The Science of Astroturfing

Read time: 4 mins

Here at DeSmogBlog, and around the environmental and liberal political blogosphere, there is great concern about “Astroturf” organizations—groups that pose as real citizen movements or organizations, but in fact are closely tied to corporations or special interests. The “fake grassroots” has been a major issue in the climate debate in particular, where groups like Americans for Prosperity, closely tied to the billionaire Koch Brothers, have sought to mobilize opposition to cap-and-trade legislation.

One obvious goal of astroturfing is to shape public policy, and public opinion, in a manner congenial to corporate interests. And indeed, the outrage over astroturfing in a sense presumes that this activity actually works (or else, why oppose it).

Yet there have been few scientific tests of whether the strategy does indeed move people—in part, presumably, because doing a controlled experiment might be hard to pull off. That’s why I was so intrigued by a new study in the Journal of Business Ethics, which attempts to do just that.

Charles H. Cho of the ESSEC Business School in France, and his colleagues, set up a study in which they created (ironically) fake Astroturf websites related to global warming—as well as fake grassroots websites on the same issue–and tested over 200 college undergraduates on their responses to them. To ensure a strong experimental design, only a few things were varied about these websites–what they claimed about the science, and what they disclosed about their funding sources:

The website for each condition, respectively, consisted of a ‘‘Home page’’ with links to five other pages pertaining to global warming and the organization’s activities. In the grassroots condition, these were labeled as ‘‘About us,’’ ‘‘Key issues and solutions,’’ ‘‘Why act now?’’ ‘‘Get involved!’’ and ‘‘Contact us.’’ Similarly, in the astroturf condition, the pages links were labeled as ‘‘About us,’’ ‘‘Myths/facts,’’ ‘‘Climate science,’’ ‘‘Scientific references,’’ and ‘‘Contact us.’’ All of the content was based on information found on real-world grassroots and astroturf web-sites ….

A further manipulation consisted of disclosing information regarding the funding source that supported the organization. The organization’s name in all websites, regardless of the condition, was ‘‘Climate Clarity.’’ In each of the funding source conditions, all web pages within the condition specified who funds the organization (donations, Exxon Mobil or the Conservation Heritage Fund). The ‘‘no disclosure’’ condition did not have any information on funding sources anywhere within the web pages.

I trust readers of this blog can see why this study design is…relevant. 

Interestingly, when the results were gathered, it turned out that information about the site’s funding source didn’t have any significant effect on the study participants’ views. However, readers of the astroturf sites  were much more likely to feel that the science of global warming is uncertain, and to question the phenomenon’s human causation. 

One finding was particularly disturbing: People found the Astroturf messages less trustworthy overall, and yet were still influenced by them. The most influenced were those study participants who were the least engaged in the climate issue–and thus, presumably, the most vulnerable to astroturf misinformation.

In many ways, this study bulwarks assumptions that I—and many of us—had already. The one surprising thing was that funding source didn’t seem to matter—but you have to wonder about this finding a little.

The study used “ExxonMobil” as the funding source for Astroturf groups, but what that actually signified to study participants is unclear. When funding sources of Astroturf groups are revealed in blogs and on the media, you generally get a lot more information than this–and a much greater tone of outrage. Perhaps a more realistic test of this condition would lead to a different result.

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Of course you have billionaires spending money on the left as well.
Propping up organizations and publications that espouse a particular world view is the game that is played on all sides. Calling out the other side for astroturfing is part of the game I suppose.

Pots and kettles.

You’re asking why aren’t these students behaving like ultra-progressives?

The ultra-progressive doesn’t evaluate the message, they evaluate the messenger. The scientists clearly expected a ultra-progressive response, in that as soon as they find the website, they visit the funding page, and when they see Exxon, they leave the website.

You should have expected this result based on your recent blog post showing that conservatives evaluate the message of climate change, and liberals evaluate the messenger.

Also consider that the same “astro-turfing” is done by the left, except you label those sites as “informative.

The first two responses are typical political responses: in Canada the rightwingers meet criticism of the Conservatives with “Well, the Liberals did it too!” It’s a dishonest argument. Either they are trying to pretend that their side is not behaving worse than anyone else, or they are assumiing that everyone is as dishonest as they are.

Tu quoque! Notice how the fact that there are two sides to the argument – one, a science led position, and two, disinformation by the fossil fuel industry – is used to conclude that they’re both the same, via a lost contrast fallacy. I originally coined the term Solomon fallacy to describe this type of situation, in which the superficial aspect of the disagreement – i.e., that there are two sides – can lead people to falsely conclude there’s an equivalency.

I don’t lump all skeptic positions together despite the fact that a sizable portion of what is produced on the contrarian side is fossil fuel industry produced disinformation. Still, there are legitimate reasons for having reservations, and I voiced my own reservations some twenty years ago to Roger Pielke, Sr., when I worked in CIRES.

Disagreements among scientists are not uncommon. And these disagreements can even take the form of backbiting, which is partly a manifestation of the highly competitive environment in which scientists work. Science breeds this, it’s contained in the nature of the process. And it’s also the reason that scientific conclusions have merit beyond the personalities and motives of the individuals who produce them, since the conclusions have already undergone a rigorous vetting process in which possible errors are attacked with zeal. Finding someone else’s mistakes is a common path to building one’s own career, and it’s a legitimate activity as long as it serves a constructive purpose.

The purpose of astroturfing on the issue of climate science is to undermine the science in the minds of a scientifically naive public in order to advance the financial interests of the fossil fuel industry. There is no legitimate purpose for disguising one’s motives in a genuine debate, nor is there any legitimate purpose for lying or spreading disinformation. Good faith arguments vary in their substance but they are not fraud or defamatory deception.

Anyone else notice the hypocrisy of a blog, reportedly supported by Soros funding, and managed by a PR firm complaining about astroturfing.

The wheels came off the CAGW argument. It has lost public support. Now the blog’s goal appears to hide or misrepresent those facts. Isn’t that astroturfing?

I’m not pointing to DeSmog Blog, but to the many CAGW blogs out there. If it does fit this blog, so be it.

Not sure it is hypocrisy since Desmogblog is pretty upfront about being a pro-CAGW PR blog. Interesting about their funding though. They routinely dismiss skeptics as being liars in service of corporate interests. That pretty much describes their PR role.

Desmogblog is apparently bankrolled by corporate types and enlists the “grassroots” to action in service of their cause. I guess that would make them an Astroturf site.

Applegate, only deniers talk about CAGW; and they are dishonest when they call themselves “skeptics” - “deniers” is more accurate.

Love that ad hominem. Facts speak louder.

The real deniers are those who struggle to deny that climate is changing and always has changed naturally, instead maintaining that only when man emits CO2 can the climate change. That is real denial.

Skeptics want proof that the models, upon which AGW are based, can predict the climate. They failed to for the past ten years. I don’t deny that CO2 can effect the climate, but I am skeptical that the models come close to proving that it is happening.

“The real deniers are those who struggle to deny that climate is changing and always has changed naturally, instead maintaining that only when man emits CO2 can the climate change. That is real denial.”
You are absolutely right on that one.
Lucky for us that actual climate scientists know that climate changes naturally, and went to all that effort to figure out why it does so. Otherwise, we would not know that natural causes are very highly unlikely to be causing the warming we are seeing in recent decades, and we would be blindly bumbling along oblivious to the very highly likely case that we are seriously screwing with the climate our children & grandchildren will experience.

It would be lovely if they “went to all that effort to figure out why it does” change naturally. Then the models would have predicted the past decade of no warming.

You know, you can call people deniers, skeptics, whatever. What we really are is critical thinkers, the type that don’t blindly follow. As was mentioned above, the wheels are well off of the CAGW bandwagon at this point and no matter how you (or Chris Mooney) try to spin it, the jig is up, ok? H.

Hank, deniers are not critical thinkers. You have to have some knowledge to be able to criticize intelligently, and deniers get all their information from denialist websites which are full of lies, inconsistencies and stupidity. No knowledge worth having there.

Critical thinkers would recognize that the denier websites are not credible.

algore is back.algore is back. what happened to his first $300,000,000?????? guess he has a new trough to pig from.”Former vice-president Al Gore is back with a new global warming campaign. This morning, he announced the launch of “The Climate Reality Project,“ an initiative he claims is intended to ”…broadcast the reality of the climate crisis”. he states that my side has millions but your side has reality…hahahahahahah he really said that. reality is the more he talks the better for us. i make sure i donate to him at every chance. koch bros dont come close to having an effect like him….

Astroturfers like the anonymous commenters on this site.

“Of course you have billionaires spending money on the left as well.
Propping up organizations and publications that espouse a particular world view is the game that is played on all sides. Calling out the other side for astroturfing is part of the game I suppose. ”

Really? Please explain the left billionaires that are funding political rallies & political parties like the tea party?

“One finding was particularly disturbing: People found the Astroturf messages less trustworthy overall, and yet were still influenced by them. ”

This is quite true of the denier commenters in here. They know what they say is wrong, but they are just defending their political party & in turn their political party is defending their political funding.

“reportedly supported by Soros funding,”


“and managed by a PR firm complaining about astroturfing.”

The thing is anonymous2, desmogblog doesnt try to hide the fact that they are all about the PR. Its in the banner & in the about us section. If you were to go to a site that discussed police corruption, who would add more weight to the site? A policeman or a taxi driver?

PhilM, I’m still waiting for your specific solar panel numbers, efficiency ratings, KWH cost from your power company, subsidies, etc. Your ROI math was challenged.

There’s just no way a system priced and sized as yours over on this side of the pond could achieve those kinds of numbers. Your monthly savings are as high as many bills.

“PhilM, I’m still waiting for your specific solar panel numbers, efficiency ratings, KWH cost from your power company, subsidies, etc. Your ROI math was challenged.”

Ive answered you twice already. This is the 3rd time. You can click the links I provided you earlier. As to the additional information you request.

“solar panel numbers, efficiency ratings”

This was on the site I originally provided you where I bought the panels.

KWH cost from your power company”

Im not divulging where I live, as I have seen what has happened to other members that have been smeared by deniers & the lengths deniers will go to publicly smear people. But here is the provider I use, so it narrows it down to 2 states for you. You can find the tariffs there.


You can find them here:

You can find more people experiencing the same as me here:

This is where I researched & identified the setup i would have, who to buy off, what panels, what inverters, which tariffs, what meter, what electrician etc etc.

You can find literally hundreds of posts about it on the same site I used. Good & bad, they are all in there.

Im sure you can find what your after there.

Check out this also.

PhilM, you have yet to actually answer me. All you do is send me to some sites which raise more questions than provide information. I am zeroing in on the differences.

The US rebate is on the entire amount invested. Our energy costs appear to be a fraction of yours. I am paying ~$.10/KWh. The distribution service adds another ~.04/KWh. It looks like our panel costs may be similar, but I can not tell what the kit price and installation charges might be. It appears also to have big difference in some users appliance mix.

Here, a system to provide 50% energy on a moderately sized house runs ~$35,000-40,000 installed. ROI on that is in the decades. I guess because we pay much less than you guys for power.

of course you knew of the 300,000,000 that manbearpig used?,uses? to spread ‘reality’, didnt you?
and you do know of george soros, right?

Astroturfing is quickly being redefined as “any conservative comment written on any online forum on any subject”.

Its become a way for liberal commenters to dismiss any post, or even the majority of posts, as illegitimate.

Now liberal posters can claim they are the only “real” poster, and that everyone else is a paid corporate shill of some kind.

Wow, this turned out long. Normally I adopt a strategy of using the flow of usually lame debate (hurling of insults and personal accusations against skeptics) to insert facts here and there. So I’ve tried to make each point as concise as possible and have lettered them A-E as well. Thank you for your time, reasonable readers.

(A) The practice of creating an AstroTurf movement is covered in James Hoggan’s book above, him being the owner of the PR firm this blog is the AGW embodiment of. It is a standard PR tactic to “prime the grassroots pump” using online social media and participatory blogs like this one, the golden trophy being if it actually creates a grassroots letter writing campaign to politicians and traditional media. That works much better than a barrage of weekly press releases, evidently.

BTW I think Hoggan is a stand up guy, and believe that his faith in scientific academy pro-AGW pronouncements is reasonable (given his background in law, PR and activism rather than hard science), and his behavior commendable despite his confession in the preface of his book that: “I spend too much money on art, fine wine, skis, and high-end bicycle parts, and am in recovery from my habit of buying luxury cars.” I sure wish I had *his* moral dilemma on that last point, don’t you?!

From Hoggan’s book: “Grass-roots lobbying is a communications technique that encourages individual members of the public or organizations to communicate directly with public office holders in an attempt to influence the decisions of government. Such efforts primarily rely on the use of the media or advertising, and result in mass letter writing and facsimile campaigns, telephone calls to public office holders, and public demonstrations.”

Now this is fair play on either side, I’ll admit, but one must compare Exxon’s gifting of a grand total of $25 million so far to right wing think tanks and PR firms as exposed by the Greenpeace project to the $0.9 billion (!) given by Hewlett of Hewlett & Packard to a single green organization ( in a single year, and tobacco farmer Gore’s three year plan to raise $300 million for an AGW-awareness campaign in 2010. The difference in funding is about 100X a year in favor of alarmism vs. skepticism PR and the skeptical financing is quite indirect, going to right wing think tanks rather than skeptical think tanks and PR firms, since, well, those don’t even exist! I sort of chuckled at the examples of Exxon supported skeptics, such as Tim Ball, some lecture circuit guy in Canada who never posts on popular blogs so have little influence towards creating “AstroTurf” skepticism. Michael Mann is suing him for claiming Mann belonged in the “State Penn” instead of “Penn State” so I did know the name from that John Stewart level comment he made.

(B) VJ writes: “The first two responses are typical political responses: in Canada the rgithwingers meet criticism of the Conservatives with “Well, the Liberals did it too!” It’s a dishonest argument. Either they are trying to pretend that their side is not behaving worse than anyone else, or they are assumiing that everyone is as dishonest as they are.”

What is “dishonest” about strongly noting that the other side has massive funding for PR? And by “other side” I don’t mean liberals, but AGW enthusiasts. It is you who equate skepticism with conservatism as its motivating factor, instead of a mere overlap of the fact that techie guys who pass age 40 tend to become rather conservative indeed, usual due to maturity and realism taking over former idealism, a well known phenomenon.

And pointing out facts that falsify alarmist claims of surging seas, for instance, is “dishonest” exactly *how*? There is nothing I can fathom that is dishonest about a simple data plot taken directly from the gold standard of peer-reviewed sea level studies, or from official peer-reviewed archives of satellite data. That’s not “dishonesty” but in fact the *exposure* of it! The IPCC presents charts of rising “sea level” from the same work by Church & White which in fact does not represent, whatsoever, what laypersons, related-field scientists and policy makers consider to be meant by the dirt simple term “sea level.” You know, the level of the water compared to the shore? Yeah, *that* definition.

What lecture circuit skeptic lives like this lecture circuit alarmist?:
Tobacco farmer Gore’s six-fireplace palace:
And his jet ski equipped yacht:

(C) Related to this very post, I ran into a comment lamenting the lack of moderation on certain AGW enthusiast blogs like this one on Grant Foster’s utterly moderated “Tamino” blog that exposes the fascist and censorial tendency of the green movement:

“This is not the only problem. Various blogs which claim to support the science of AGW allow un-moderated comments on their blogs. Since these dishonest denier shills get moderated on the good science blogs they tend to move onto the un-moderated blogs. These pro-AGW sites then become echo-chambers for the AGW deniers. It gets so time consuming trying to respond to all the denier nonsense that most people just give up on these blogs and allow the deniers to have a far greater influence than they should have.” - mrnkalon (

(D) Please respond, or find someone who can respond successfully in a way likely to convince nine out of ten voters stopped on the street to my points that:
(1) Actual global average sea level as measured by simple and thus uncontroversial tide gauges going back 150 years shows utterly no trend change in our high CO2 era.
(2) The moral, educational and spiritual leader of your CAGW theory is one of the biggest hypocrites in human history.

(E) P.S. Do you know *exactly* what motivated me to spread what you and other AGW enthusiasts consider to be “dishonest misinformation?” today? The extremely upsetting word “Astroturf” in relation to AGW skepticism in the headline here! It has made me angry enough to grab some champagne and head out spreading another bit of subversive anti-AGW information today, on every online news article that allows comments in the world, namely this nugget of modern Yippie wisdom about today’s light bulb anti-ban in congress:

[I must note something about the futility of the Edison light bulb ban. There is already available an excluded-from-the-ban version of incandescents from and online bulb sites that only cost about double of already cheap normal bulbs, namely “rough service” bulbs that have beefier filaments and are thus *less* efficient than standard bulbs. This loophole will be outed soon after the ban takes effect, assuming it does, and just like other types of prohibition will lead to a rebellion against the law, making them cool and popular and resulting in more energy use akin to how vast number of people prefer big beefy SUVs as status symbols in rebellion against green nanny statism. From the bill:

(ii) EXCLUSIONS.—The term ‘general service incandescent lamp’ does not include the following incandescent lamps:

(XII) A rough service lamp.

Search for: 100W rough service.]

-=NikFromNYC=- Ph.D. in Carbon Chemistry (Columbia/Harvard)

I would trust the experts before I would believe your claims:

“…Modern tide gauge and satellite measurements indicate that sea level rise has accelerated further within the 20th Century…”

Sea Level Rise has slowed, Scientists “adjust” sea levels arbitrarily

“One important change in these releases is that we are now adding a correction of +0.3 mm/year due to Glacial Isostatic Adjustment (GIA), so you may notice that the rate of sea level rise is now +0.3 mm/year higher than earlier releases. This is a correction to account for the fact that the global ocean basins are getting slightly larger over time as mantle
material moves from under the oceans into previously glaciated regions on land.

Simply subtract 0.3 mm/year if you prefer to not include the GIA correction.”


If you measure sea level using tidal gauges, it hasn’t changed accelerating whatsoever. Same with satellite.

Do you actually understand the meaning of your own words: “it hasn’t changed accelerating” So you are saying that sea level is rising as fast as it was some years ago?

And why do you claim the scientists there adjusted the numbers arbitrarily, when they carefully explained why they made the correction? Don’t you understand what the word “arbitrarily” means?

And you failed to quote this: “…You may also note that rate of sea level rise over recent years has been less than the long-term average. This is believed to be due to the recent La Nina’s we have been experiencing, though research on this is continuing…”

Here’s more about sea level measurement:

“…The overall message is clear. Sea levels are rising…”

One doesn’t have to do much more than watch TV in order to understand these issues (albeit imperfectly), since a recent History Channel program contained a relevant fact concerning isostatic rebound – differences in specific gravity of continental and oceanic crust. Coincidentally, I recall wondering about how isostatic rebound would effect things while watching the show, since the increases in elevation of formerly glacier covered areas would produce some type of compensatory effect.

The obvious answer, which didn’t occur to me immediately, is that the heavier oceanic crust sinks. And it’s very obvious when one considers the program’s description of the “crust floating on the top of the lithosphere.” Rhetorically speaking, is plate tectonics being challenged now, too?

It’s funny that you use the claim “sea levels are rising” to suggest an immediate link to AGW. Few people dispute that fact, because it is, basically, a fact. But, sea levels have been rising at the same historic rate on average for the past 1000 years.

Nik is absolutely right about all of those links.

The sea has been rising 1.8mm a year for over 100 years, not slowing, not accelerating. That’s what the tidal and satellites say.

Only Mann’s single site study of a swamp in North Carolina says otherwise, but of course that’s the only one RealClimate references.

Throwing off the appeal to authority fallacy of “trust the experts”, I then can’t help but laugh at your support: proxy data. When the actual numbers won’t support your argument, appeal to faked numbers and declare them to be real! And you wonder why people are beginning to question the “consensus”.

I would love to read the articles on this site. I am using a smartphone and it is impossible to turn off the clean coal video.and it covers the articles. Also the clean coal video doesnt run on Android. Could this be fixed?

The mind of an AstroTurf zombie Ph.D. circa ‘97:

“We don’t know how the brain works, at all, so the effect on humans versus deer is impossible to predict. But since humans share something like fifty percent of our DNA with carrots, it’s not surprising that some plant self-defence compound that evolved to freak out deer also effects humans in profound ways. I think it goes back much further than deer though, so no I do not see a simple historical evolutionary link to grazing animals that explains Salvia. It’s curious too that one of the main reasons that Salvia was not reported on very vigorously by the first ethnobotatanists like Wasson, early McKenna, or even Leary and Lilly is that the barefoot native types had never even found a concentrated form of it to smoke or make a mouth gargling extract of. This question though is just like why does coffee act as a drug? Plants are absolutely chock full of millions of wild molecules far removed from the usual carbohydrates, proteins and fats that are fairly well understood. It’s not surprising that some fit very specific locks in the human brain. Just by chance if you tested a billion diverse molecules, one of them should be expected to light up the human kappa receptor, which we have no idea what is there for because we have NO idea how chemistry leads to consciousness. It may be quantum states transmitted by microtubule radio waves. It is simply not known yet. Some day it will be.”

Am I a “merchant of doubt” because I want *you* to view the world around you with bright eyes instead of angry jaded eyes?

Big walls are falling on YOUR head, dear diapered prison guards.

Why is there no actual debate?

They all went home!

“Ha, ha, doomie shite denierist. Do you sex mommy you weigh 500 pound? Study up statistics, neanderthal. I reada book. Toss off, A’Turf!”

That’s summation of the best-in-class debate points I was so frighteningly confronted with this weekend on dozens of sites that don’t desperately moderate.

David Mamet, the former lefty playwright now turned conservative summed up this bile-spewing phenomenon as being driven by a very primitive lizard brain level of subconsciousness, namely the urge to hiss and spit at outsiders of one’s inbred group.

I noticed another thing, only this weekend, embarrassingly, for I should have seen it before: those who are most energized to publicly attack the character of skeptics in cartoonish haunted house fashion are also most likely to spend hours at a time mass huddling in miserable raw pain on Tamino’s uber-moderated blog, kvetching, rubbing open sores, searching for the logic of it all: how it’s possible that their bright lockstep Utopian skies have suddenly darkened, blame gaming and themselves wondering how to game the evil system that is the dinosaur ridden fossil fueled “denialist industry.”

Their souls are human reincarnations of cockroaches, and this invokes an odd flavor of pity in me that makes me as comfortable as naively saying a glad-handed “hello” to a bunch of addicts in a reddened needle strewn drug den.

AGW is the crack cocaine of leftism, it’s spiritual Soma, sacrament, and sublime divine halo, one which has stopped growing in their lost rainforest of the mind, now a scarce commodity, the horror, the horror of it all, withdrawal being very devil Himself.

Sea level is rising:

I find it amusing that Houston and Dean had to correct the Washington Times on the ocean level “not rising,” but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for them since they had to engage in the deceptive practice of cherry-picking in order to produce their purported “[ocean level rise is] not accelerating” result.

Pardon me for segueing here – I wanted to point out that the Washington Time’s position on climate change is one instance in which religious beliefs could factor into denial, since they are owned by Rev. Moon’s Unification Church. Opposition to climate science also comes from many rightwing Christian denominations, particularly those described as Dominionists.

There are a lot of allegations of belief stemming from religious convictions, but there are few that actually fit.

LOLVJ… Really … Well Duh!

Sea level has only been rising to 12,000 years.

With some fast rises and some slow ones.

The current rate is about the same as it has been for hundreds of years with a light slow down in the last 10 years. Yawn…….