On Sunday's Last Week Tonight, John Oliver tackled the phenomenon of "astroturfing," and he kicked it off with a pretty vulgar joke. Then he got down to business: "Astroturfing is the practice of corporations or political groups disguising themselves as spontaneous, authentic popular movements. It's basically fake grassroots — that's why they call it 'astroturfing.'" Some of these campaigns are pretty obvious, he said, playing one example, but "with dark money surging in the wake of decisions like Citizens United, astroturfing techniques are becoming more sophisticated, effective, and dangerous, and they are not going away."
Oliver proposed exploring those techniques "to better spot them in the future," and he started with the nomenclature, specifically the gallingly deceitful names some groups adopt. He used the work of one notorious adman, Richard Berman, as an example. Astroturfing front groups also sometimes hire "expert" witnesses. And in "one of the most infuriating tools of astroturfing," he said, some groups pay protesters to demonstrate on their behalf — and there are companies like Crowds on Demand that offer those services.
Conspiracy theorists now claim Crowds on Demand provides actors in all sorts of real situations, like the Las Vegas shooting, which is "hugely dangerous," Oliver said. "The consequences of this cannot be that everyone assumes that anyone who doesn't agree with them is astroturf. While skepticism is healthy, cynicism — real cynicism — is toxic." And until "we find out a way to force astroturf groups to be more transparent and accountable," our common sense is our best tool, he said. He ended with an anti-astroturfing ad — pay attention to who purportedly sponsored it. (The video is frequently NSFW.) Peter Weber