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Grassroots activism or corporate interest – research shows we can’t tell the difference - Toronto Star

September 21, 2011
John Terauds
Staff Reporter
Toronto Star

Weeds are springing up in the gardens of grassroots activism, and we may not even know they’re there.

The people-powered world of public-spirited activism has been joined by mouthpieces of corporate interests, thanks to the ability to instantly disseminate information through social media.

In the ethical community, these high-powered upstarts are called astroturf, and four Canadian academics have discovered many people may not be able to tell real grassroots from fake.

That had implications for anyone concerned about the credibility of calls to social or political action in the age of social media, they say.

In a study involving 278 students enrolled at Montreal’s Concordia University, researchers measured the subjects’ responses to websites focused on climate change, versus sites denying climate change.

The team, led by Charles Cho of Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, wanted to see if the anti-climate change information would induce the students to doubt sound scientific conclusions on global warming.

It did. But the researchers didn’t expect this result to hold even for information that was identified as being sponsored by petroleum giant, ExxonMobil Corp.

“Our results show that astroturf organizations undermine the certainty concerning the causes of global warming, the beliefs that humans cause global warming and the importance of the phenomenon per se,” the academics write in their paper, to be published in the Journal of Business Ethics early next year.

“That was a surprise,” says Cho’s colleague Martin Martens, who now teaches at the University of Vancouver Island.

The study didn’t go into the reasons why the astroturf sites sowed distrust about climate change in the students’ minds. Martens says this will be the subject of further investigation.

“Astroturf organizations appear to use misinformation to increase uncertainty and decrease trust about a competing logic, thereby decreasing its legitimacy,” the Concordia team concluded.

Franz Hartmann, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, says his group was the target of an astroturf campaign eight years ago.

Faced with new bylaws on cosmetic pesticide use, the lawn-care industry created the Toronto Environmental Coalition to build opposition to the legislation (which did pass).

“The Internet is inherently democratic, which is great,” says Hartmann. “But just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean it has merit.”

More recently, the Fans First Coalition sprang up earlier this year with an aim to eradicate unscrupulous ticket scalpers.

It turned out to have been funded by LiveNation, North America’s largest live-concert producer – and the parent of Ticketmaster.

Greenspirit.com, a British Columbia-based site that extols, among other things, the biodiversity to be found in clearcut forests, is connected to the lumber industry.

There are astroturf groups around the world that don’t disclose links to such influential lobbies as tobacco firms, pharmaceutical companies and the petroleum industry.

As originally published here:

2011-09-21 Grassroots activism or corporate interest _Toronto Star_.pdf17.67 KB