Corporate fronts, astroturf groups and co-opted social movements

Challenging power is crucial to the stability of democracy, without dissent there would be few checks on unbridled power. The overwhelming power of dissent and popular democracy to effect social change is widely acknowledged by corporate and governmental elites and in the 1970s, an influential Trilateral Commission report came to the astonishing conclusions that there was a “crisis of democracy” because there was simply too much democracy. (1) Just prior to this, the underground and illegal mechanisations of the controversial CONTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) program came to light. (2) It seemed that the era of covert CIA operations was eventually backfiring on the US government, which in turn was suffering from its own crisis of legitimacy with the public. However, the lessons that the US government appeared to learn, were that covert operations were not bad per se, but instead that power politics, played out through covert manoeuvres, did not play well in the public sphere. In a sense this change in strategy, “forced” the US government to consider more public (relations) friendly tactics to achieve the same political objectives. This did not mean that the government cut back on covert operations, it just meant that it realised the potential benefits of carrying out some of their work overtly. Subsequently, this led to the development of various projects, which aimed to undertake “democracy promotion” activities abroad. These were launched in 1981 with “Project Democracy”, which later led to the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in 1983.

As previously noted, the worldwide rise of mass protests in the 1960s caused a lot of concern for ruling elites; as for the most part, such popular protests were out of the government’s control. But what if governments could control protests or at least manipulate them to their advantage? What if they could help determine which social movements or even revolutions succeeded and which failed? What would happen if powerful governments and corporate elites decided that the promotion of dissent was a cost effective way of maintaining their own power? These are some of the questions that this article will explore by investigating the assortment of ways in which corporations and governments interact with social movements. The study will attempt to provide a global overview of these relationships and as will become more obvious (in later parts of this article), the activities of democratic countries to promote democracy overseas will provide relevant examples of how elite groups are already working closely with social movements to “promote democracy” (or rather polyarchy) instead of more participatory forms of democracy. Initially, this work will briefly outline the development of corporate front groups and astroturf groups in democratic countries and will then introduce the less examined parallel expansion of government regulated or engineered dissent – a process that has been referred to as the promotion of polyarchy. (3)

Corporate fronts, astroturf groups and co-opted social movements
Even prior to 1984, we were living in a world in which surveillance has been increasingly important to the smooth functioning of the status quo. The sheer power and magnitude of modern surveillance techniques means that those in control of sensitive surveillance information can manipulate and control citizens effectively without their consent. (4) This fast tracking of what Aeron Davis referred to as Public Relations Democracy undermines democratic principles because it focuses on methods for “manufacturing consent”, rather than seeking ways by which to engage the public and invite their participation in decision making processes. (5) Precursors to this state of affairs were evident in the 1970s, when both businesses and governments recognised the utility of corporate funded think tanks to undermine popular democracy. Indeed it has been noted that:

“The twentieth century has been characterised by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.” (Alex Carey, 1995, Taking the risk out of democracy, p. 18)

Corporate propaganda (often referred to as PR) blossomed in the twentieth-century with the rise of neo-liberalism and stimulated the evolution of corporate front groups (alongside corporate funded think tanks) to covertly distribute pro-business PR from organisations with inconspicuous sounding names (a well know example was the Global Climate Coalition). Corporate front groups are certainly a powerful tool for influencing public opinion, but it is widely recognised that grassroots movements tend to have more credibility with the public and politicians. However, the effectiveness of grassroots groups’ political outreach is severely restrained by both their general lack of financial resources and the adversarial or partisan nature of the corporate media. (6) Any group that can overcome these barriers has a distinct advantage in building wider public and political support for their objectives. Accordingly the groups most likely to overcome these hurdles are those whose campaigns are aligned with corporate interests. These may be genuine groups, arising to fill a niche in civil society or impostor “astroturf” groups, financed by businesses to promote corporate interests. Astroturf groups are so-called because they represent fake grassroots movements, whose corporate financed founders are paid for every citizen they can mobilise to support a specific cause. (7) Although the mass media pays scant attention to their position in the public sphere, astroturf activities are by no means marginal and have been acknowledged to be “the most popular political strategy [used] in the 1990s.” (8) With high levels of funding these groups can utilise the comprehensive demographic resources provided by database management companies, which allow them to efficiently target individuals who will be most easily persuaded by their sales pitches. Astroturf initiatives are expanding all the time and as there is often no shortage of funding they tend to be only restrained by their instigators’ creativity. (9)

One of the problems resulting from the colonisation of the public sphere by corporations, is the increasing difficultly citizens have in determining which organisations in civil society are genuine and which have been either co-opted or created by elite groups to manipulate public opinion. Financial support through the government or a specific corporation does not necessarily imply executive control by that agency over all issues the group is involved in. However, in an increasingly globalised and privatised world, in which many groups compete (domestically or internationally) for a limited pot of money, discriminatory funding will certainly effect which groups prosper and which fade away. Under these circumstances it is evident that the selective backing of certain social movements and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the exclusion of others can be used as a powerful political tool. (10)

What would happen if countries were able to bypass state sovereignty and support their favoured civil society groups overseas? Despite the relatively low profile of this subject, it does happen (on an increasingly regular basis) under the guise of “promoting democracy.” Therefore substantial democracy promoting programs are being undertaken by a number of democratic countries. The best financed programs to “enlarge democracy” are currently being funded by the US, consequently the following section will examine this “new” form of political intervention using examples from the US and conclude by discussing the relevance of these practices in supporting civil society groups in nominally democratic countries.

The global manufacture of dissent
 â€œThe operation – engineering democracy through the ballot box and civil disobedience – is now so slick that the methods have matured into a template for winning other people’s elections.” (Ian Traynor, 2004, [,15569,1360236,00.html US campaign behind the turmoil in Kiev])

The United States have a long history of political interference overseas and from 1945 onwards it has led them to attempt “to overthrow more than 40 foreign governments” and “crush more than 30 populist-nationalist movements struggling against intolerable regimes.” (11) During the 1970s public revelations of some of the government’s unsavoury covert operations conducted overseas, led to a general reappraisal of the implementation of US foreign policy. Apparently this did not lead to fundamental changes in the implementation of US policy, but instead merely led to a discussion of the necessity for a change in tactics of intervention, which led to the “replacement of coercive means of social control with consensual ones.” (12) This tactical change was marked by the creation of “Project Democracy” in 1980 on the basis of the understanding that it was easier to maintain popular support for intrusive foreign policies when they were carried out overtly under the guise of “promoting democracy.” (13) In 1983 President Reagan, with bipartisan support, created the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), whose stated objective was to “foster the infrastructure of democracy – the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities.” (14) The crucial question that remains is: what type of democracy is being promoted?

Allen Weinstein, the NEDs first acting president, may be able to help answer this question, as he notes that “A lot of what we [the NED] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” (15) The New York Times made a similar point, observing that the NED’s work “resembles the aid given by the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1950s, 60s and 70s to bolster pro-American political groups.” (16) Among the NED’s most ardent supporters is the rightwing think tank, the Heritage Foundation, who has described the NED as “a cost-effective way to encourage captive nations to liberate themselves without committing the US to a prohibitively risky and costly military crusade to free them from communism.” (17) Since the NED’s creation promoting democracy has become a growth industry and in 1999 the US reported spending US$622.9 million on democracy assistance through the US Information Agency (USIA) and US Agency for International Development (USAID). (18) The NED itself (which receives most of its funding from congress) only receives a relatively small budget; which was approximately US$30 million per year during the 1990s, rising to US$80 million in 2005. However, the NED plays an integral role in setting up and coordinating most of the US’s democracy promotion programs, as its nongovernmental status enables it to bypass legal and political restrictions, which traditional government agencies providing overseas aid have to face.

It is worth noting that the US had already obtained considerable experience of “promoting democracy” overseas, ironically through the CIA’s intimate relations with the American labour movement. (19) Similar ‘democratic’ programs have also been undertaken by USAID and American philanthropists, most notably the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. (20)

In stark opposition to the democratic rhetoric emanating from the United States in the decade prior to the NED’s existence, the US military and CIA had undermined democratic processes in the following countries: Afghanistan, Angola, Australia, Bolivia, Cuba, East Timor, El Salvador, Greece, Grenada, Guatemala, Iraq, Jamaica, Libya, Morocco, Nicaragua, Panama, Seychelles, Suriname, and Zaire. A classic example, of a country in which the full spectrum of finely tuned destabilisation tactics were used is Chile. Coincidentally the US’s intervention in Chile culminated in the elimination of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government, ten years before the launch of the NED. The following review of the Chilean case study will highlight some commonly used destabilisation strategies that are often deployed to “promote democracy.” (21)

Shortly after Chile’s closely contested 1958 election in which Allende’s (Marxist) party came close to winning, the CIA decided to ensure that this increasingly popular leader was kept out of government. The CIA proceeded to provide millions of dollars and professional guidance to a centrist presidential candidate and numerous grassroots organisations, which together were able to successfully block Allende’s election hopes in 1964. This strategy was also supported by “a massive anti-communist propaganda campaign” waged on the streets and in the media. (22) US support of anti-leftist groups continued, as did the CIA’s ongoing work to subvert unions and in 1969 the CIA started supporting a splinter socialist party in an endeavour to weaken Allende’s hand in the congressional election. However, despite the CIA’s best efforts Allende was elected president in 1970. In the following years, the CIA honed the art of destabilisation (or “promoting democracy”) through a war of attrition, which amongst other things involved supporting the (“independent”) media – which was already mostly owned by the opposition – in their frequent calls for civil war. To enhance the effects of their internal destabilisation tactics, harsh economic sanctions denied the Allende government (much needed) international development assistance (previously Chile had been the highest per capita aid recipient in the hemisphere); the US even pressured the Interamerican Development Bank to withhold emergency earthquake loans. Development aid may have been cut off, but as part of a strategy to get the military onside the US provided the Chilean military with US$47 million of arms aid between 1970 and 1973 (this “aid” package included fighter jets, that were later used to attack the presidential palace during the coup). (23) In September 1973, with full knowledge (and support) of the militaries’ plan to oust Allende, the US stood by the sidelines as General Pinochet led a brutal military coup – which succeeded in “removing” Allende by killing him – facilitating Chile’s transition from a US “unfriendly” socialist democracy to a US “friendly” dictatorship. The following year President Ford publicly recalled that all the United States had wanted to do “was to help assist the preservation of opposition newspapers and electronic media and to preserve the opposition political parties.” Alarmingly this is the same type of rhetoric presently being used by world leaders today to justify the “promotion of democracy.” 

Michael Barker is a doctoral candidate at Griffith University, Australia. He can be reached at Michael.J.Barker [at]


(1)  Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington & Joji Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission (New York University Press, 1975).
(2)  Ward Churchill & Jim Vander Wall, The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars against Domestic Dissent (South End Press, 1990).
(3)  William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996); Following parts of this article expand upon the relevance of polyarchy to the NED.
(4)  Gerald Sussman, Global Electioneering: Campaign Consulting, Communications, and Corporate Financing (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), pp. 87-97; International Campaign Against Mass Surveillance, ‘The emergence of a global infrastructure for mass registration and surveillance,’ Statewatch, April 2005,
(5)  Aeron Davis, Public Relations Democracy: Public Relations, Politics and the Mass Media in Britain (Manchester University Press, 2002); Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Pantheon Books, 1988);  Michael J. Barker, Manufacturing Policies: The Media’s Role in the Policy Making Process (Journalism Education Conference, 2005)
(6)  Sharon Beder, Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism (Scribe Publications, 2000), pp. 27-45; David Berry & John Theobald (eds), Radical Mass Media Criticism: A Cultural Genealogy (Black Rose Books, 2006); Jeffery Klaehn (ed), Filtering the News: Essays on Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model (Black Rose Books, 2005).
(7)  Sharon Beder, Global Spin, p. 32; John C. Stauber & Sheldon Rampton, ‘Deforming Consent: The Public Relations Industry’s Secret War on Activists’, CovertAction Quarterly, Vol. 55, (1995/96), pp. 18-25.
(8)  Gerry D. Keim, ‘Strategic Grassroots: Developing Influence’, Electric Perspectives, Vol. 21, No. 2 (1996), pp. 17.
(9)  For example, a relatively new online initiative brought to popularity by the George W. Bush campaign, enables astroturf letters to be sent to newspapers all over the country, so that ‘[w]ith a few keystrokes and mouse clicks, individuals can send preprogrammed letters [created from cut-and-paste phrases] under their own names to editors. Some Web sites even preselect local publications, depending on the person’s ZIP code and address.’ See Jennifer Lee, ‘Editors and lobbyists wage high-tech war over letters’, The New York Times,  27 January 2003, p. 10.
(10)  For further details see Daniel R. Faber & Deborah McCarthy (eds), Foundations for Social Change: Critical Perspectives on Philanthropy and Popular Movements. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005).
(11)  William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Common Courage Press, 2000), p. 2.
(12)  William I. Robinson, A Faustian Bargain: US Intervention in the Nicaraguan Elections and American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era, (Westview Press, 1992), pp. 16-18.
(13)  Howard J. Wiarda, The Democratic Revolution in Latin America: History, Politics, and US Policy, (Holmes & Meier, 1990), p. 147.
(14)  Ronald W. Reagan, ‘Address to Members of the British Parliament’, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, 8 June 1982,
(15)  David Ignatius, ‘Innocence abroad: the new world of spyless coups’, The Washington Post, 22 September 1991, p. 1.
(16)  David K. Shipler, ‘Missionaries for democracy: US aid for global pluralism’, The New York Times, 1 June 1986.
(17)  James A. Phillips & Kim R. Holmes, ‘The National Endowment in Democracy: A Prudent Investment in the Future’, Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum, No. 461, 13 September 1996,
(18)  Elizabeth Cohn, ‘US Democratization Assistance’, Foreign Policy in Focus, Vol. 4, No. 20 (Interhemispheric Resource Center and the Institute for Policy Studies, 1999),; The cited figure does not include resources from other US agencies involved in democracy promotion, which include: the Departments of Defence, Justice, and State, and the National Security Council.
(19)  David Lowe, ‘Idea to reality: NED at 20’, (2004),; for a comprehensive overview of the AFL-CIO’s role in countering progressive movements and overthrowing democratically elected governments, see Kim Scipes, ‘It’s Time to Come Clean: Open the AFL-CIO Archives on International Labor Operations’, Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 25, No. 2 (2000), pp. 4-25.
(20)  Steve Weissman, The Trojan Horse: A Radical Look at Foreign Aid (Ramparts Press, 1974); Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (Albany State University of New York Press, 2003).
(21)  William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions since World War II (Common Courage Press, 2004); the following section draws heavily from Blum’s chapter on Chile (pp. 206-215).
(22)  Senate Report cited in Blum, Killing Hope, p. 206.
(23)  Roger Morris, Shelley Mueller & William Jelin, ‘Through the Looking Glass in Chile: Coverage of Allende’s Regime’, Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 1974, p. 23.

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