Astroturf Activism

One last comment, well maybe not my last but another, on that Letter to the Editor today.

I have little doubt that this letter is a classic example of the Bermudian version of Astroturf Activism/Organising. What is that you ask? Let me explain.

Astroturf Activism has been going on in the US (and Bermuda) for years, but is much less sophisticated here and in this case blatantly obvious - which defeats its whole purpose. When done properly it's very effective, but when you see a gushing shameless letter like today it doesn't work.

Let's start with the US. Lobbying has been refined to both an art-form and a multi-million dollar industry in the US, it's taken over K Street in DC. Any organisation can find a lobbyist to work the halls of power and try and gain a favourable reception for their interests. But lobbyists are a dime (or a few hundred grand) a dozen and usually represent specific corporate interests or an interest group. Think Enron/Halliburton or the Sierra Club/Planned Parenthood for different extremes on the continuum.

Organisations figured out some time ago that what really gets the attention of a politician is when an issue matters to their constituents. Once the calls start coming in from the home district the Senator or Congressman really pays attention. So the question from interest groups became "I wish we could buy some of that?".

Well, it turns out you can. Astroturf organising involves political consultants providing services to simulate grass roots interest in an issue. They setup phone banks, cutely named interest groups (Citizens For Higher Emissions), letter writing campaigns, media blitzes, all intended to apply pressure interpreted as genuine grass roots action - not the shady balance sheet driven corporate interest type of lobbying.

Ok. On to Bermuda.

Bermuda lacks a full-time political industry of professional consultants etc.. It's almost entirely volunteer based other than the actual politicians themselves, who are mostly part-time. So Astroturfing here is a little different, and until today, probably not really noticed, making it pretty successful. In Bermuda unlike the US it's generally aimed at convincing the voters not the MPs.

If you listen to the talk shows alot you're in the area that the PLP have cornered quite well as their astroturf. They've got a core group of party activits who get the talking points on an issue and call in constantly, parrotting the message of the day as if they're just random Bermudian, some are self-appointed experts but the effect is the same. This was done particularly well in the run-up to the 1998 election. The talk shows aren't nearly as PLP friendly lately but the UBP has almost no presence there.

In the print media, the Letters to the Editor page is where this mainly goes on. A party worker or politician writes a bunch of letters on an issue or about themselves and then finds a constituent to sign it, either for attributed or anonymous publication.

People read the letters and say:
"Wow, Politician X is doing a great job. He/she is getting all this grass roots support."

or

"people are really for/against this issue judging from the Letters to the Editor".

If a politician needs to project an image of being a hard working man of the people who's notching up accomplishments, you get a letter like today. If they want to attack another position or person then they send out the attack dogs with anonymous letters all around the same theme. Simulating this grass roots support helps convince others in a way a politician or the parties couldn't.

So, in the case of today's letter, I'd bet that (another multiple choice question for you):

a) the letter writer is a die-hard PLP member posing as random constituent at Dr. Brown's direction
b) the Doc is starting a little letter writing campaign of his own to try and rehabilitate his reputation for an opportunistic run at the weakened Premier
c) an election might not be that far off (more on that in a later post).
d) all of the above

As an aside, there's also 'grass tops' activism which would be getting a bunch of community/corporate leaders to all publicly endorse/support and initiative.

Anyway, as the PLP have lost their grass roots appeal and support you can expect to see lots more Astroturfing, probably not as crude as today's example.

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