Why the Right's 'Astroturfing'
Propaganda Is Textbook Psychopathic
Faux grassroots firms are exhibiting
all the tell-tale signs.
www.alternet.org/, August 15,
Here's a quick test, a sort of free-association
game: What do egocentrism, deceitfulness and aggressive criminality
have in common?
If you guessed that they are characteristics
of disturbed behavior, you're half right. They are in fact features
of the Psychopathy Checklist Revised, a template for diagnosing
psychopaths, designed by Canadian psychologist Robert D. Hare.
But what's more interesting about this
triumvirate is the fact that it's being employed in the recent
slew of corporate-backed, faux grassroots outbursts (also known
as "astroturfing" campaigns) across the country.
Organizations behind these events, like
Bonner & Associates and FreedomWorks, are promoting a mind-set
that's textbook psychopathy. And like many psychopaths, they've
been getting away with it for years.
It's easiest to understand this (admittedly
nonexpert) diagnosis by breaking the behavior into individual
categories. Let's kick it off with egocentrism.
In 2002, dozens of Maryland's community
leaders received a faxed petition urging them to protect 600,000
lower-income families from escalating medical costs. The petition
condemned a piece of legislation before the General Assembly that
would purportedly devastate poor communities across the state.
But although the fax bore all the markings
of a grassroots organization (it was riddled with typos and included
a handwritten cover letter), it was actually a fabrication --
assembled by Bonner & Associates, a Washington "strategic
grassroots" firm hired by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers
of America (PhRMA).
The goal was not to save low-income families;
it was to use grassroots-mobilization tactics to rustle up support
for a bill that threatened PhRMA's bloated economic interests.
When snagged in this lie, Bonner &
Associates did not acknowledge dishonesty or wrongdoing. Instead,
the company attempted to position itself as a champion of American
"It's a great exercise in the First
Amendment," said Founder Jack Bonner. "The more people
and organizations that come forward on your behalf, the better
off you are in politics. It's democracy. That is what this is
So rather than recognizing its petition
for what it was -- at best, a manipulation; at worst, a full-blown
guerrilla attack on democratic processes -- Bonner & Associates
chose to spin deception as a heroic exercise in patriotism.
This demonstrated a delusional egocentrism
-- something not far from what Hare, in his book Without Conscience:
The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, calls "a
narcissistic and grossly inflated sense of [the psychopath's]
self-worth and importance."
Put a big, fat check mark next to Psychopathic
Tendency No. 1.
Next up is a passion for "deceitful
and manipulative behavior." To satisfy this requirement,
we need not yet depart from the sinister shenanigans of Bonner
Remember when Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va.,
received Big Coal-sponsored Bonner forgeries from a nonprofit
Hispanic group called Creciendo Juntos and from the NAACP a few
weeks ago? Each invoked the concerns of phantom 'constituencies.'
Each urged Perriello to oppose the American
Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act, a controversial climate-change
bill. The statement from Creciendo Juntos carried the signature
of a made-up person (Marisse K. Acevedo) with a made-up title
at the organization (assistant member coordinator), and lamented
the "tight budgets" of its members. The NAACP's faux
letter was equally reckless, directly contradicting the organization's
official stance on ACES.
"They stole our name. They stole
our logo. They forged a letter and sent it to our congressman
without our authorization," Tim Freilich, a member of Creciendo
Juntos' executive committee, told Daily Progress. "It's this
type of activity that undermines Americans' faith in democracy."
"I am very appalled, as the president,
that our organization has been misrepresented in this way by this
bogus letter," said M. Rick Turner, head of the NAACP's
Charlottesville branch. "I hope that whoever's behind this
will be brought to justice."
So there's your fluency in lying and manipulation.
But saying that Bonner & Associates has a knack for dishonesty
would be a ridiculous understatement.
It's more appropriate to argue that deceit
is central to the company's existence. Lies, being good at lying
and not owning up to exposed lies are absolutely fundamental to
astroturfing -- the technique's Miracle Gro, if you will.
Predictably (and like psychopaths, who
display a bewildering ability to breeze through their own contradictions
and falsities), Bonner made absurd attempts to brush aside the
event, arguing that the faxes were a "mistake," and
that the person who was responsible had been fired.
This was despite the organization's anaconda-length
track record of employing nearly identical tactics for nearly
Checkmark No. 2 on the ol' psychopathy
But the most volatile -- and perhaps most
important -- qualifier for psychopathic behavior promoted recently
by lobbying organizations is what Hare would call "criminal
On June 22, Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., had
to be escorted by police to his car after being shouted down by
health care "protesters" at a town hall in Setauket,
NY. Then, in early August, the office of North Carolina Rep. Brad
Miller received a threatening phone call because of the politician's
"The call to the D.C. office was,
'Miller could lose his life over this,' " Miller Communications
Director LuAnn Canipe told Talking Points Memo. "Our staffer
took it so seriously, he confirmed what the guy was saying. He
said, 'Sir is that a threat?' "
Although it has stopped short of taking
responsibility for such actions, FreedomWorks, a lobbying firm
with its own rich history of astroturfing, has not shied away
from provoking criminal behavior.
On Aug. 7, the company's vice president,
Max Pappas, said on C-SPAN that FreedomWorks doesn't "have
the power to control how many people turn out" at town meetings
"or how they behave there. All we really do is facilitate
their participation by letting people know when these town halls
are and giving them information about the issues that are going
to be discussed."
Pappas added, "The passions are so
deep about this issue that we can't send out an e-mail that says
'calm down.' "
FreedomWorks can (and does) however send
out "Action Kits" that claim President Barack Obama
and House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., should be "afraid."
And they do urge members to "turn
up the heat," even as they pussyfoot around recent violent
disruptions. Interestingly, no FreedomWorks document explains
clearly what sorts of actions are "hotter" than the
current boiling point. People are left to guess. Or to simply
This is alas the "versatility"
with which FreedomWorks approaches criminality. By indirectly
cultivating violence, the organization gets to play political
saboteur and promote a corporate agenda at the same time.
Such a narrow focus -- one unobstructed
by remorse, compassion or a consideration for other people's well-being
-- is psychopathy's apex characteristic. And it syncs up well
with one of Hare's definitions for the disorder. Psychopaths,
he writes, are "social predators who charm, manipulate and
ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail
of broken hearts, shattered expectations and empty wallets. Completely
lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they selfishly
take what they want and do as they please."
I should point out that this is not a
fault-free diagnosis. Certain characteristics on the PCL-R (impulsivity,
lack of long-term goals) are not applicable to the astroturfing
exploits of FreedomWorks and Bonner. The campaigns promoted by
these companies are, after all, well-thought out. They aim to
promote a very specific set of interests.
That's why it's best to focus on psychopathy's
more toxic social-dysfunction-oriented characteristics. At the
very least, it's food for thought.
The final irony in all of this is that
organizations like Bonner and FreedomWorks are working tirelessly
to create a false veneer of populist consensus in order to undermine
reforms that Americans have overwhelmingly supported.
Seventy-two percent of citizens want a
public option, and over 80 percent have said they believe we need
serious reform. Inconvenient burps of public opinion like these
seem to twist the astroturfing model into a self-destructive paradox.
Think of it this way: ruthlessly promoting
your interests will only work as long as it's possible to hide
behind "democratic" principles. So if the final goal
is achieved, which is decidedly "undemocratic," you
create a landscape where continuing the scheme would be impossible.
It might not come as a surprise that psychopaths
tend to share this affinity for reckless self-destruction.