Exposing Astroturfing As Only John Oliver Can


Astroturfing is the deceptive practice of presenting an orchestrated public relations or marketing campaign under the guise of unsolicited comments from members of the public. The term originated from the artificial grass astroturf applied to an artificial  grass-roots campaign.

Astroturfing is rampant across industries that are inextricably connected to health: Food, beverages, climate, and safety, just to name a few. Oliver humorously calls out:

The 18-minute segment is filled with media literacy gems (and fair warning: plenty of profanity since it’s HBO afterall). Oliver calls out the “Dr. Evil” of the public relations industry (Rick Berman) for a transparent lack of transparency. Oliver also points out the ridiculosity in the lobbying efforts of “Citizens for Fire Safety” (a front group for chemical companies that manufacture fire retardants) and its attempt to promote fire retardants through the paid testimony of a paid doctor who can’t keep his story straight. Oliver shows footage from the brilliant 2014 documentary film “Merchants of Doubt” (based on the book by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes) directed by Robert Kenner and produced by Participant Media. The film is well worth watching as it peels back the veil on the public relations magic of the tobacco industry and how the playbook is replicated in other arenas, including that of climate change.

In this Last Week Tonight segment, Oliver also calls attention to the fumblings and falsehood of paid demonstrators (“Crowds on Demand”). But he also cautions viewers against assuming that everyone who dissents is paid as a crisis actor or as an astroturfer. It is a slippery slope when viewers take critical thinking to the extreme and become cynical and dispirited.

Ultimately, Oliver has a well-balanced call to action: More corporate transparency at the macro level and a healthy dose of media literacy education at the micro level. Or as Oliver says, “fighting candle fire with candle fire.” You’ll understand the reference after watching the video below. Enjoy.