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American Astroturfing vs. Chinese Astroturfing

The definition of astroturfing, according to Wikipedia is:

a neologism for formal public relations campaigns in politics and advertising which seek to create the impression of being spontaneous, grassroots behavior, hence the reference to the artificial grass AstroTurf.

The goal of such a campaign is to disguise the efforts of a political or commercial entity as an independent public reaction to some political entity—a politician, political group, product, service or event. Astroturfers attempt to orchestrate the actions of apparently diverse and geographically distributed individuals, by both overt (“outreach”, “awareness”, etc.) and covert (disinformation) means. Astroturfing may be undertaken by anything from an individual pushing one’s own personal agenda through to highly organized professional groups with financial backing from large corporations, non-profits, or activist organizations.

As a business and marketing consultant who spends considerable time in China, I get upset when I see marketing and PR terms not used the right way. One thing which is done very frequently in China, but whose terminology is not used correctly, is astroturfing. As a matter of fact, I have not even heard of a Chinese term for astroturfing, even though I have seen it in many forms all the time. In fact, a good deal of what the Internet is used for in China in the BBSes in China, is astroturfing in different forms.

I was upset when I saw the term astroturfing mixed up with censorship in this video interview with reference to censorship in China. My definition of censorship is when I have to use a VPN tunnel to get to content I cannot view in China, or because I cannot get my Feedburner RSS feeds because they are blocked by the GFW, or as Jeremy Goldkorn, publisher of Danwei chooses to call it, the Net Nanny.

The biggest difference between astroturfing and censorship: astroturfing is a PR term and censorship is a political term. Astroturfing is a PR tactic which can be used for either political or commercial ends; censorship is always used for political ends. Using censorship with reference to China is a politically charged term because many critics of Chinese government policy like to use it to satisfy their own political agendas. Other people are entitled to their own political views re Chinese government policy, just as I’m entitled to mine. Everybody has a right to their own opinions. What I do criticize is abuse of terminology in order to score political points when in fact what is being used is a PR tactic.

Paying bloggers and users of Twitter to shape public opinion about China is an astroturfing tactic. Let’s call it astroturfing and not call it censorship. Admittedly, the Chinese government has used astroturfing in a very clumsy fashion by paying bloggers directly for their blog posts and tweets. Rule No. 1 of astroturfing is “Don’t get caught doing it”. This means you should set up front organizations to do the work so that the important guys/government have plausible deniability. These front organizations have to be run by eloquent, expensive and intelligent opinion leaders who know what they are doing and what the whole objective is. The people they work with, and contract with, do not have to know.

Sure, it adds to your costs, but some things are more important than costs. That’s why this whole payoff of bloggers and tweets is so silly and let’s say it, downright stupid.

The real masters at the right way to do astroturfing are the Americans and American PR and lobbying firms. They set up enough “independent” organizations so that the astroturfing movements cannot be traced back to the government, the original sponsor. After all, that is the whole point of it. Government ministries, organizations and parties should never be directly involved in it.

These “independent” organizations, usually think tanks, then contract with the PR firms and coordinate very complex and expensive PR campaigns which are, well, astroturfing. The whole objective is to make it look independent for most people. These people are the audience, the people whose opinion you want to shape.

Astroturfing was used extensively in the aftermath of the revelations of torture re Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo in the US. Many Americans were sincerely shocked that the US military would use such interrogation techniques. In order to shape US public opinion, the Pentagon provided leading US media companies hired retired generals as “consultants” to talk on TV about the situation, and mitigate the political damage to the Bush administration. These consultants were paid for by the Pentagon. How it was done was revealed in an article on the New York Times.

If the Chinese government wants to be truly effective at winning the PR war with the western media, it has to allow different voices to speak up about China, and get past the very worn-out charges of “interfering in China’s internal affairs” or “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people”, which may have some appeal to not very bright people, but really turn off intelligent people. Part of the price of being considered a developed nation is to allow different discourse and opinions on an intelligent level. Moreover, this gives the Chinese leadership a better selection of policies to choose from. After all, that’s whole point of the exercise.

So let’s stop paying off bloggers and tweeters 50 Chinese yuancents or fen to shape public opinion. That’s the cheap and dumb way.

The Chinese government needs to stop thinking small and start thinking big in how it shapes not just Chinese public opinion, but western public opinion. Spend money and do it the right way with the right people.

Anything else is just an embarrassment.




20 Responses to “American Astroturfing vs. Chinese Astroturfing”

  1. Will says:

    Good post, Paul. One quibble, though: I’m not sure I’d call the use of the retired generals to deflect criticism of Abu Ghraib astroturfing. It looks much more like what we would call “third party advocacy”. That means getting a selection of weighty third parties who are nominally independent, and therefore credible in the public eye, to repeat and reinforce your point of view. But it lacks the popular, or pseudo-popular, element that would truly elevate it into the realm of astroturfing.

    The Chinese “50 Cent Tribe”, however, is definitely astroturfing, if clumsily executed. But I’m not surprised to see it conflated with censorship. “Censorship” is bandied about so often in advocacy discussion of the Chinese media because it’s a stark, emotional term (and there, to be fair, a substantial amount of it here). As I told Kaiser over a Scotch on Saturday night, nuance is the enemy of advocacy PR. Emotion and starkly-drawn instances of good-and-evil are its allies. Thus “Censorship” gets used as a casual euphemism for any attempt to control discourse. Sloppy, yes. But also understandable.

    By the way, I believe there is such a thing as commercial censorship. That’s why I worry when major industrial conglomerates own broadcasters. Writ smaller, it’s not unusual to find companies killing negative blog and forum posts in China. It ain’t just a government game.

    Wills last blog post..Yet more of the AP Great Wall dive trip video

  2. [...] (Astroturfing is a great term I just learned from Paul Denlinger who wrote an interesting posting on the subject.) [...]

  3. Paul,

    Yes, Censors is the wrong term to use for the 50-cent-ers.

    Astroturfing is a great expression. Let me know if you find out how to say it in Chinese!

    Tom

    Thomas Cramptons last blog post..More on China’s 50-cent Internet Army

  4. Anonymous says:

    The term PR is just a less politically-charged synonym of propaganda.

  5. Hong says:

    An interesting and useful post. Thanks.

    Note: These “twitters” you speak of are paid 50 cents (5 mao), not 50 yuan.

  6. [...] …says Paul Denlinger at China Vortex, reacting to Thomas Crampton’s recent online video discussion with Oiwan Lam on the 50 Cent Tribe:The biggest difference between astroturfing and censorship: astroturfing is a PR term and censorship is a political term. Astroturfing is a PR tactic which can be used for either political or commercial ends; censorship is always used for political ends. Using censorship with reference to China is a politically charged term because many critics of Chinese government policy like to use it to satisfy their own political agendas. Other people are entitled to their own political views re Chinese government policy, just as I’m entitled to mine. Everybody has a right to their own opinions. What I do criticize is abuse of terminology in order to score political points when in fact what is being used is a PR tactic.Imagethief has a lot of time for Oiwan Lam and also enjoys Thomas Crampton’s blog. But Paul has an interesting point.  Filed under: China, Technology, Public Relations and Media, Censorship [...]

  7. Dan says:

    Nice post. It is important to stay clear on what censorship really is and you are correct in pointing out that government spin is not it.

    Dans last blog post..China Pre-Olympic Shutdowns. No Juice = No Product.

  8. Hemulen says:

    @Paul

    Interesting distinction, but is it meaningful? If the government that engages in what you call “astroturfing” is also responsible for censoring dissenting opinions, where is the need for this extra distinction? It looks like hair splitting to me. And you don’t seem to suggest that the Chinese government should drop censorship and influence opinions by subtler methods instead…

  9. Charles Liu says:

    Looks like this claim of government sposored shill is originated from internet rumors and unsubstantiated claims. Very convincing.

    The Jack Caferty thing, come on, is by and large efforts of overseas Chinese. I find the insinuation insulting, both as an outraged Asian-American who took action, as well as reader of anti-CNN, a grassroot site that has made it’s funding very clear.

    Just to be clear nobody is paying me to post this. Frankly 7 cents ain’t gonna cut it. Gas is almost 4 bucks a gallon in Seattle. BTW I’m not from mainland China.

  10. [...] of legal troubles. Further, as has happened in the United States when “astroturf” campaigns are uncovered, will the knowledge that pro-government web content is potentially paid make it less compelling to [...]

  11. [...] has been written and otherwise discussed all over the Chinese blogosphere about the so-called “50 cent [...]

  12. Government Funded Third Party Propaganda…

    Ironically I come across a post exposing Chinese PR tactics via Kaiser Kuo’s OGILVY blog. This is a mention that the Far Eastern Economic Review’s article on Chinese patriotic astroturfing the internet is now freed from the pay per view wall and free…

  13. [...] of legal troubles. Further, as has happened in the United States when “astroturf” campaigns are uncovered, will the knowledge that pro-government web content is potentially paid make it less compelling to [...]

  14. [...] this is a tactic called Astroturfing and: Rule No. 1 of astroturfing is “Don’t get caught doing it”. This means you should set up [...]

  15. [...] Economic Review, in which Hu Jintao admits to utilizing. It was also reported by the Guardian, the China Vortex, and the New York Times in completely different [...]

  16. [...] The China Vortex: American astroturfing vs Chinese astroturfing [...]

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  19. Thank you for your thoughtful post!

  20. Jessica Lohse says:

    I remember when American Republicans started calling AstroTurfing “tea party” movements. Naturally, we only see aggression of this nature when a black President is elected.