Astroturfing’s historic roots back in 4th century BC

Online astroturfing, or faking grassroots opinion, crops up at unfortunately regular intervals in discussions of both online public relations and online politics. All the more so with the rise of fake news.

But it has got deep historic roots that are rarely mentioned.

The story starts at least as far back as the 4th century BC with the Greeks:

Greek playwrights hired bands of helpers to laugh at their comedies in order to influence the judges. The Romans also stacked the audience, but they were apparently more interested in applause than chuckles: Nero – emperor and wannabe musician – employed a group of five thousand knights and soldiers to accompany him on his concert tours [and astroturfing was also part of the Roman legal system].

But the golden age of canned laughter came in 19th-century France. Almost every theater in France was forced to hire a band called a claque – from claquer, “to clap”. The influential claque leaders, called the chefs de claque, got a monthly payment from the actors. And the brilliant innovation they came up with was specialization. Each claque member had his or her own important job to perform. There were rieurs, who laughed loudly during comedies. There were the bisseurs, who shouted for encores. There were the commissaires, who would elbow their neighbors and say, “This is the good part”. And my favourite of all, the pleureuses, women who were paid good francs to weep at the sad part of tragedies. [The Know-It-All by AJ Jacobs]

Faked laughter in return for money has a widespread history, including in the USA where it was the trigger for one of my favourite article introductions, courtesy of Gay Talese in 1958:

Every time Bernie Fein listens to the jokes of nightclub, television or Broadway comedians, he chuckles, roars, slaps his thighs and doubles up in convulsive laughter. Mr. Fein is a professional laugher. He will laugh at anything for a fee.

Not all is quite so new, then. The next time you share a story on social media, just think of yourself as a commissaire.

4 responses to “Astroturfing’s historic roots back in 4th century BC”

  1. And I thought you were going to get all etymological, and talk about the Astrodome, the first domed stadium, in Houston, Texas – named the Astrodome after NASA in Houston.

    And they were the first place to really use artificial turf (in the sixties), so it became known as Astroturf.

    Of course, fake grassroots is astroturf.

  2. What is a theater? The word appears to be in a foreign language.

    Seriously, astroturfing and particularly the Greek practice point to the dangers of believing people who say traditional political organisation with its elected officers and committees is out of date and we must replace it with something lean and fast. Lean and fast tends to be opaque and fixed.

  3. There was a memorable Liberator article, back in the 80s ‘Was God an Astroturf?’ – I think it was written by the then Bishop of Birmingham’s son…

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