ASTROWEEDS…. Political “astroturfing” — in the absence of genuine grassroots support, manufacturing the appearance of widespread support — is a word with some nuances.

Some cases are obvious. We recently learned, for example, that a D.C. lobbying firm, working for the coal industry, sent bogus letters to Democratic lawmakers in opposition to a cap-and-trade bill. The industry and its lobbyists couldn’t rally real support, so they faked it, perpetrating a fraud. It’s textbook astroturfing.

But what about the right-wing activists rallying against health care reform? Does it meet the definition? Ryan Sager noted yesterday, “Without a doubt, the current anti-reform protests have been organized in a significant sense by Freedom Works, a small-government group headed by former GOP majority leader Dick Armey. But, just as surely, these protests have been fueled by real anger and fear among conservatives.”

That’s true. The far-right activists may be reading from a script, but they aren’t actors. They’re being fed misinformation by lobbyists and corporate interests, and are organized by conservative political outfits, but their outrage is their own.

In this sense, we’re dealing with a third animal here. It’s not genuine grassroots, because it’s top-down, with activists being fed talking points by corporations. But it’s also not quite contrived astroturfing, either. So what is it? Tom Schaller argues we’re “witnessing a new form of public participation,” called “astroweed lobbying.”

[W]hat we are seeing … essentially combines the worst part of both grassroots activism and astroturfing — that is, it pairs the slick coordination of elites coupled with the raw, unfiltered advocacy of the masses. What happens when a set of elites coordinate, fund and foment public expression, but encourage just about anyone — whether informed or not, whether skilled communicators or not, whether dedicated to the particular issue under discussion or merely dedicated to resistance for “Waterloo”-style resistance’s sake — and send them into the public arena to express their opinions? We get ugly signs, incoherent questions, and blood-curdling screams about the coming end of America as we know it. […]

I argue that what we are seeing across the country in these town halls thus can be aptly called “astroweeds lobbying.” You take oil industry money and throw it behind Americans for Prosperity, you get Glenn Beck and Michael Savage and other radio talkers ratcheting up the calls for action, and you then you urge a rag-tag troop of rabid opponents to attend public events to scream and shout. […]

Grassroots activism may fill the lawn of democracy in a patchy, erratic manner, and astroturf lobbying may make that lawn look uniform, if a bit hard and discomfiting. But astroweeding creates an ugly eyesore as it chokes off the flowering of democracy.

Given the effectiveness of the right-wing opposition to reform, I can only assume we’re going to see quite a bit more astroweeding in the future.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.