Weeding Out The Astroturf

This seems like an especially apropos subject to blog about; I am after all, a horticulturalist and also work with children who have developmental disabilities, some of whom are autistic/Asperger’s. As a freelance writer with degrees in science, my goal is to provide useful information to the public that is unbiased, based on good research science, and is not created to promote commercial products. In the classes I teach, the articles I write and the conversations I have with others in my community, I am constantly working to correct the misinformation given by the likes of J. Baker, who flog books full of quackery, self-promotional videos and broadcast programming, and present pseudoscience as special, secret knowledge that only they have access to because the “experts” don’t want the public to know. More details deconstructing this kind of bunk are on this page.

I really, really don’t like inauthentic stuff. I like fields with real grass, and floors with real carpeting. Astroturf and indoor-outdoor carpeting rub me the wrong way, even when I have my shoes on. More inauthenticity includes advertising, propaganda and campaigning presented as vox populi. (Sorry, I guess the word “propaganda” in that list is a redundancy.) “Advertorials” and “astroturf” efforts exasperate me.

When used outside of sports arenas, the term “astroturf” refers to faux grass-roots efforts. These activities are meant to seem like they come from the general populace, when in fact they are really self-promotional campaigns sponsored and instigated by businesses. The purpose of astroturfing is to spread a commercial meme, sliding it under people’s advertising radar by presenting it as originating from other ordinary people, rather than from its true source.

Real grass-roots efforts (as organizers everywhere will attest) are nearly always blessed with thin wallets but loads of volunteers. In contrast, astroturf efforts frequently have plenty of funding to support a small but carefully-led group of workers. The whole “autism is vaccine induced / mercury poisoning and we need to cure our stricken children with X, Y and / or Z treatment” crowd is a prime example of small-time astroturfing by the various quacks who are selling purported “cures”. Some of the workers in this whole fiasco are journalists / media people and medical personnel, who end up adding their skills and patina of respectability.

In an effort to “get the word out”, the workers are advised how to get the attention of unwitting television reporters to and create the angst-ridden, “small person vs big bad government / organization” newsbites that will sell airtime for broadcasting companies; are given sample letters to send to the local newspaper editors; and are provided with Web boards that purport to be helpful consumer sites and support groups for concerned families sharing information, but are also fronts for promoting commercial enterprises, e.g. quack “cures” and dubious treatments.

The insidious problem with stealth astroturf is that the people involved don’t realize they’re being duped. Full of earnest, well-intended zeal for spreading the gospel, these followers are very convincing and energetic, in ways that ordinary paid employees wouldn’t be.

Now, those Web sites can contain a lot of useful advice and emotional support between ordinary people posting there. But some of those members will find the boards are also bastions of groupthink, enforced by a booster club of the vociferous few who create an atmosphere that is hostile to disagreement. The zealous may also go beyond the bounds of their own personal expertise and become self-appointment experts simply by dint of experience rather than by professional expertise.

It gets worse. Beyond promoting commercial products and services, astroturfing seeks to champion not just the social but also the legal necessity. This requires selling the whole system of ideas to the mass-market culture as the beneficial and inevitable solution to what is actually an artificial need for a non-solution to a nonexistent problem. Therefore we have “autism epidemics” resulting from “poisoned” children, or those who assert that ABA is a “medically necessary” treatment for “afflicted” children.

The ordinary citizen or government official doesn’t understand the scientific or educational issues, and doesn’t have the time to educate themselves to a level necessary to be able to critically analyse the claims. When faced with the inevitable scientific debunking of either the problem or the solutions being sold to address them, these quacks find that they must fend off potential legal actions by expanding into pre-emptive damage-control: (emphasis mine)

As WKA Communications stated in a brochure distributed at Key West, “We’d Rather Guard the Border Than Fight the War.”
“If you don’t keep an ear to the ground, or ignore what you hear, the results aren’t pretty,” the brochure states. “In terms of time, energy and cost, the difference between early-stage issues management and late-stage crisis management is the difference between guarding a border and fighting a war. It’s easier and less expensive to influence an outcome before the government has written the law or regulation.

In these cases, the question parents, educators, therapists and government officials must ask themselves is, “What is being sold here, and who ultimately benefits?”

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