Grassroots vs Astroturf

Here’s a thing that happened on Saturday.

It’s something that’s been controversial for a while, not least because it took place 5 days before a snap General Election – despite the fact the event was organised long before the election was even suggested. Some SNP candidates & supporters asked folk not to attend the rally, but to campaign for their pro-independence candidate in their individual constituencies. Other SNP figures were at the march themselves.

I’ve already written my piece on marches, but it bears repeating again: the SNP is not the Scottish Independence Movement, the SNP serves the Scottish Independence Movement. The SNP candidates are focusing on getting elected, so of course they will be looking for more canvassers, leafleteers, and campaigners. But even if something like 1 in 50 voters in Scotland is a member of the SNP, that means there are an awful lot more independence supporters who aren’t members, maybe not even voters. Obviously some people at the march will be members of the party – but pretending that independence is the sole dominion of the SNP, the Greens, or indeed any or all of the pro-independence parties, is pretending that Scottish Independence is a party-political issue.

And who does that serve?

Here’s a thing that happened today.

A huge structure of Theresa May flicking the V sign has been erected on the White Cliffs of Dover.

It shows the Conservative politician dressed in a Union Jack skirt with her two fingers raised.

It is unclear who is responsible for its construction near St Margaret’s but it is believed to have already been taken down.
Samantha Stanley said: “They were putting up the scaffolding on Friday and over the weekend but Mrs May went up early this morning.

“They were filming it with a drone when we walked past at about 8.45am.”

The structure has been dubbed both hideous and hilarious by locals.

Simon Hare said: “Whether you agree or disagree with Brexit, it was crass, vulgar and insulting to any Europeans coming into Dover on the ferry and a ridiculous message to send to Europe when we are about to start negotiating our exit from the EU!”

Online betting company Paddy Power did something very similar by erecting a huge image of England manager Roy Hodgson in 2012. It stood an impressive 100ft tall.

A National Trust spokesman said: “This is not on land that we own. We have raised this with our partners.”

Consider all the grassroots achievements by, say, Scottish Independence supporters. Multiple fundraisers for various causes, projects, and websites; massively attended events like the many marches and rallies; incredible visual moments like the Yes in Battery Park and Lindsay Watson’s heroic climb.

Does this hundred-foot crane-mounted thing look like the spontaneous creation of hundreds, even thousands, of ordinary, motivated, determined Leave activists seeking to express their political beliefs, crowdfunding a massive effigy of the Prime Minister bedecked in the Union Flag saluting mainland Europe in the traditional Eurosceptic fashion?

Or does it look like the sort of stunt an extremely rich group of individuals would put together in the pretence of a grassroots movement? We’ve seen it in the ongoing campaign for Scottish Independence, with Vote No Borders, Scotland in Union, and Rory Stewart’s various vanity projects particularly memorable examples. We’ve seen it with the filthy rich elites who’ve presented leaving the European Union as a victory of The People.

It’s something we see outside of constitutional politics: tobacco companies created fake public campaigns to combat anti-smoking legislation in the US; digital giants created phony letter campaigns to foster support for antitrust measures; even recently, companies interested in blighting Britain’s landscape with fracking have tried this smoke & mirrors.

The problem is the MSM view both grassroots and astroturf with equal contempt – as both threaten their dominion over the shaping of minds. In a recent Guardian article, Robert Booth described “highly partisan, semi-professional political blogs” as “DIY websites”:

Websites run by a publicity-shy English tutor in Yorkshire, an undergraduate student in Nottingham and a former management consultant in Bristol are publishing some of the most shared articles about the UK general election, ranking alongside and often above the BBC, the Guardian and the Independent.

Alternative news sites are run from laptops and bedrooms miles from the much-derided “Westminster bubble” and have emerged as one of the most potent forces in election news sharing, according to research conducted for the Guardian by the web analytics company Kaleida.

Booth goes on to discuss Another Angry Voice, The Canary, and Evolve Politics, suggesting commonality between the three of them – natural, given they are all more or less on The Left. But then the piece takes a weird turn:

The phenomenon is not unique to the left. Westmonster, a pro-Brexit “anti-establishment news” site set up only a few months ago by the insurance billionaire and former Ukip backer Arron Banks, has pushed its way into the top 40 most shared election stories…

… Breitbart London is the UK branch of the “alt-right” website in Washington owned by Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and cited as a huge influence in Trump’s win. It publishes a large volume of news about immigration issues in Europe and radical Islam…

… The publishers of the partisan sites strongly deny they are echo chambers but they do believe their job is to rally support for their causes.

The phrasing “the phenomenon is not unique to the left” and “the publishers of the partisan sites” which are “run from laptops and bedrooms miles from the much-derided “Westminster Bubble”” – not to mention the very title “DIY websites”- suggest some sort of commonality between Another Angry Voice, The Canary, Evolve Politics, Westmonster, and Breitbart; at least, one beyond that of simply being alternative news sites. Yet there is a significant, and very important, distinction between the three “Left” partisan sites, and the two “Right” ones – which the Guardian itself notes.

Another Angry Voice – run by Thomas Clark, “a publicity-shy” English tutor in Yorkshire.

The Canary – run by Kerry-Ann Mendoza, writer-journalist-commentator, former banker & management consultant in Bristol

Evolve Politics – run by Matthew Turner, third-year politics undergraduate in Nottingham.

Westmonster – founded by Arron Banks, who also co-founded the Leave.EU campaign

Breitbart London – run by Raheem Kassam, former chief advisor to UKIP & briefly leadership candidate; the London branch of Breitbart News, founded by entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart, & formerly run by current White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.

Remember this picture?

From Right to Far-Right: Gerry Gunster, Arron Banks, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Andy Wigmore, Raheem Kassam.

That’s five websites – five of many – which The Guardian lumps together as “DIY websites,” treating them as either symptomatic or reflective of “alternative news,” with the same or similar motivations and goals. Three are operated by teams ranging from one man and a blog to a score or so writers and reporters. Two have the backing of millionaires, tycoons, and some of the most powerful people in the world. As it is with the Scottish Independence Movement, so it is with movements and causes worldwide.

That’s the difference between Grassroots and Astroturf. Watch out for snakes.

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