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In American politics, the term "astroturfing" is used to describe formal public relations projects which deliberately give the impression that they are spontaneous and populist reactions. The term is a play on the description of truly spontaneous or "grassroots" efforts and the distinction between real grass and AstroTurf - the fake grass used in some indoor American football stadiums.

A "grassroots" action or campaign is one that is started spontaneously and is largely sustained by private persons, not politicians, corporations or public relations firms. A "grassroots" campaign is perceived to come from the popular feelings of some mass of people and to not be a creation of the powerful.

"Astroturfing", by contrast, is a campaign crafted by politicians or other professionals but carefully designed to appear that it is the result of popular feeling rather than manipulation. The astroturfing campaign attempts to gain legitimacy by appearing to spring forth spontaneously from "the people". If the campaign is well executed, the planners hope that the public at large will believe that "all those independent viewpoints could not have been faked."

Examples of these kinds of practices can be found throughout history, though there is a perception that use of astroturfing is increasing in reaction to the declining credibility of politicians and corporations.

When such a campaign is exposed as meticulously crafted and manipulated by the same spin doctors that the public has learned to distrust, astroturfing adds to the very cynicism it was designed to circumvent. Of course, all political campaigns involve elites in some way or another; the line between grassroots and astroturfing can be quite fine, and can vary between observers.

With the advent of the Internet, it has become easier to structure an astroturfing campaign because the cost and effort to email (especially a pre-written, sign your name at the bottom email) is so low. The pseudonymity of the Internet can be misused to enable one person to play the role of a whole group of like-minded people (see also sock puppet). At the same time, the Internet makes it easier for people to compare notes, making it somewhat easier to expose an astroturfing campaign.

One technique of an astroturfing campaign is to induce a number of its supporters to write email, letters to the editor, blog posts, crossposts and trackbacks, in support of the campaign's goals. The campaign instructs the supporters on what to say, how to say it, and where to send it, and above all, to make it appear that their indignation, appreciation, joy, or hate is entirely spontaneous and independent – and thus "real" – and not at all the product of an orchestrated campaign.

At the turn of the 20th century, it was common to have newspapers in major American cities sponsored by local political parties. Some were open about this practice, but many of these relationships were hidden under the guise of journalism. Other examples include political "clubs" which front for voter fraud and intimidation, letter-writing campaigns organized by local ward bosses and some union-organized political activities.

A similar manipulation of public opinion was used in the Soviet Union when political decisions were preceded by massive campaigns of orchestrated 'letters from workers' (pisma trudyashcihsya) which were quoted and published in newspapers and radio.

Further Reading