Astroturfing the Grassroots

Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants. A grassroots movement is one naturally and spontaneously originating at the local level to give voice to a particular point of view.

In recent years, astroturfing has found its way into the environmental arena, blurring the lines between a true grassroots movement for or against a policy, facility or permit and one manufactured by a group for or against that policy, facility or permit. Most recently, the war on coal seems to be fertile ground in which fake grassroots can be planted.

Apparently, the coal industry paid folks $50 each to show up at an EPA hearing on power plant rules wearing pro-coal shirts. An advertisement on Craigslist seems to have actually solicited willing participants. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign makes no secret it wants to “mobilize grassroots activists in local communities to advocate for the retirement of old and outdated coal plants and to prevent new coal plants from being built.” It’s right there on the website! While one may wonder why true grassroots activists need to be mobilized (presumably, they already are; that’s why they are considered grassroots activists in the first place), this seems to suggest the Sierra Club wants to steer well-meaning folks in a direction that serves the Sierra Club’s goals.

Astroturfing is not limited to issues relating to coal. Hydraulic fracturing and climate change have seen, and will continue to see, their shares. In the environmental arena, it seems inevitable a facility, or a permit for a facility, will generate opposition. The opposition can take the form of social media comments, formal comments submitted to a regulatory agency and complaints to a regulatory agency about a facility. However, there are ways to detect and counter astroturfing efforts.

On social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, some astroturfers create fake online personas. Then, they tweet or post their statements in opposition, comment on blogs or newspaper stories and otherwise try to create the impression of widespread opposition. To counter this type of effort, several systems have been developed to analyze the source of the comments, so the number of actual contributors to the effort can be exposed. Once identified, going public with information the grassroots activists are few in number serves to diminish the impact.

Comments submitted to a regulatory agency in opposition to a facility or a permit may also be co-opted by astroturfers. Usually, opposition submitted through a form letter or a petition is an indication the commenter may not be fully engaged in the effort. For example, signing a petition at a mall may create hundreds of signatures, but many will not know what they are signing. The address of the commenter should be reviewed as he/she may be outside of the area that could be impacted. In one case, opposition comments were submitted by people living upstream of the water discharge point they were opposing.

Complaints to a regulatory agency about a facility tend to spike when a permit renewal or expansion modification is pending. Identifying the address of the complainant and the wind speed/direction at the time of the complaint will provide information about the reliability of the information being submitted by the complainant.

In short, astroturfing seems to be the new normal. When preparing for a regulated activity, such as building or modifying a facility that requires environmental permits —especially in a controversial area such as coal or other fossil fuels — potential opposition should be gauged and plans put in place to counter any such opposition, so the project can move forward with a minimum of delay and disruption.

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