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Koch Astroturf Groups At the Root of Recent Union Busting

March 10, 2011

What are “astroturf” groups?

Astroturfing is a form of propaganda whose techniques usually consist of a few people attempting to give the impression that mass numbers of enthusiasts advocate some specific cause. In the UK this technique is better known as “rent-a-crowd” after the successful “rent-a-crate” business.

US Senator Lloyd Bentsen, believed to have coined the term, was quoted by the Washington Post in 1985 using it to describe a “mountain of cards and letters” sent to his Senate office to promote insurance industry interests, which Bentsen dismissed as “generated mail.”

Koch Brothers and Koch Industries
Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is a group fronting special interests started by oil billionaire David Koch and Richard Fink (a member of the board of directors of Koch Industries). AFP has been accused of funding astroturf operations but also has been fueling the “Tea Party” efforts. AFP’s messages are in sync with those of other groups funded by the Koch Family Foundations and the Koch’s other special interest groups that work against progressive or Democratic initiatives and protections for workers and the environment. Accordingly, AFP opposes labor unions, health care reform, stimulus spending, and cap-and-trade legislation, which is aimed at making industries pay for the air pollution that they create. AFP was also involved in the attacks on Obama’s “green jobs” czar, Van Jones, and has crusaded against international climate talks. According to an article in the August 30, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, the Kochs are known for “creating slippery organizations with generic-sounding names,” that “make it difficult to ascertain the extent of their influence in Washington.” AFP’s budget surged from $7 million in 2007 to $40 million in 2010, an election year.

Prohibited Practice
This practice is specifically prohibited by the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), the national associations for members of the public-relations and communication profession in the United States, Australia and the UK respectively.

As private organizations, the most significant punishment the PRSA, PRIA and CIPR can hand out to members who engage in astroturfing is revocation of association membership. Although the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) does not specifically mention astroturfing, it does require honest communication.

The National Smokers Alliance, an early astroturf group created by Burson-Marsteller on behalf of tobacco giant Philip Morris, worked to influence Federal legislation in 1995 by organizing mailings and running a phone-bank urging people to call or write to politicians expressing their opposition to laws aimed at discouraging teens from starting to smoke.

In 1998, a combination of television ads and phone-banks were used to simulate “grassroots” opposition to a bill aimed at discouraging teenage smoking. According to The New York Times, “Those smokers who are reached by phone banks sponsored by cigarette makers, or who call the 800 number shown in television ads, are patched through to the senator of their choice.”[7]

In 2003, apparent “grass-roots” letters favouring Republican Party policies appearing in local newspapers around the US were denounced as “astroturf” when Google searches revealed that identical letters were printed with different (local) signatures. The signers were electronically submitting pre-written letters from a political website that offered five “GOPoints” for sending one of their letters to a local paper plus an additional two “GOPoints” if the letter was published.[8] A similar automated emailer employed by MoveOn.org in 2004 to support Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 film resulted in at least 22 form letters appearing in local papers.

In business, astroturfing is one form of stealth marketing, which can include the manipulation of viral marketing. Several examples are described as “undercover marketing” in the documentary The Corporation.

Resources: SourceWatch and Wkipedia

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