At a June 2021 Washoe County School District (WCSD) meeting in Nevada, dozens of parents, conservative activists, and students lobbied the school board trustees to ban the implementation of “critical race theory” (CRT) in classrooms. During the public comment period, many expressed concern that their children and grandchildren would be encouraged to stereotype one another while others said that culturally sensitive programming “borders on criminal.” The problem is that the actual agenda item up for approval was a student-created supplement to make its curriculum and “instruction more culturally competent.”
WCSD trustees were never considering including CRT, a tenet of sociological scholarship that says white supremacy and racism are baked into the governing and economic systems of the U.S., in any district-wide curriculum. And yet parents from all over the district were reacting to a distorted picture of the actual goals of the educational supplement, spurred in part by misinformation and campaigns from conservative activists from out of state with no affiliation to the district.
“There were a couple groups that had been particularly outspoken against the [supplement], including one from California, which is kind of funny because they don’t have kids in Washoe County schools,” said Mia Albright, now a senior at Reno High School in Washoe County.
What happened at that school district meeting in Washoe County isn’t an isolated incident. Schools and public libraries everywhere from New York to Illinois to California are seeing challenges to CRT and to individual books. But advocates say the speed and strength with which legislation targeting anti-racist education and book ban campaigns have taken hold isn’t a product of local citizens bringing issues to attention independently of each other, but the result of a coordinated top-down effort to push through a narrow set of ideological standards.
“That is really common on social media because you can fake accounts under different names and try to make it look like this is the real opinion from the citizens,” says JungHwan Yang, an assistant professor in the department of communication at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
The force behind this wave is a top-down political pressure tool known as “astroturfing,” the attempt to make an electoral, ideological, or movement campaign appear as if it’s emerging from grassroots organizing. Any number of think tanks, media, and political groups can launch a targeted campaign to convince the public that an idea or ideological position is more popular than it may be. In some instances, political astroturfing groups will use online forums to pose as community members in order to move public opinion, as one Pennsylvania group did in 2017 to push for anti-union laws. In other instances, groups will launch campaigns to ban “critical race theory” in states where they don’t live, like in New York City, and in schools where they don’t send their children.
“Literally it’s like fake grass,” said Yang, whose research areas include astroturfing. “It looks like a grassroots movement from afar, but actually, it’s made of plastic.”
Astroturfing capitalizes on the distrust and dislike of public institutions, beliefs usually held by those on the political right, by making it seem as if individual citizens are pushing for policy change at the local level of their own accord, rather than being spurred by a handful of organizations using so-called research from operations with conservative policy goals, like the Heritage Institute, or the American Legislative Exchange Council. And sometimes, it works.
In Reno, Albright was a member of WCSD Students For Change, a grassroots student-run group comprised of students from across Washoe County public schools that began working to shift educational conditions in the summer of 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd. The group had successfully petitioned the board of trustees to unanimously pass a resolution in October 2020 that aimed to “to create a system-wide commitment to creating an unbiased, inclusive, and anti-racist society through education.” However, these student-led actions were soon derailed by what Albright described as a “wave of disinformation about critical race theory” that rallied enough detractors of anti-racism education to sway the school board at the June 2021 meeting. In addition to refusing to repeal a district ordinance prohibiting “political” speech in classrooms like the words “Black Lives Matter,” the trustees decided not to approve the supplemental materials the students had worked so hard on.
Distorting the real picture
Astroturfing doesn’t just parade under the guise of individuality; it also belies public opinion. Campaigns targeting anti-racist education and books centering LGBTQ+ people run on the premise that the majority of Americans are against the inclusion of these materials and subjects in schools and libraries. The reality is that most adults can’t actually describe what CRT inspects or challenges, nor do the vast majority of adults want books to be banned from student access. In direct contradiction to the assertions made by federal and state elected officials, according to a February CBS poll, 58% of adults in America think racism is a problem, and 76% say that educators should be allowed to teach uncomfortable ideas. For an even more glaring measure of the public’s perspective, between 87% of adults say books discussing race or depicting slavery should never be banned. In all of 2019, there were 377 challenges to books; in stark contrast, the American Library Association has tracked 330 challenges between September through November of 2021, a mere span of three months.
In other words, astroturfing is the ability to manipulate electoral groups into believing in a certain ideology and acting on that belief. And if astroturfing is a tool of manipulation, then it’s also a practice in power. For starters, there’s the power that a trusted media source of the political right has to perpetuate these ideas. Fox News, the media group owned by Rupert Murdoch, an ardent supporter of former President Donald Trump, mentioned “critical race theory” nearly 2,000 times in May through June of 2021. Hosts compared critical race theory to “modern-day Jim Crow” and called the theory a “cult,” which serves two purposes. The first is to stoke fear in white voters, and the second is to align the mere discussion of race with harm or negligence.
Then there are the products of this practice of power: to alter the legislative landscape of American local, state, and federal governing bodies. In the case of Fox News, the media corporation has admitted to using white peoples’ fears around CRT as a means for political organizing to shift midterm election results in favor of conservative candidates. It’s the kind of convoluted electoral strategy that seems to be producing results: take Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s November 2021 win, which many attributed to his distaste of “critical race theory.” Youngkin’s success in a moderate state that voted for a Democratic candidate in the past four presidential elections, demonstrates that Republican voters are not only motivated to turn out to the polls, but laying the groundwork to shift political cultures for electoral cycles to come.
Communities struggle to mitigate damage after being hit by waves of astroturfing
Every progressive wave, such as the one that pushed Albright and her peers to organize with WCSD Students For Change, precedes a backlash. In the past two years, 42 states have either introduced or passed legislation banning “critical race theory,” and the astroturfing efforts have engulfed a larger swath of complaints around LGBTQ+ representation in literature, trans people’s access to bathrooms and sports teams, and face mask usage to prevent the spread of COVID-19, among many others. The resulting political and cultural changes that remain after an astroturfing wave has receded can have long-term consequences for targeted communities. For example, teachers have been forced to develop new strategies for challenging emerging hate speech in the classroom and recognizing when a student may demonstrate alt-right sympathies.
Nora Flanagan, an English teacher in the Chicago Public Schools district, says that she sees the results of the backlash firsthand in her classroom. Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., which means that many students are interacting with peers from different backgrounds for the first time. While conducting class online during the pandemic, Flanagan would pay special attention to what students were typing in the chat function, looking out for slurs or other forms of concerning or harmful speech. She likened the chat function to the chatter in the back of the classroom—the quiet and consequential undercurrent of what students think and feel.
“Some students who are accustomed to being the most important voice in the room aren’t the most important voice in the room anymore,” Flanagan said. “And that can lead to fantastic growth, [but] it can also lead to discomfort and hostility.”
Astroturfing not only changes the cultural and electoral landscape of a community, but has the potential to shape the opinions and perspectives of young people who are looking for community, acceptance, and friendship and are particularly susceptible to far-right messaging that routinely targets them through online sites like Reddit, 4chan, or YouTube, among others, with racist and bigoted ideas and images. Campaigns targeting LGBTQ+ books and anti-racism initiatives can also embolden students to repeat sexist or racist statements, gaslight or demean their peers, or sport symbols that have been recognized as neo-fascist.
“We were immediately concerned about the level of isolation of students [at the start of the pandemic],” Flanagan said. “[Isolation impacts] students who are susceptible to radicalization and recruitment to white nationalist extremism, or other kind of bigoted movements.”
Barnali Das Khuntia, a member of the public library board in Downers Grove, Illinois, a majority white city about 20 miles west of Chicago, says that because the library plays a central role in the culture of the town, it was important to the board that they continue to advertise their values of racial justice and equity. For the most part, the majority of the community is willing to hold those values, but Khuntia says that over the past few years of navigating everything from belligerent anti-maskers to complaints about “reverse racism” to people walking in and throwing a Nazi salute, the staff has grown tired. While the library staff and leadership have developed strategies to combat hate speech or hateful people, they’re doing so against a background of city-wide astroturfing. For instance, in November, the neo-Nazi hate group known as the Proud Boys attempted to ban the book “Gender Queer” from a Downers Grove school library. The alt-right protesters weren’t affiliated with the school, though they attended the school board meeting in droves to intimidate and sway board members. This is a well-documented strategy of theirs: attending municipal and school district meetings across the country to wage campaigns, despite not belonging to the communities.
“We spent our last advisory team meeting saying, you know, we all feel kind of alone, and I’m sure other libraries feel the same way,” Khuntia says. “Everyone feels isolated.”
Astroturfing isn’t invincible
The initial “shock and awe” of the force astroturfing campaigns can be overwhelming, but its ultimate success depends on whether or not its opponents can find ways to outlast it. In Washoe County, Albright and other students haven’t given up, despite the previous year’s setback. Albright currently sits on a committee of adults and students tasked with reviewing supplementary materials and is hopeful that when the committee presents their recommendations to the board this June, the trustees will approve it. She also hopes that they’ll reconsider the speech prohibition ordinance.
When it comes to combating future astroturfing efforts in her community, Albright says that she learned invaluable lessons about the importance of organizing and using her voice. In many ways, she didn’t know that young people could enter the space where adults make policy decisions. She didn’t like having to speak at board meetings, but she wouldn’t have known it was an option for her until she tried. She acknowledges that astroturfing campaigns popping up in many communities can make pushing back seem daunting, but that is even more of a reason to get involved.
“It’s happening all across the country, but there’s still hope and there’s still a pathway to progress for people who want to change curriculum,” she said. “It is so important for every student to feel seen and heard, and it’s so important that we learn the history of people of color beyond just their struggles.”
Being able to tap into a growing network of like-minded educators and advocates for ideas and support has been invaluable for teachers like Flanagan. In 2019, Flanagan partnered with the Western States Center to create a toolkit for addressing white supremacy in the classroom. Now, she says the toolkit’s popularity has become an organizing and community-building force for teachers who may have previously felt isolated or without support. That access to the network is critical, as many educators and staff are learning how to combat white supremacy for the first time, such as when it emerges among students during anti-CRT astroturfing campaigns.
“There’s this huge network now of educators and other organizers who can reach out to each other literally on a moment’s notice and get feedback on how to handle something,” Flanagan said. “All the work that we’ve done … is so that one teacher doesn’t feel like, not only do they have to take care of everything in their room, but that they’re the only one saying anything at their school.”
Strengthening community connections and learning from others who have been targeted by similar campaigns are important elements of how the Downers Grove library board is moving forward. Khuntia says it was important to the library leadership and staff to address conflict in an empathetic, nonviolent way, connecting with people who know how to deescalate tense situations without relying on police or hired security, whose presence could very well make BIPOC, LGBTQ+ folks, and other marginalized community members even more unsafe. Critically, instead of turning inward to figure out how to address aggression, statements of hate, or antagonism, Khuntia says that the library board is beginning to turn outward and ask library staff and leadership in other communities how they deal with hate speech and attempts to ban books.
“We’re not alone in this,” Khuntia says. “Everyone, no matter where they are in this country, is probably dealing with similar situations depending on what kind of library they’re in [or] what kind of community they live in.”
[CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the Economic Opportunity Institute (EOI) as a conservative policy organization, which is incorrect. EOI is “an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit public-policy center using research, education and advocacy to encourage public debate and advance new policy ideas” with a racial equity lens, including paid leave, fair taxation for the wealthy, wage equity, and health care access. The inaccurate reference has been removed.]