From time to time, the Civic Paths Research Group in the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism releases a cluster of mini-blogs, written by participating PhD students and focused around a shared set of topics. We call these Hot Spots. If you’ve followed this blog over the past year or so, you will have seen previous Hot Spots focused on The Dark Side(s) of DIY, Election Season Revisited, and Civic Kickstarters. Today, they have launched the fourth installment in the series, which looks closely at the concept of “Astroturf” and its relationship to grassroots activism, as PhD candidate Michelle C Forelle explains below . Enjoy.
Grass, Plastic, and Authenticity
Grass is an interesting plant. When you look at a lawn from above, it looks simply like a very thick cluster of individual plants. But when you get down to the roots, you realize grass is actually a very complex network. This sophisticated root system makes grass a very hardy plant, able to withstand grazing, mowing and getting forever trampled underfoot while still continuing to grow. It’s not surprising, then, that we use the metaphor “grassroots” to refer to movements that arise from networks of people who, working together, can share resources to reach a common goal.
“Astroturfing” flips this metaphor on its head. Unlike an organic network of nodes that grow from the ground up, astroturf is a single, homogenous sheet of plastic that is laid over the ground. It is inauthentic grass, made to look like the “real thing” while at the same time supplanting or even suffocating the real thing beneath it.
This Hot Spot will take us through some various considerations of astroturf to explore what it is we mean when we label something as such. Kari discusses how transparency differentiates representative organizations and astroturf ones, especially in the world of politics and advocacy. Andrew considers recent corporate and governmental attempts to create astroturf hacking events. Xam writes a piece of advice for astroturf groups looking to use the Internet, using a Hong Kong group as an example, while Yomna takes us to Egypt to have a closer look at the movements that have shaken the country over the last few years, and blurred lines there between grassroots and astroturf. Sam asks us why we even care about the distinction at all, arguing that maybe the issue of astroturf is actually distracting us from more important concerns.
These posts are just some brief attempts to explore the importance (or not) of authenticity in movements. Here we begin to answer some questions, and provoke many others. We hope these first steps inspire others to contribute their thoughts and experiences on astroturf and the many overt and covert ways it is changing civic society.
- Michelle C Forelle
 Mowing the Astroturf, by Kari Storla
 Turf Wars: What is a Civic Hacker, by Andrew Schrock
 Astroturfing 101, by Xam Chan
 Regime Activism, by Yomna Elsayed
 Getting to the Dirt, by Samantha Close
* HOTSPOT PHILOSOPHY: These collections of mini-blog posts — “hot spots” — are organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group. They’re about the things we love to talk about. And, like our in-person conversations, they play with ideas at the intersection of participatory culture, civic engagement, and new media. Our rules for the hotspot are these: No one gets to spend a million hours wordsmithing — these are idea starters, not finishers — and posts shouldn’t be a whole lot longer than five hundred words. Check out our first hotspot intro to read more about the thought process behind these mini-blog posts.