John Oliver calls out ‘astroturfing’ organizations that pay protestors and fake grassroots movements


On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver called out the alarming movement known as astroturfing — where corporations usually disguise themselves as the public to influence lawmakers.

Amid all of the hustle and bustle of the what’s going on in U.S. politics at any given moment, there’s also some longstanding, concerning organizations running amuck that are set out to influence lawmakers. On Sunday’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the word of the day for that movement was called “astroturfing.”

Oliver made it clear this wasn’t just some weird teen fad, but it’s something a lot more alarming. As Oliver puts it, this term comes from “corporations or political groups disguising themselves as spontaneous, authentic popular movements.” So, astroturfing gets its name because they are essentially fake grassroots moments.

As scary or dangerous as it may seem, Oliver noted big ways to find out which of these organizations try to influence us through astroturfing:

It’s all in the name

When it comes to the names of these organizations, they can seem pretty harmless on a surface level. Save Our Tips, the National Wetlands Coalition, and the American Council on Science and Health are just a few that he brings up. It’s not until you see what they’re for (or against) that you start to realize something is up. The biggest red flag: these organizations seem to support the exact opposite of what a normal group fighting for those rights would want.

For example, take Citizens for Fire Safety, a group that argued for keeping fire retardants in place for furniture despite them being linked to cancer. One advocate, a burn surgeon by the name of David Heimbach advocated for the inclusion of the retardants — citing a weird story for his testimony: a baby’s life was lost after sustaining burns from a fire in its crib. Apparently, its mother left a candle by the crib, and it knocked over onto the baby’s non-fire retardant pillow.

The story sort of checks out, until Oliver mentions Heimbach retold a version of that story at least two other times before a council. And after some investigation by a journalist, low and behold, he was paid to make up such a story by Citizens for Fire Saftey, whose organization was supported by three of the largest retardant makers.

Paid protestors

While Donald Trump might be unjustly concerned about paid protestors from the Democrats, he is right that paid protestors do exist. Oliver pointed out, in one example, the company Entergy, that staged a group of actors to protest for the approval of a power plant. Done all through a Facebook by a group called Crowds On Demand, the actors were promised to be paid 60-200 “dollarydoos,” which shows you just how serious they take these things.

These actors were given specific talking points to ensure that they seemed believable. And the only rules they were given were “tell nobody you’re being paid” and don’t talk to the media. If things couldn’t be more alarming, Crowds On Demand’s CEO says he finds nothing wrong about his company and believes nobody’s being tricked by these demonstrators.

What we can do

For the average person, Oliver recommends the best thing someone can do to avoid falling into these astroturfing pitfalls is by carrying a healthy sense of skepticism. It’s a difficult thing to do, given these companies dress themselves up as the concerned public, so he says people should “use [their] judgment diligently.”

As his closing pallet cleanser, though, Oliver released his own astroturfing-like commercial, going against every company that uses those maniacal methods. To see his hilarious kick back at astroturfers, you can watch it in the video below.

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Last Week with John Oliver airs Sundays at 11 p.m. EST on HBO.