Other Public Writing

Astroturf Grows Best in Election Season

(This originally appeared in a professional newsletter from the American Political Science Association.  It was written in 2008 but astroturf never dies.)

The 2008 election season will be dominated by the most colorful, attractive astroturf campaigns we’ve yet seen. For the most lush astroturf social movement that is the envy of the your block, read on for tips on how to seed, cultivate, and harvest a successful, high-tech, web-savvy campaign.

During the 1996 presidential campaign season, managers treated the internet as a publicity tool. During the 2000 campaign season, new media technologies became an important organizational tool. By the 2004 campaign season, these information technologies were deeply integrated into the system of political communication in the United States: they structured both unique content and the content of traditional mass media; they were used purposefully as organizational tools; and they were used for aggressive data mining (Howard, 2006). In 2008, we can expect ideal climate conditions for a bumper crop of issue-based and candidate astroturf campaigns on both sides of the fence.

My research has demonstrated that the nature of social movements and citizenship itself is changing in the United States, that these changes are promoted by political campaign managers, and that they are made possible by new information technologies.

What is an Astroturf Campaign?

An “astroturf” social movement is one started around the board room table, not the kitchen table. Many wired grassroots movements have successfully projected new ideas onto the national agenda, and engaged networks of family and friends in political discussion. But many wired astroturf campaigns work by fragmenting publics, and grow best when you sequester the production and consumption of political culture (Howard, 2005).

Astroturf campaigns are carefully composed of citizens who have shared grievances, but these citizens do not have an endogenously formed collective consciousness. They have been exogenously prompted to join a loose affiliation in which they do not meaningfully interact.  With a little research into credit card histories and some strategically placed online banner ads, you too can cultivate a group of people who will be responsive to your calls for action. Most important, these people will echo your message with only a little prompting (Howard, 2003).

Keeping Your Astroturf Healthy

Healthy astroturf movements have several key features. First, their members don’t actually get to interact much with each other, though they can interact with your software avatars or committed volunteers at campaign headquarters. Second, a healthy astroturf movement must have a digital infrastructure with email and website content that is tailored to particular users. Third, the healthiest astroturf movements are made up of older citizens, who are more susceptible to provocative campaign messages and are more responsive to activation.

Astroturf campaigns do best under highly controlled environments. They grow best when citizens are lured to a URL through well-placed TV ad buys, direct mail, and online banner ads. Regular email updates help your members interpret news reporting they might have encountered. Ideally, you’ll design your website portal so that it becomes their news service and links up with other affinity groups. There are different approaches to linking:  more liberal groups link to affinity groups and new stories that support their analytical frame; more conservative groups prefer to keep website users on site and will quote (and edit) supportive news stories without linking to the original story. NRANews.com or the Christian Coalition’s www.cc.org are great examples of how your issue-specific website can become a news portal.
Like many gardens, the astroturf campaign is made up of carefully composed elements. It’s important to find ways of recruiting volunteers to generate content for your website, and it’s great if they can be trusted to generate content for the latest online fad software encourage them to blog or post home-made videos to YouTube.

The Secret to Controlled Growth:  Diets of Data

Astroturf movements must be fed a steady diet of data—not simply polling data, the rather blunt instrument that measures attitudes, but data on behavior that comes from membership organizations, credit cards, and private data mining services.

Non-response rates are making telephone polling more expensive, the correlation of non-response with respondent characteristics is undermining the pollster’s sample frame, and the proliferation of mobile phones is eroding the industry’s long-held bulwark assumption of a one-to-one correspondence between telephone numbers and households (Witte & Howard, 2002).  So an exclusive diet of polling data is risky, and today’s astroturf campaign must have a mixed diet of both demographic and psychographic data.

To stay healthy, give members tools for expressing themselves in fixed, directed ways. If it’s a sensitive time for your campaign, such as during election season, give members spontaneous push polling questions or have them sign on to low-impact e-petitions. If the timing is right, you can till this energy by activating your members to make phone calls and generate telegrams using your own scripts.

For many lobbyists, it isn’t really necessary to have your astroturf campaign flower on election day, because having campaigns bear fruit at the right point during a legislative session may be a strategically better point at which to influence policy outcomes. But for an astroturf campaign to bloom on Election Day, be sure to use the latest automated alert systems so that each member gets a phone call reminding them when and where to vote. Splurging on a prerecorded message from a political personality excites members.  The Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that 64 percent of registered voters received robo-calls in 2006, so for 2008 it’s worth the extra touch to have a pre-recorded message.

Planting Citizens

And don’t worry if the phone bank is still cycling through your membership lists on Election Day. Regulatory oversight of the political applications of new information and communication technologies is always a bit behind the times. If you fear that the competition is crowding out your astroturf campaigns, hire a hacker to launch denial of service attacks on your competitor’s websites. Creative campaign consultants can always come up with interesting ways to interfere with a competitor’s high-tech astroturf campaign. In 2002, Republican National Committee official James Tobin did a great job of jamming Democratic phone banks on election day (though he was later sentenced to 10 months in prison for telephone harassment).

Like many endeavors, growing astroturf movements can be done on the cheap and can be done in deluxe style. Several thousand dollars will get you started with a good campaign, some in-depth data on your neighbors, and a little fancy design work for a website to help you manage your citizens. If you have significantly more financial resources, you’ll find that all of the major advertising firms now have in-house teams for managing political campaigns. But nobody in your social movement need know that their “shared grievances” aren’t really shared, or that their “collective consciousness” is actually managed out of an advertising agency!

The Rise of Political Omnivores?

There is some evidence that people become more sophisticated citizens the more they use the internet.  Over time, internet users become more sophisticated at online research, even controlling for demographics and education (Howard & Massanari, 2007). Citizens are becoming more “omnivorous” in their consumption of political culture, choosing ever more diverse news sources and news media as their internet use grows (Howard & Chadwick, forthcoming). Will 2008 be the last good growing season for astroturf social movements?

Beyond the 2008 campaign season, it may get harder and harder to grow astroturf issue and candidate campaign.  There’s talk of expanding federal do-not-call registries and beginning do-not-spam registries, which might impact how such important resources as the RNC’s VoterVault and the DNC’s Datamart collect new intelligence on citizens.  Even more worrying would be comprehensive regulation of the commercial data mining industry.  Door-to-door canvassers used to be able to show constituents tailored campaign ads on PDAs, political content that was unregulated by the FCC or FEC—this too may change.  If there’s too much public oversight of campaign spending, or the valuable 527 shelters are taken away, future election seasons may not have the right climate conditions for managed citizenship.

Philip Howard is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington.

REFERENCES

Howard, P. N. (2003). Digitizing the Social Contract:  Producing American Political Culture in the Age of New Media. The Communication Review, 6(3), 213–245.

Howard, P. N. (2005). Deep Democracy, Thin Citizenship:  The Impact of Digital Media in Political Campaign Strategy. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 597(1), 153-170.

Howard, P. N. (2006). New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Howard, P. N., & Chadwick, A. (forthcoming). Conclusion:  New Information Technologies and the Rise of Political Omnivores. In A. Chadwick & P. N. Howard (Eds.), The Handbook of Internet Politics. London: Routledge.

Howard, P. N., & Massanari, A. (2007). Learning to Search and Searching to Learn:  Income, Education and Experience Online. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 12(3).

Witte, J., & Howard, P. N. (2002). The Future of Polling:  Relational Inference and the Development of Internet Survey Instruments. In J. Manza, F. L. Cook & B. I. Page (Eds.), Navigating Public Opinion:  Polls, Policy and the Future of American Democracy (pp. 272-289). New York: Oxford University Press.