One of the covert ways that companies and PR firms affect coverage and influence the public is through astroturfing.
Astroturf, as you probably know, is a type of artificial grass used in professional sports as a playing surface. Astroturfing, on the other hand, is the attempt by a political or business group to create a false impression of grassroots support for some position.
Fake non-partisan groups
I extend the definition to front groups secretly funded by organizations that wish to promote their interests. The intent is to create an apparently impartial third party that coincidentally happens to deliver statistics and talking points to reinforce the position of the sponsors. There was even a case of a lobbying firm pretending to be the NAACP, as Business Insider mentioned years ago.
It’s far more common than you might realize. There are PR consultancies that make a regular business of creating front groups to push the agendas of their clients, whether that is support of legislation favoring a given industry or opposition to such government actions as higher minimum wage levels or environmental regulation.
Social media fakery
In the social media world there are so-called bots, coordinated online accounts, and manufactured viral content that can help push a given view. The material may come through specialty PR firms to make tracing the connections more difficult.
They’ve been used widely in politics, but as the Guardian reported, the corporate world has taken to “persona management software” to create the social network impression of real individuals that instead are manufactured personalities, with names and email addresses.
Steps you can take
Knowing manipulation is rampant, and that it can come from all sides, is the first step to more careful reporting. Here are some others:
- If you hear from an organization, look at its funding. Even non-profits, the preferred structure for astroturf groups, file tax forms. Check their filed IRS Form 990s, typically available through non-profit research sites like CharityWatch.org or GuideStar.org. Often you can find either major sources of funds or major recipients that will tie a group to some other organization. Also ask about the funding. When the organization or PR firm states that its backers names are private, be careful.
- Email due diligence can perform wonders. The Wall Street Journal used email routing information to track a “viral” video attacking Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth to a D.C. lobbying group with a major petroleum client. I once tripped up someone working for a front group, who insisted that I had no basis for the statement, when he emailed me from his PR firm account.
- Look for connections between people. Groups may hide funding sources and use fake online identities, but eventually you can find people who work for them. Some web and database searches should turn up some work histories. A previous connection to a company with interests in a given issue or to a PR firm isn’t a guarantee of something shady, but it can help you bring a skeptical and clear eye when considering the person as a potential source.