Astroturfing And How Your Thoughts Are Being Manipulated by Corporate Interests

Astroturfing is a form of advocacy typically to support an agenda with the appearance of a fake grassroots organization that is usually sponsored by corporations or those with a certain political interest. They work in such a way so that you are not aware that the corporate or political backing is present and you are led to believe that just an independent public organization is speaking out. There are a lot of ethical issues raised by doing this and evidence shows that astroturfing can be effective.

A recent article in the Journal of Business Ethics titled “Astroturfing Global Warming: It Isn’t Always Greener on the Other Side of the Fence,” by Charles H. Cho, Martin L. Martens, Hakkyun Kim, and Michelle Rodrigue (online July 3, 2011) explores the issue of those who visited astroturf websites and how it affects the perceptions of global warming.

Before explaining the study let’s make it clear global warming is unequivocal and there is at least a 90% likelihood it is caused by human activity.

In the study the researchers used a final sample of 278 students enrolled in accounting classes at a Canadian university. The true intent of the study was disguised from the students and they were told the website they would be viewing was a marketing experiment about effective website design for social issues including fair trade, homelessness, racism, and global warming. Eight versions of websites all on global warming were set up by the researchers designed to either be an astroturf or real grassroots website and each student was randomly assigned to view one website. Each website either didnt have a funding source listed or included‘ ‘Funded from donations by people like you,’’ ‘‘Funded by ExxonMobil,’’ or ‘‘Funded by grants from the Conservation Heritage Fund.”

As one would hope to have found those who browsed a website from an astroturf organization found the information as less credible and the organization as less trustworthy, compared to those who browsed a website from a grassroots organization. Even so as astroturf organizations had intended to instill confusion and uncertainty in the general public regarding the global warming issue they did accomplish that and those who visited an astroturf like website had their beliefs about global warming significantly altered and had more uncertainty about the cause of global warming.

Even more shocking is that those individuals in the study who were highly involved and knowledgeable about climate change had their views significantly influenced by the astroturf message. In addition, those who were not highly involved in the issues of global warming had their views affected even more.

The researchers note

“Our findings not only indicate that corporations are successful in fostering their own interests through astroturfing, but they also imply that this corporate political activity is likely to be detrimental to grassroots organizations. Astroturf organizations take the social movement approach to fulfill corporate agendas. Such fraudulent replication of grassroots organizations is likely to raise questions about the legitimacy of those organizations in the mind of the public…Once aware that they have been manipulated by a fake grassroots organization, members of the public are likely to be much more cautious and skeptical with all grassroots organizations, whether they are genuine or fake.”

There are clear ethical and societal concerns with not having full transparency for any astroturfing organization.

The researchers also say

“Astroturf organizations are (1) successful in creating uncertainty about the importance of global warming in the mind of the public and (2) utilized by corporations to attack the emerging logic of climate change and defend the carbon based energy logic which encompasses corporate interests.”

In addition these astroturf organizations go against the ethical considerations to protect the environment for future generations.

These findings have broad implications that certainly extend beyond global warming. As I have indicated on an earlier post today’s youth has a very difficult time distinguishing fact from fiction on websites and information they view online. The results of this study described above just seek to add to support this and in fact demonstrate that their views can be manipulated even though the views they are ‘planted’ with may not be in their own personal best interests.

This even has implications in our own personal health and yes even the decision to extract or not extract healthy wisdom teeth as I discuss on this site. For example the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons (AAOMS) states on their website

“It isn’t wise to wait until your wisdom teeth start to bother you.”

In fact as discussed, scientific evidence does not currently support or refute removing healthy wisdom teeth removal. By AAOMS failing to provide this information on their website which is publicly available they are helping to create additional uncertainty in the minds of those who are trying to seek the best decision for their personal health and well being.

It is imperative that our educators recognize that we need to teach our youth how to effectively read and analyze information on the internet and determine facts from fiction. What really makes this difficult is highlighted in the article discussed on astroturfing and global warming:

“…Western Fuels Association [delivers], for free, to public and university libraries across the United States hundreds of copies of their Greening of Planet Earth video, which shows that plants on earth are lacking carbon dioxide, and that an increase in atmospheric carbon will provide a more fertile world….the Heartland Institute [sends] thousands of brochures and DVDs to Canadian schools, pushing them to teach their students that scientists have been exaggerating the effects of human activity on global warming.”

Again to reiterate global warming is unequivocal and there is at least a 90% likelihood it is caused by human activity.

Who is looking out for our children and our youth? They have more to worry about like the extremely high cost of education which has ballooned out of control in the U.S. at both the undergraduate and further graduate and medical school levels.

medical school cost - Astroturfing And How Your Thoughts Are Being Manipulated by Corporate Interests


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