have to declare who was paying their bills.

Exhibit A in the case against Bonner is … the Bonner & Associates webpage. Click on this link and you get one of those annoying Flash animations that must run their course before you get any actual useful information. Bonner starts with a screen that says: “Grassroots/Grasstops; Support to help you win.” And then they show you a series of photos showing, “Veterans groups, community based organizations, seniors groups, religious groups, businesses and business groups, rural group and minorities.”

This is Bonner’s primary point of purchase and they’re telling you, before you even get to the home page, what they have for sale.

Similarly, Adfero’s website offers an unselfconscious account of what it means by “Grassroots and grassroots mobilization.” Adfero promises “an impressive network of national, state and local contacts to deliver your custom-tailored message.” It has “contacts on the ground who can conduct intercepts with elected officials at speeches, rallies, local town hall meetings and other events.” And lest you think that these are real people who are actually, spontaneously and legitimately involved, Adfero makes clear that this is fee-for-service activism. In fact, Adfero notes that its “Cost Per Activist (CPA) Recruitment service is a popular tactic” because “the client only pays for recruits who undertake a specific client requested action, such as sending a letter to their elected representatives.”

There is no pretense that any of the people involved in this process are sincere. It’s all business. And because it’s “legal” – that is, because Congress has exempted grassroots gamesmanship from the regulations covering other lobbying tactics – people argue that it’s “okay.”

It’s not okay and it shouldn’t be legal. Politicians started listening to “grassroots” organizations because voters started to punish people who were obviously taking their advice from wealthy lobbyists instead of from constituents. That was never intended as a signal for PR companies to start dressing their corporate clients to look like constituents.

These people have been working under cover of darkness since 1995, when they won an exemption from new lobbyist disclosure requirements. A band of conservative groups, led by the Christian Coalition, had argued that forcing Astroturf organizations to acknowledge their funding would amount to an attack on free speech.

But we’re not talking about “free” speech. We’re talking about paid speech. We’re talking about a concealed opportunity for corporations to pretend public support. We’re talking about a “Cost Per Activist” strategy that favours rich, self-interested corporations at the expense of the people who they are pretending to represent.

We’re talking about an exemption that should be withdrawn, immediately. Astroturfing is wrong. It should be illegal.