Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Astroturf

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 29, 2015

Faking a grassroots movement is known as astroturfing.  Named after the synthetic carpeting that  is meant to look like green grass, the term astroturfing is meant to be a spoof of the idiom grassroots.   On the Internet, astroturfers use software to hide their identities.  Additionally astroturfers sometimes create multiple online personas to astroturf.

In other words, astroturf groups and online astroturfers are meant to look like grassroots-based citizen groups or coalitions, but they are primarily conceived and funded by groups who are intent on disseminating information that calls into question facts and evidence, or to take down an individual, group, corporation, or association that astroturfers believe threatens the success of the astroturf agenda.

The University of Texas at Austin published a glossary of terms used in American politics (click HERE to view the page).  Astroturfing is the first term on the list.

To give readers some background information on what Astro Turf is, the product was invented and patented in 1965 by Donald L. Elbert, James M. Faria, and Robert T. Wright who worked for Monsanto Industries.  Originally, it was called ChemGrass but the following year, when it was used at the Houston Astrodome where the Houston Astros played, it was renamed Astro Turf.

What this means is that astroturfing couldn’t have been used in any sense prior to 1966.

On May 27, 2008 the Sarasota Herald-Tribune carried a Los Angeles Times article by Tom Hamburger, Chuck Neubauer and Janet Hook entitled, “Untying Ties To Lobbyists Not Easy.”  Midway through the article, the following was written:

In the Obama campaign, top strategist David Axelrod owns a political consulting company in Chicago and is also a partner in a company that specializes in what BUsiness Week magazine described as “astroturfing,” also called grass-roots lobbying.  It has organized campaigns to build public support to influence state and local government decisions, sometimes working with corporate backed “citizen organizations” that espouse the company’s point of view.

The Spokesman Review of July 12, 1995 talked about the behavior in an article by Molly Ivins entitled, “Astroturf: The Artificial Grass-roots Support Kind.”  The article opened with this paragraph:

Astroturf” is a political term for phony grass-roots organizations supported with corporate money.  In one of the more berserk developments in the history of modern politics, astroturf has become such a profitable (estimated $1 billion a year) and sophisticated business that public relations firms are now warring with one another about who provides astroturf and who provides “real” grass-roots organizing.

Five years earlier, it was found in a quote used in a news article in the Washington Post on May 12, 1990 in a story about the AFL-CIO.  The AFL-CIO had taken a position on the issue of abortions that resulted in an avalanche of communications from letters to phone calls from people objecting to their stand on the issue.  The article highlighted the comments of U.S. labor union leader Joseph Lane Kirkland (12 March 12 1922 – 14 August 1999) who served as President of the AFL-CIO for more than 16 years.  In the news story, the following was reported:

But rather than concede the sincerity of those who want the AFL-CIO to remain neutral on abortion, he snidely remarked, “I’ve been around a while, and I think I can tell grass roots from Astroturf.”

Sources claim that the idiom was found with the spirit of its current use in an unidentified public statement made by then-US Democrat Senator Lloyd Bentsen (11 February 11 1921 – 23 May 2006) from Texas.  In 1985, he supposedly wrote in the public statement that “a fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grass roots and AstroTurf … this is generated mail.”

The difficulty in not having access to the published statement is that it may or may not be factual.  In fact, the quote that compares grass to Astroturf has been attributed to a number of sports personalities.

What is known is that at some point between 1966 and 1985, someone used the word as it is used in today’s vernacular.  At this point, credit is given to the late Lloyd Bentsen.

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3 Responses to “Astroturf”

  1. Awesome! Amazing! I am simply dumfounded by the amount of work that has gone in to make this post. I must very warmly congratulate you, Elyse! You are doing a fantastic job. This blog has a great future. May your light keep shining!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. A great deal of time is invested in researching each idiom, and the journey with each idiom is a journey that oftentimes surprises even me. 🙂

      • Honestly I was amazed because I write a lot and I know how much time one needs to put into research like the one you are doing on the idioms. What I can say with certainty is that if you persist the rewards will be awesome in the end.

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