Imagine that I was the CEO of a corporation that factory farmed animals in cruel ways that have drawn the attention of the Humane Society and legislation has been proposed to reign in my cruel excesses. If I appeared in an advertisement complaining about how the Humane Society was going to try to force my business to treat animals better and that this would negatively impact my abundant wealth in a small way, few would be moved by my pleas. Fortunately, I have a much better technique available—that of astroturfing. Astroturfing involve concealing those really behind a message or organization to make it appear as if it arose from and is funded by grassroot participants. In this imaginary scenario, I could hire a company to lay down some AstroTurf for me.
While astroturfing can be a complicated matter, it typically involves three basic techniques. The first is the use of positive names for the shell organizations created. For example, my AstroTurf organization might be called “Friends of Friendly Farming”, though the “friendly farming” I do might be horrific.
A second standard technique is the use of commercials that present “common folk” who happen to be extremely concerned about the issue. For example, my commercial might feature a mother venting her rage that meat would be unaffordable if the terrible Humane Society had its way.
The key part of astroturfing is, of course, that those really behind the message or organization are anonymous. After all, if people knew that I was behind Friends of Friendly Farming, they would probably find it less appealing. Since astroturfing is inherently deceitful, it is clearly immoral. As such, the question arises as to what should be done about it the common techniques used to AstroTurf.
The use of deceptive names is unethical. After all, these names provide rhetorical influence over people who might not otherwise support the group if its name matched its real purpose. Going back to my example, most people would find “Friends of Friendly Farming” appealing. But most would not be drawn to “Make Sure Mike Keeps Making Money by Being Mean to Animals.” This technique is analogous to advertising and labelling unhealthy junk food made in China as patriotic, healthy, organic “Yankee Snacks” made in America. That is, it is a lie. However, just because something is unethical does not entail that it should be illegal.
While the First Amendment does not explicitly protect the right to deceptive speech, laws aimed at requiring honest naming for groups would be problematic in this context. There are also various practical concerns about enforcement and the potential for abuse. There is also the basic problem of sorting out whether terms, especially value terms, are being applied correctly or not. For example, a determining whether a group calling itself “Righteous Americans for Righteous Justice” is really righteous and for righteous justice could be rather challenging. As such, while this sort of use of intentionally deceptive names is unethical, it should not be made illegally.
The use of dishonest and deceptive commercials is also clearly unethical. Their use is analogous to listing fake ingredients on a box of food to get people to buy it. It is also analogous to catfishing—in which a person pretends, online, to be someone desirable to trick someone else. As with deceptive names, the use of actors portraying “common folk” with strong views on the issue would seem to be protected by the right to free expression. Naturally, there are still presumably some legal lines that could be crossed—but there seems to be a massive appetite for allowing certain deceits to be legal.
As noted above, a fundamental part of astroturfing is that the real parties involved remain anonymous, hidden behind an appealing shell. In addition to being unethical, this anonymity presents a clear problem for rationally assessing the case made by those speaking for the anonymous entity. This is because the identity of the source of a claim is necessary to assess the credibility and possible bias of that source. While claims obviously stand or fall on their own, the identity of the source is thus critical to the practical matter of judging claims.
While there might be a right to deceptive (or persuasive, if one prefers) speech, there is not a right to anonymous speech. Requiring those funding groups and ads to identify themselves does not limit their right of free expression and it serves, as noted above, to protect the right of the listeners to properly assess the claims intended to influence them. Naturally, there are cases in which anonymous speech is morally acceptable—such as in oppressive regimes.
Those who engage in astroturfing might claim they would be harmed if their identities were known. After all, they want to be anonymous because they believe that if people knew their identities, then their efforts at persuasion would be less effective. As such, not being allowed to remain anonymous would harm them.
The easy and obvious response to this is that people do not have a moral right to remain anonymous simply because people would be less likely to be persuaded if they knew their identity. To use an analogy, a gay man does not have a moral right to present himself as a woman to deceive straight men into becoming involved with him. To use another analogy, a company that wanted to sell dog meat to people could not justly claim it would be harmed if it was not allowed to hide the real identity of the meat. In such cases, the right to know trumps the right of free expression. As such, it would be reasonable and just to have laws that forbid anonymous funding of such groups and ads. Naturally, moral exceptions can be made in oppressive countries that engage in unjust persecution.