Everyone likes to hate on spammers, but they’re basically the houseflies of the Internet. Far more insidious and damaging are astroturfers and front groups—those corporate-funded, agenda-pushing people who don’t disclose who they’re really working for while they participate in online culture and the media. The Center for Media and Democracy has put together a list of tips to help you identify them from real grassroots movements, while Free Press has created a widget that reveals front groups for five large companies you frequently see on Consumerist.
The biggest tip-off, of course, is that there’s not a 100% clear disclosure of the group’s beginnings and location. The Center for Media and Democracy says you should look for physical addresses, and cross-reference them on their astroturfing wiki, SourceWatch.org. (If the address is in D.C., alarms should be going off.) Real grassroots will usually prominently list their chief personnel (but cross-reference those, too) and source of funding.
Other signs can be found in the name and language they use. For example, front groups often seem to be making arguments about a topic completely unrelated to some other issue, and yet they eventually focus on that “secondary” issue. (Their example: “casting the secondhand smoke [issue] as an issue of property rights.”) Front groups will also frequently use “feel-good” names that, upon closer inspection, seem to be diametrically opposed to their cause:
…such as the National Wetlands Coalition, which opposed policies to protect U.S. wetlands, or Citizens for a Free Kuwait, which purported to represent U.S. citizens but was actually funded almost entirely by the royal family of Kuwait. Sometimes the name of a front group might seem to suggest academic or political neutrality (“Consumers’ Research,” “American Policy Center”), while in fact it consistently turns out opinions, research, surveys, reports, polls and other declarations that benefit the interests of a company, industry or political candidate.
Most important, if you discover something about a front group you should share it on the SourceWatch wiki where it can be verified and indexed with other info, so that consumers have a reference guide they can use to unmask corporations.
“Attack of the Living Front Groups: PRWatch Offers Help to Unmask Corporate Tricksters” [PR Watch / Center for Media and Democracy via MichiganTelephone]
“Astroturf: Exposing the Fake Grassroots” [Free Press]
(Photo: Free Press)