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Weeding Out ‘Astroturf’ Groups

Is it real or fake? Photo by Attila Horvath.

There are fake grassroots organizations – called “Astroturf” – that claim to be pro-environment when in fact they are funded by the industries responsible for environmental degradation.

“I think people really want to do the right thing, and they want to get involved in making solutions,” says Jen Miller, a conservation program coordinator with the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club. “An organization that is misrepresenting what they’re doing takes advantage of those individuals.”

Here are some ways to avoid falling into the Astroturf trap:

Don’t fall for the name. Most organizations’ names are self-explanatory, but there is no law that prevents Astroturf groups from adopting misleading names. The now-defunct group Save Our Species Alliance seemed to help endangered species, when in fact its agenda was to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

Try to get involved. See if the group offers opportunities for involvement beyond donating money. If the group is just looking for cash, that could be cause for concern because grassroots organizations often need more than financial help to accomplish their goals.

“Every action involves meetings, it involves educational events, it involves a large range of activities people can participate in,” Jen says. “The more approachable and open an organization is, the more programs they have, the more legitimate.”

Investigate the website. If you hear of an organization through junk mail or e-mail, then search around the group’s site for Astroturfing clues. If the group has little more than a mailing address for donations and no phone numbers, then be cautious. The less contact information, the more suspicious you should be.

Look at the organization’s mission statement or “about” section, look for contact information and see if you can join the organization. Don’t let a URL ending in .org fool you.

A clever way to sneak behind the scenes of the website is to go to www.whois.net or www.samspade.org and see who the registrant is. Type the web URL in the “whois” space. If it is an industry, corporation or marketing company, then the grassroots theme might be a cover. For example, the aforementioned Save Our Species Alliance’s website is under “privacyprotect.org,” meaning someone was trying to keep the domain registrant private.

Take note of partners. In the realm of environmental organizations, there is a lot of camaraderie and support. A group that stands alone without partners stands out. “If they are a new organization, are they partnering? If they’re not, that should raise a question mark,” Jen says.

Astroturf organizations are not exclusive to environmentalism. Fake grassroots organizations exist to promote the agenda of some corporations and industries. The key is to do your research and become a part of organizations with transparency, lots of opportunities for involvement and connections with other environmental groups.

“There are lots of grassroots organizations that do incredible work that may not be incorporated or established. It’s very difficult to know,” Jen says. The existence of Astroturf organizations shouldn’t deter your environmental activism, but it should cause you to be more cautious when donating.