How Grassroots Organizing Has Been Co-Opted

A few weeks ago, seemingly out of the blue, people suddenly began referring to President Obama's proposal to include end-of-life-care assistance into health-care legislation as the government formation of "death panels." The blogosphere lit up, and protesters at town-hall meetings began displaying signs expressing outrage over the impending forced death of the elderly. Though this seemed to be an expression of ground-up, grassroots activism, it was in fact a carefully constructed bit of astroturfing.

Fake-grassroots organizing—also dubbed "grasstops" or "astroturf" lobbying—isn't new. The phrase has been around since at least the 1980s. In 1994, when the Clinton White House was pushing its version of health-care reform, Washington-based interest groups fanned out to sign on local citizens to appear outraged. To be fair, this type of lobbying is perfectly legal, and in Washington, efforts to create faux average-Joe outrage is big business. Campaigns and Elections magazine estimated that it's close to a billion-dollar industry, and an unregulated one at that: where traditional lobbying firms have to disclose their contracts and clients, grasstop lobby shops argued successfully to Congress in 2007 that any monitoring of the collection of people's voices would infringe on free-speech rights.

What is new is how the method has become increasingly refined. "You used to see things like mass faxing and patching through calls to congressional offices," says Ken Silverstein, a Washington reporter who a decade ago wrote an expose on astroturfing for Mother Jones. Now, he says, suspicions have grown, leading grasstop organizers to take ever more subtle approaches: "When the old tactics become too obvious, these people become more clever to not get caught."

There's an undeniable effectiveness in grassroots protest. The act of people making the time and energy to assemble themselves, despite their lives and personal responsibilities, is the clearest form of democracy at work. But the success of ground-based organizing has given rise to more sophisticated forms of professional astroturfing, effectively choking out any semblance of the organic groundborne movements that decades ago pushed issues like civil rights and the end of wars. Political activist Tom Hayden, who led some of the biggest ground-based movements on Vietnam and race relations, sees a marked shift. The intensity of emotions surrounding an issue like health care is undeniable, but compared to the antiwar protests he once led, many of the health-care demonstrations this month are not "real protests, they're the appearance of protests as part of a larger corporate strategy," he says. "But the irony might be that now, in order to be heard at the grassroots level, you may have to belong to an industry coalition."

A case in point: earlier this year, when groups across the country staged "tea party" protests against the administration's stimulus spending, it appeared at first to be an organic, populist movement. But the money and organization trail led back to two Washington-based think tanks, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, that had funneled funds and detailed logistical information to local organizers (some of whom were being paid) about how to make the demonstrations look homegrown. Similarly, the protests and town-hall disruptions for and against health-care reform that have arisen in recent weeks have been linked back to insurance companies and interest groups hoping to shape the debate without appearing like meddlers trying to buy policy with buckets of money. After hosting several town-hall meetings, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin remarked that he felt as though the raucous emotions were being "orchestrated." A spokesman for anti-reform group Conservatives for Patients' Rights, responding to those and similar Democratic accusations, asserted that no anger or concern had to be manufactured.

When people pool their passions and independently form the framework of a movement, the result can still end up in the hands of a national organization. The best example may be last fall, when a genuine army of grassroots networkers assembled in unprecedented numbers in living rooms and online to promote Barack Obama's candidacy. The summer before the election, more than 700 niche online groups—Sacramento Kings fans for Obama, Winelovers for Obama—had formed to plan local campaign events. But what followed was logistically predictable: recognizing the groups as a foundation that had already been built, Obama campaign officials moved in to manage the groups—helping them with voter-registration drives and trying to get leaders airtime. Many of the group organizers saw the top-down approach as interference, essentially diluting the genuineness of their efforts.

The method looks to continue on climate policy, which the Senate is set to take up this fall. In a memo leaked last week, oil industry lobbying organization the American Petroleum Institute asked regional companies to urge their employees to participate in planned protests (designed to appear independently organized) against the cap-and-trade legislation the House passed this summer. "The objective of these rallies is to put a human face on the impacts of unsound energy policy and to aim a loud message at [20 different] states," including Florida, Georgia, and Pennylvania, wrote API president Jack Gerard. He went on to assure recipients of the memo that API will cover all organizational costs and handling of logistics. An API spokesperson told NEWSWEEK that participants will be there because of their own concerns, and that API is just helping them assemble.

"It seems like the big thing that has changed is that historically, movements were made up of people who were disenfranchised; now they're sponsored by insiders," says Paul Frymer, a political scientist at Princeton. "They still have true activists attached to them, they just have a lot more help than they used to." Much of that help now comes from the Internet. With the help of social networks, organizing people and planning events can now be done quickly and with ease. But that ease can also come at a price: when all that's required to inflate an online group's size is a mass e-mail asking friends and family to click a link, the earnestness of the movement's convictions may come under question.

It's certainly the case that there are true believers out there who work for no one but themselves and their cause. Polling numbers show that as lawmakers shape long-term programs with hefty price tags, more people rather than fewer are paying attention and becoming involved in the political process. A Gallup poll taken last fall put the number of politically engaged Americans at 43 percent, a new high. But it remains increasingly difficult to identify those people when they're standing in a crowd of others who may have a far less measured, and certainly less earnest, interest in the issue at hand.