How can artificial cultural influence funded by corporations through “astroturfing” influence both public policy and nationalistic thought?

In the past few years within the United States, there has been a rise in the presence of grassroots social movements that encourage people to use their First Amendment right to peacefully assemble for the sake of promoting systemic change in a wide variety of institutions. From the March For Our Lives protest in 2018 to speak out against gun violence in hopes of advocating for gun reform, to the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020 that spoke out against incidents of systemic racism, police brutality, and extrajudicial murders of unarmed individuals at the hands of law enforcement and advocated for accountability and justice, and more recently to a group of Amazon warehouse workers going on strike in Bessemer, Alabama for the sake of forming a labor union, people have been doing more to utilize collective action in order to promote change. Unfortunately, while there is always good-faith, grassroots political activism seeking to promote change, there is also bad-faith, astroturfed political activism led by corporations and private industries that will seek to stifle any meaningful change.

I first learned about these movements after watching a video from the YouTube political commentary channel, Second Thought, which discussed the negative impacts that astroturf movements have had on the American political climate. From defending Microsoft, the tobacco industry, fossil fuel companies, creating the Tea Party movement, and now being involved in the “Reopen America” protests against coronavirus lockdowns, I was surprised to see how widespread the effects of astroturf campaigns have been within the current American political climate. I have linked the video from Second Thought as well as a clip from John Oliver’s show, Last Week Tonight, to provide an entertaining, yet informative, definition of what astroturf movements are below.

Second Thought: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3hFfbIXpg4

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fmh4RdIwswE

After watching both of the above videos and doing some additional research into the history of these artificial protest movements, I was left both mildly annoyed and fairly surprised at the same time. The topic left me curious as to why these movements have led to some of the most obstructive impediments against otherwise common sense legislation. This led me to ask myself: What inspires people who are otherwise unaffiliated with astroturf movements to become a part of an unrepresentative resistance movement catalyzed by corporate interests? And what makes these fringe groups so effective that only a minority of the public can sway the opinions of elected officials?

According to a 2019 study conducted by Kenneth M. Henrie and Christian Gilde in the MDPI journal, Social Sciences, their research had provided some insight into the dangers surrounding astroturfed messaging and misinformation. Henrie and Gilde developed a study that used survey reporting methods to assess how two groups of randomly-assigned participants across both sides of the American political spectrum reacted to two types of Twitter posts. One group reacted to a post from a non-astroturfed, traditional group called the “American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy” (ACCCE), which argued in favor of using coal energy; the other group reacted to a separate post from a fake astroturf organization called “Americans for Responsible Energy Choices” (AREC), which was critical of the reliability of coal-based energy. In the survey, the participants were asked questions regarding their personal feelings of nationalism, their political involvement, and how convincing the posts each participant saw were. The results showed that people, regardless of their political views, found the astroturfed Twitter post more convincing than the traditional Twitter post. Additionally, while the Twitter post did not greatly affect the perspectives of nationalism within the participants, conservative-leaning participants demonstrated higher nationalism in their responses than the liberal-leaning participants. Finally, although the study had provided support for the idea that individuals with higher involvement in politics were less susceptible to the effects of astroturfed media, the results indicated that it does not require much effort to persuade people through astroturfed media, and that the effects of repeated exposure to astroturfed messaging could increase this effect.

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