Brow Beat

John Oliver Teaches Us About Astroturfing, a Concept That Is Way Shadier Than It Sounds

On Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver introduced a concept that sounds much more fun than it really is: astroturfing. While Oliver points out that the term could plausibly describe a teen trend involving laundry detergent pods and artificial grass, astroturfing actually refers to the practice of companies and interest groups disguising themselves as grassroots movements. Astroturfing can make it look like a particular campaign was created by ordinary people, when in reality, it was made to support an organization that will benefit from the campaign.

The simplest way to accomplish this is by finding a front with a misleading name: Americans Against Food Taxes is a more appealing face for the beverage industry; Save Our Tips is a puppet for the restaurant lobby, which opposes raising the minimum wage for waitstaff; and the National Wetlands Coalition, despite its eco-friendly-sounding name and logo, has long lobbied for the interests of oil and gas companies. “It’s like if this show was called Funnytime Happy Hour with Chuckle-Hunk John Oliver,” said Oliver. “It’s just demonstrably false.”

Oliver explained some of the other tactics that these groups use to boost their credibility, from paying dubious “experts” for their testimony to hiring crowds of fake demonstrators. You might even call them a real-life example of one of Donald Trump’s favorite complaints: paid protestors. That’s dangerous, says Oliver, because “the consequence of this cannot be that everyone assumes that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is astroturfing.” But he does have an idea about how to fight back.