Astroturfing Global Warming: It Isn’t Always Greener on the Other Side of the Fence

Abstract

Astroturf organizations are fake grassroots organizations usually sponsored by large corporations to support any arguments or claims in their favor, or to challenge and deny those against them. They constitute the corporate version of grassroots social movements. Serious ethical and societal concerns underline this astroturfing practice, especially if corporations are successful in influencing public opinion by undertaking a social movement approach. This study is motivated by this particular issue and examines the effectiveness of astroturf organizations in the global warming context, wherein large corporate polluters have an incentive to set up astroturf organizations to undermine the importance of human activities in climate change. We conduct an experiment to determine whether astroturf organizations have an impact on the level of user certainty about the causes of global warming. Results show that people who used astroturf websites became more uncertain about the causes of global warming and humans’ role in the phenomenon than people who used grassroots websites. Astroturf organizations are hence successful in promoting business interests over environmental protection. In addition to the multiple business ethics issues it raises, astroturfing poses a significant threat to the legitimacy of the grassroots movement.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    We acknowledge that grassroots organizations can also promote or support a cause that may or may not be necessarily viewed as positive for society (e.g., the National Rifle Association). In our paper, however, given our climate change context, we will make the implicit assumption that the grassroots organization examples used in this study support pro-social and pro-environmental causes.

  2. 2.

    We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer who pointed out this subtle but critical point.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to express our thanks to Editor Adam Lindgreen, two anonymous reviewers, Sylvie Berthelot, Yves Gendron, Den Patten, and participants of the 12th Annual Alternative Accounts Conference and Workshop in Toronto, the Colloque “Comptabilité, Multivocalité et Diversité” in Rouen, the 2010 Greening of Industry Network Conference in Seoul, the 2010 International Federation of Scholarly Associations of Management Conference in Paris, the 22nd International Congress on Social and Environmental Accounting Research in Saint Andrews, and the 2010 Society for Marketing Advances Conference in Atlanta for their helpful comments and feedback on previous versions of this paper. Charles Cho notes that this project was started while he was at Concordia University and acknowledges financial support received from the Fonds Québécois de la Recherche sur la Société et la Culture (FQRSC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada.

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Cho, C.H., Martens, M.L., Kim, H. et al. Astroturfing Global Warming: It Isn’t Always Greener on the Other Side of the Fence. J Bus Ethics 104, 571–587 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-011-0950-6

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Keywords

  • Astroturfing
  • Business ethics
  • Climate change
  • Global warming
  • Grassroots organizations
  • Legitimacy
  • Rhetoric