John Oliver’s Segment On “Astroturfing” Takes On Organizations That Mislead Their Supporters

One popular late-night comedian aired a segment on fake grassroots movements — who practice "astroturfing" — on Sunday. On his Last Week Tonight show, John Oliver explained what "astroturfing" is and how it can make fools out of well-intending Americans across the country with clever marketing and catchy titles. Oliver said that the term may sound like another viral sensation among teenagers but it's actually far more sinister.

"Astroturfing is the practice of corporations or political groups disguising themselves as spontaneous, authentic, [and] popular movements. It's basically fake grassroots. That's why they call it astroturfing," Oliver said. "It's a very funny, very clever name."

In one of his examples, Oliver cited the group "Save Our Tips" — which sounds like a movement in support of tipping waiting staff better. But it turned out to be, as Oliver noted, a group run by restaurant owners against raising the minimum wage.

The comedian also referred to the National Wetlands Coalition, which he said "worked on behalf of oil companies and real estate developers." There is also the American Council on Science and Health, which Oliver said was backed by e-cigarette companies, fracking interest groups, and chemical manufacturers. Bustle has reached out to Save Our Tips, the National Wetlands Coalition, and the American Council on Science and Health for comment.

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"It’s pure, straight-up opposite world," an exasperated Oliver said. "It's like if this show was called 'Funnytime Happy Hour with Chuckle-Hunk John Oliver.' It's just demonstrably false. We can't back that sh*t up!"

Astroturfing, Oliver added, was getting more "sophisticated" these days and thus "dangerous" as corporations or political groups that engage in it can hire "questionable experts" to do their research. Such "experts" could give these groups an impression of credibility and reliability through their dubious expertise, the comedian said.

That's not all. The comedian also brought up the issue of protests and how authentic they are. "Paid demonstrators are one of the most infuriating tools of astroturfing," Oliver said. "Just look at what happened last year in New Orleans. A company called Entergy needed city council approval for a controversial power plant — which it got not long after a public meeting where, by sheer chance, a bunch of huge power plants fans in orange shirts turned up."

"Now it later emerged that a PR firm working for Entergy hired a company called Crowds On Demand which recruited actors to support the plant," Oliver said. The comedian also shared a clip of the man behind Crowds On Demand. In 2015, the company's CEO, Adam Swart, justified the practice of buying protestors to CBS News and said, "We don't trick people. We engage them."

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There are consequences to such astroturfing, the comedian said. Oliver said that "fake groups hiring fake experts and fake crowds which manage to affect real world change" can lead to dangerous and dispiriting times. In such a world, healthy skepticism could be overrun by "toxic" bouts of cynicism as people could call anyone they disagree with a "paid protestor."

"It is now even more incumbent on us to use our judgment diligently," Oliver implored. "Astroturfing is a serious threat to our public discourse. It is critical that we are all much more aware of its dangers."