Supporters of Trevor Cook and Paull Young's admirable Anti-Astroturfing campaign might be interested in this theoretical justification by Kathy Fitzpatrick which is grounded in USA First Amendment principles that underpin the PRSA Code of Ethics.
In Baselines for Ethical Advocacy in the Marketplace of Ideas (the opening chapter of Ethics in Public Relations: Responsible Advocacy (Sage, 2006, edited with Carolyn Bronstein) Fitzpatrick identifies four 'market place' principles that shape the First Amendment jurisprudence and have a particular application for ethical PR practice:
Market place theory holds that 'truth' will emerge from robust public debate and be determined by people evaluating competing messages and ideas. Fitzpatrick uses these principles to test the ethical legitimacy of 'front groups'; her conclusions can, in the most part, be applied equally well to astroturf websites.
They fail each of the four tests.
- Well funded front groups tend to dominate the marketplace and diminish other voices, limiting or interfering with access to information
- They corrupt communication processes by deceiving marketplace participants about about the both source of communication and the true level of support for their views
- They create false truths by misleading the marketplace participants about either the potential impact of proposed policies or genuine citizen support for them
- The lack of transparency regarding the true source of communication violates the marketplace principle of disclosure which requires that information needed to aid informed decision-making be revealed
Fitzpatrick suggests that these fundamental marketplace principles provide an ethical floor on which public relations practice standards can be built.
If she - and the PRSA - are right, it is pretty clear that the case against astroturfing is compelling.