By Liz Borkowski
There’s an article making its way around the internet warning that a lobbying reform law currently in the Senate will require bloggers who criticize Congress and reach audiences of more than 500 to register and file quarterly reports with Congress — or risk jail time.
Mike Dunford of The Questionable Authority decided to investigate this, and found no such provision in the bill. In fact, he cites passages of the bill stating that it covers paid attempts to stir up the public on behalf of a client. Sums above $25,000 also need to be involved. In fact, this piece of the legislation seems specifically designed to crack down on astroturfing, a tactic that industry PR firms use to manufacture grassroots support for their positions.
In astroturfing, an industry funds the creation of a group that appears to be grassroots in nature and that argues the industry’s position (though its arguments will tend to focus on things like freedom and “stopping big government” and avoid mentioning industry). Here’s how SourceWatch explains it:
Unlike genuine grassroots activism which tends to be money-poor but people-rich, astroturf campaigns are typically people-poor but cash-rich. Funded heavily by corporate largesse, they use sophisticated computer databases, telephone banks and hired organizers to rope less-informed activists into sending letters to their elected officials or engaging in other actions that create the appearance of grassroots support for their client’s cause.
Astroturf techniques have been used to:
• block the transfer of federal licenses that WorldCom uses for its long distance and Internet services by Issue Dynamics Inc. using non-profit groups like the United Church of Christ
• defeat the Clinton administration’s proposed health care reform, through a front group called “Rx Partners” created by the Beckel Cowan PR firm, and the Coalition for Health Insurance Choices, created by public relations consultant Blair Childs
• harass environmentalists through the Wise Use movement
• loosen automobile fuel efficience standards
• support clear-cutting American forests, through a front group called Citizens to Protect the Pacific Northwest and Northern California Economy
• oppose restrictions on smoking in public places, through a front group called National Smokers Alliance, which was created by Burson-Marsteller
• generate a dossier of newsclips orchestrated by Edelman to assist Microsoft lobbyists persuade U.S. state attorney generals not to join a class action against the company.
• Encourage people to buy Coke
After Mike concluded that the legislation was targeted at astroturfing and wasn’t likely to affect bloggers, he turned to investigating the source of the press release that stirred up the concern in the first place:
Now let’s look more closely at the press release that’s caused all of the fuss. It was issued by a “grassroots organization” called GrassrootsFreedom.com. This organization has, in the 14 days since the bill was introduced, been started up, got the website up, got the email notification list up, got at least the one press release out, and apparently had a press conference scheduled at one point in time. Suspicious yet?
If you are, good, because the suspicions certainly appear to be pretty valid. The founder of GrassrootsFreedom is Richard A. Viguerie. Mr. Viguerie is a long-time conservative activist who – wait for it – “pioneered political use of computerized mass mail,” and has raised funds for a long list of conservative causes during his long career.
That’s right. It looks like the alarmist (and dishonest) “Congress is going to lock up bloggers” press release was written by an astroturf group, in an attempt to influence bloggers to oppose (at the grassroots level) a piece of legislation designed to make it harder to use astroturf groups to influence legislation.
Gotta love it.
For more examples of astroturfing, check out Paul Thacker’s article “Hidden Ties,” which chronicles the work of Project Protect and Save our Species Alliance on the Healthy Forests Initiative and Endangered Species Act.