John Oliver took a strong stance against astroturf on Sunday night’s episode of Last Week Tonight—well, less so astroturf in the Jetsons sense and more like astroturfing, a practice Oliver described as when “corporations and political groups disguise themselves as spontaneous authentic popular movements.” In other words, corporations establish fake grassroots campaigns to manipulation regulation, legislation and public opinion to their benefit, and it’s about as bad as it sounds.
Astroturfing campaigns usually exist as organizations that are just vaguely titled enough to be incredibly misleading. As Oliver points out, Save Our Tips is actually an anti-minimum wage interest group funded by restaurant owners, The National Wetlands Coalition worked for oil companies and real estate developers, and the American Council of Science and Health is backed by fracking interest groups, e-cig and soda companies and—because what’s a little more fuel for this dumpster fire?—chemical companies, too. Essentially, the companies that buy large blocks of airtime for attack ads can secure total anonymity for the causes they support by running their money through non-profit organizations that don’t have to disclose information about their donors. The moral of the story? To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, “Nothing is beautiful and everything hurts.”
Aside from attack ads, astroturfing organizations frequently use spokespeople to back their causes. In some cases, the organizations pay an expert to testify on their behalf; Oliver cites a burn surgeon who was paid $240,000 to represent the Citizens for Fire Safety and speak out against regulation of the carcinogenic chemicals in flame-retardant furniture. As it turns out, the political group only had three members, who just happened to be the world’s three largest makers of flame retardant. The burn surgeon made up stories about infant patients dying of burn wounds, and the bill against the chemicals was later struck down.
Other times, corporations hire fake demonstrators and protesters to rally public sentiment around specific issues, like a New Orleans energy company that hired a company called Crowds on Demands to hire actors to show up at New Orleans City Council meetings and voice their support for their power plant. Where’d they find people willing to do so? Crowds on Demand legitimately posted Facebook ads stating that plants would be paid “60-200 dollarydoos to help with a gig for ~three hours.” The company provided matching T-shirts and talking points for the actors, in addition to repeatedly reminding them that they could not reveal that they were being paid.
Jokes aside, Oliver warns that this trend is dangerous, not only because it manipulates public response, but also because it undermines the authority of legitimate protest. Conspiracists have falsely credited Crowds on Demand with paying protestors to “make chaos” after the Charlottesville attack and hiring crisis actors after the Las Vegas shootings, and that kind of cynicism undermines any attempt at effectiveness a protest can hope to achieve. “Fake groups hiring fake experts and fake crowds manages to effect real world change,” says Oliver. It’s unsettling, and it sure makes you wish this was a segment on football fields after all.
Watch Oliver describe the issue at length below.