Will 2021 be the year of business astroturfing?
7 September 2020 at 5:48 pm
Neil Pharaoh looks at why the social purpose sector needs to be aware of astroturfing and shares advice on how to spot it and how best to manage it.
Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organisation to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants. It is becoming increasingly popular for business and industry groups and is being used to counteract community opposition to projects, activities or development. This article talks about astroturf, how to spot it and how best to manage it.
Firstly, how to spot astroturf.
A little under 5,000 kilometres from where I live in Victoria, a little event happened on 12 December 2019, which in any normal circumstances would be completely unremarkable. However, what happened then has sent a shudder down a number of small and medium social purpose organisations, in particular those advocating for environment and social issues.
For those who thought I was talking about Juukan Gorge, good guess, but not the topic of today – this one has potentially as much impact but has had substantially less coverage in the media. What I am talking about is a council meeting that happened in Western Australia, where 200 members of the local community (a full 2 per cent of the town’s population) attended a council meeting in support of a motion calling upon the PM, treasurer, assistant ministers and federal MP to try and ban a charity which is advocating for environmental protection in their region.
Before I dive into the contents, let me examine why this is critical for social purpose organisations, as the issue at heart is increasingly being felt in the social purpose sector.
It appears a business, or number of business/mining/lobbying groups are pushing for a particular agenda, in this case a new development over environmental protection. In doing so, one or two small community and social purpose organisations are resisting.
Whether it is aid and development projects, environmental outcomes, or even community development it isn’t unusual to have groups on opposing sides of an issue. What is unusual, and something I am seeing more and more around advocacy and engagement is that businesses are forming their own “astroturfing” community groups. In this instance, almost 2 per cent of a town’s entire population (think 100,000 Melburnians or one MCG) attended a local council meeting to support a letter which looks very corporate in its drafting. The letter, with headers like “Charity or free ride?” and “regulation needed for charitable activists” is littered with references to charities being tax deductible and having no accountability.
While not known, an outsider could reasonably pick who is backing this “anti-charity activist” campaign – with mining, ports and development on the horizon, there are clear vested interests at play. When you see this sort of activity it is really critical to try and follow the money – globally the leader in this is Inclusive Development International, co-founded by an Australian it tries to track financial and other transactions to uncover corruption, fraud and other issues, in particular in the mining space.
To spot an astroturf, look for the following:
- Engagement of community members who typically wouldn’t be active on social, community or other issues suddenly having an interest.
- Industry associations trying to provide cover for a potential funder – whose name is behind the industry association becomes a key issue.
- Unusual motions, attendance activities and letters – such as the WA example in a local council.
So how do I defend our organisation or project when astroturfing is underway?
The first thing to do is run three concurrent streams of advocacy, one factual, one emotional and one community based.
Factual is calling out the hypocritical nature of the situation – in this instance in WA, the letter to the PM spoke about charities getting tax deductions and being anonymous, but failed to note that business employing lobbyists is a tax deduction, business donating to political parties is also a tax deduction, and that activities involved in charities are all regulated, as is industry.
Being honest to where the power imbalance lies is key – do you really think a small NGO has a David and Goliath win over a multibillion-dollar company in a power imbalance? Do you really think traditional owners are better negotiators and able to exert more pressure against a global multinational? I do not think so – so be sure arguments are factual.
The emotional argument is one around the cause. Typically, causes motivate individuals more than seeing a business make a profit – whether it be environmental, social or other.
Finally, think of the community. If a certain company or business wants to influence this project, what other projects will they, or others, try to have sway on? What things can we do to make it genuinely reflective of the community? (Think consultations, memberships, engagement with different groups). And remember, those who speak loudest may not speak to those most disenfranchised or distanced. Asking questions about consultation reaching young people, first nations, people with a disability or other groups is critical to have genuine community reflection.
To win in an astroturf battle the first step is to ask the key questions about proxies, stakeholders and who is pulling the strings. Be sure to look at the type of work Inclusive Development International (IDI) does, and try to replicate that at a local level.
Secondly, community, emotion and facts – if you remember those three critical points you will go a long way to helping secure the best outcome for your community.
About the author: Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy. Neil has been behind many leading social policy and advocacy campaigns on gender rights, equality, medical research and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. He regularly runs workshops and advocacy sessions and advises leading social purpose organisations on their government engagement strategy and systems. @neilpharaoh on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Happenings on the hill is a fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.
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