Why astroturf disclosure legislation is needed:

Jan 18 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

In a post earlier today, I discussed a case where an astroturf group is attempting to stir up popular objection to a clause in a bill before the Senate that mandates disclosure of this type of lobbying activity. In a comment to a post over at Bora's blog, MattXIV raises a point that requires a more detailed response than I could make in a comment there:

The point of restricting direct lobbying of congress is to prevent quid-pro-quos being worked out between lobbyist and congresspeople. I don't see how attempts to influence the views of individuals independent of direct lobbying of congress would raise the same possibilities of corruption by officials. It seems like an effort to increase the relative importance of direct lobbying, and hence the opportunities to solicit campaign contributions that congress has. If some group is going to spend money trying to get policy changed, I'd rather they did it via a PR campaign to convince people to write letters to the editor than by buying expensive lunches (and maybe some under the table extras) for congresscritters.

The anti-astroturfing portion of the legislation does little to address the possibility of people influencing legislation by buying congresscritters. What it does do is ensure that Congress (and the public) can find out who is spending large sums of money in an attempt to influence legislation. It's a needed piece of legislation, mostly because of the grossly dishonest way that many of these groups operate.

Here's a hypothetical example of how it works:

A group - let's say the petroleum industry - is concerned by legislation - let's say a proposed carbon dioxide emissions tax. They really don't like the idea, but they don't want to be painted as anti-environment any more than necessary (bad for business) and they don't want to scare people (also bad for business). They want to influence public sentiment and stir up grassroots oposition to the legislation, but they don't want to be seen doing so. As things stand, that's insanely easy to do.

The petroleum industry hires a PR firm, and pays them to set up a "grassroots" organization - "Smalltowners Helping Improve Tomorrow" The petroleum industry then donates a sizeable chunk of money to the new organization. The organization, which at this point consists of the hired PR firm's people and the petroleum industry's money, then turns around and hires the same PR firm to put together a campaign opposing the legislation. Two days later, you're watching a commercial that says, "if the new "tax on survival" law is passed, power prices will skyrocket. Businesses will close. You will be unemployed, and your children will starve. Paid for by Smalltowners Helping Improve Tomorrow."

The folks that pay to have astroturf groups set up might not be directly lobbying Congress, but they are spending lots of money to try and influence legislation - and that is lobbying. The proposed law does not in any way prevent them from continuing to do so. It does not in any way restrict what they can and cannot say. What it does do is mandate disclosure. Anyone who spends lots of money to try and influence the grassroots opinion of a piece of legislation will need to tell Congress that they are doing so.

Disclosure, in this instance, does not restrict freedom of expression. What it does do is restrict the ability to secretly pay to influence public opinion about federal legislation. And that is a good idea.

8 responses so far

  • crf says:

    I disagree completely. It is ludicrous to have to register before speaking in public. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.
    Astroturf groups are a problem. The solution is just to:
    A) Trounce their ideas, if they are silly, at every opportunity,
    B) In critcizing any group suspected of being astroturf, emphasize the importance of having the group disclose any financial ties to industries or certain people or polical parties, and the importance that the group's finances and membership structure be independantly and publicly auditable (beyond what's legally required, if warranted). Groups that refuse voluntarily to do this without having any good reason shouldn't be trusted.
    For example, voluntary disclosure works well when publishing in medicine. To get in the prestigious journals which people trust, researchers have to follow strict, public, disclosure policies. Journals that don't have these policies become disreputable in the public's eyes. Researchers that lie about sources of income for their studies, when found out, are often shamed in public.

  • MattXIV says:

    But, as you point out, at the end of the day the worst they're going to do is run deceptive commercials. It's one thing to have the government regulate the funding of political speech in order to monitor potential sources of conflicts of interest for congresspeople, who make choices which have the potential to affect the entire nation, but requiring that even paid activists, who can only attempt to persuade others, be required to register with the government in order to advocate policies is ridiculous.
    Futher, the supposed dicotomy between grassroots and astroturf isn't as clear as you claim. For example, consider the PIRGs - the rank and file fundraising staffs are progressive college students, as were the activist who got support for them from college student fees. Yet the PR segment of the operation is controlled by career activists and creates astroturf-type initiatives with the money they raise. On other side of the spectrum, you have the Collegiate Network, a conservative organization that provides grants for funding conservative periodicals at colleges yet allows the students more or less total editorial control. Mr. Viguerie himself encompasses his ambiguity - he's probably one of the most important figures in terms of grassroots conservative organizing since the '60s. Viguerie's biggest impact was the solicitation of small individual donations via direct mail, which resulted in a profound broadening of the conservative funding base and shift of influence towards the conservative grassroots.

  • SkookumPlanet says:

    Thanks, I think, for these posts. I commented at Bora's on Matt's comments.
    Days ago I posted details about my interaction with editorial staff over their acceptance of a petrochemical astroturf group's self-misidentification as a consumer and health group. From the alar-apple dust-up of years past. It was an illustration how insidious industry psychomarketing can be. The newspaper involved published my counter op-ed but the actual effect of that is small.
    It's at Ed's my last post at the end of the thread. I'll highlight what I only noted there -- the timing alone shows the group had concerns beyond simply legislative lobbying. I argue the problem is more profound than you've identified here.
    The amount of resources at stake, the size of the economic concerns, dictates these people will be ultra-sophisticated. One need only look at the economy to see this at work routinely. Who wants to argue consumers are behaving in a rational, self-knowing way with the SUV fad? Here's one of my better written comments, on that subject, as an example.
    Clueless in the Land of the Implied Tailfin.
    Again, as at Bora's. You don't have any idea what you're talking about. !!!Commercials!!! Show me the commercials involved in Stimson's Fatwa. These people are running circles around you in about every communication channel I can think of. Read my posts in thread above. I have multiple examples, including from personal involvement, of ways campaigns are hidden in plain sight. Commercials are in no way the worst. I have a rule of thumb that works well -- if you percieve the pitch, it's not directed at you. I think I'll start calling this area the that-stuff-doesn't-work-on-me meme.
    I'm not arguing the legal/political details. But your examples of the technology involved are cartoons. I would be a good idea to have knowledge first. Otherwise, the people with all the talent, money, and experience will direct the country where they see fit, as they are now. I fail to see how using sophisticated technology, like computers and databases, to raise money via direct mail at state and national levels qualifies as grassroots organizing. That's a top-down method. I know it's called that, but it ain't. Just like Greenpeace ain't a grassroots org. A bake sale is the model for grassroots fund raising. Bottom-up.
    A ring in the nose can be cut out but a ring in the mind the best neurosurgeon can't get at.

  • SkookumPlanet says:

    It's not like that. Look at my posts at Ed's. The group I ran up against was well known in the environmental movement, yet in both cases no one thought to check them out. It sent out a canned op-ed piece, likely to hundreds of papers, and who knows where they were published? I ran across it visiting family on vacation.
    Whelan, the group's director, appeared on a non-political talk show. They simply lied about who they were and nobody noticed, or thought to notice. You want to volunteer to watch each of the mythical 500 channels, and all the local ones, and read all the newspapers in the country, and attend all the public presentations at chambers of commerce, etc.
    The group was talking about the issue as a junk science issue, basically, not referring to politics or legislation.
    At Ed's link I speak, in a general way, to this funder disclosure solution. It's a con that's being pushed. It's physically impossible for average Americans to process this information, even if the shells within shells within shells could be sorted out in a realistic time frame. See my example of the travelling educational theatre troupe.
    And finally, again as per Matt, you are using a completely non-applicable, irrational example. Biomedical publishing!! One more time. The group I dealt with was lying through their teeth, in many ways. You are suggesting that a inherently dishonest approach in a field rampant with dishonesty is comparable to a field that demands public admission of mistakes, and where a very few failures in disclosure or a few serious mistakes in the lab, can ruin a career. The field we are discussing pays skilled practioners to lie and to figure out ways around restrctions.
    Here's something you can compare the approach to -- the persuasion industry. Because that's what it is. I don't think of the industry in the following way, but many do and there's a kernel of solid truth in that. It's an industry spending billions a year to learn better how to lie to us and then put it into practice.
    You are grossly underestimating the problem because you aren't seeing the operation. Watch the Stimson Fatwa and you can watch it in action. It's got all the signs of a carefully specked out, designed, and currently in-execution campaign. In some form, it's likely his apology was written before the radio address. Last time I checked, his threat has not been repudiated in any manner.
    Within five days simpson and AG albedo attack the Gitmo defense bar, and simpson virtually broadcasts the announcement, of a campaign to blacklist these firms, yet neither the political opposition nor the bar can see this. Instead, everyone is going after simpson personally, which he's grinning about all day long. It's a freaking campaign. Hidden in plain sight.
    One last item. None of this is about "ideads".

  • MattXIV says:

    See my comments at Bora's. I think your statements about Stimson epitomizes your confusion - that wasn't subtle psychometric marketing, it was a thinly veiled threat to the law firms in question. The PR campaigns you describe typically consist of running spots, indentifying "friendly" experts to lend authority and depth to the arugments, setting up a group with some appropriately euphemistic name to fire off press releases from, and sending out position papers and talking points to other like-minded groups so the message is cohesive in the media. If you can point me to any PR activity that these groups engage in that isn't protected political speech, please do. And if "[You're] not arguing the legal/political details." then stop spamming treads with rehashes of the same post. Your arrogant little bit about how only you can see through PR techniques is getting old. I'm opining on this because I've been involved in decreasing measures in grassroots organising, fundraising, and astroturfing - I know how this stuff gets done. I'm just not soiling myself over it like you are.
    If you fail to see how direct mail democratized political financing, you're pretty damn ignorant how fundraising works. Most of the other money floating comes from business interest (not just corps, but unions and professional associations) and the ideologically motivated rich and obviously the donors have a huge impact on what issues are going to be pursued. Direct mail allows you to start a campaign for an issue without having some huge grant by soliciting donations from a large number of like-minded individuals. Any contempoary grassroots campaign is going to use direct mail or similar methods to both raise awareness of an issue and solicit funds to gain access to paid media. It lowers the amount of seed money needed to a level where you don't need to have political connections to try to get an issue noticed. The idea that a grassroots campaign for even a city-level issue would be funded by a bakesale is a joke - you'd at least need a lemonade stand as well.

  • jackd says:

    crf, your ideas about voluntary auditing and disclosure are nice, but not realistic. The wider public can be deceived because the liars have money, pure and simple. Or as my journalism professor told me about 25 years ago: "You take the truth and give me a high-powered PR campaign and I'll win every time."
    Don't believe me? See "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth"[sic].

  • MattXIV says:

    Jacob Sullum has the details of the interpretation Viguerie is making at http://www.reason.com/blog/show/118016.html. It would require a dubiously broad reading of the law, but OTOH using dubiously broad readings of laws to sic prosecutors on political rivals isn't exactly unheard of.

  • Metro says:

    I'm not as widely travelled in the blogosphere as some here, but I see no reason why paid activists of any stripe shouldn't reveal who pays them.
    Commercials are deceptive. That's why political commercials contain the "I approved this message" addendum (Willie Horton, anyone?).
    Merely mocking the daft ideas of paid puppets won't work if they can play their music on a 100,000-watt PA while you're chanting through a cardboard megaphone.
    If a guy claiming to speak for Meat Consumers of America reveals that his paycheque comes with top-ups from PETA, then I get a much clearer picture. If some "climate-change expert" turns out to be an Exxon stooge, then I can decide how much rhetorical weight to give his commentary.
    Since the battles in the marketplace of ideas are often fought by corporate shills ranged against true grass-roots oppos, knowing where the money comes from gives us an idea who their true masters are.