Deception is our Product

Deceiving the public these days is a lucrative industry with astroturfing and other socially engineered forms of brainwashing predicted to saturate the Australian media.

Experienced PR practitioners now cajole and co-erced you to sacrifice your interests for those of their clients.  And the biggest clients are those with the biggest war chest and the most to fear – the fossil fuel industry.

Indeed, it was the rise of citizens groups in the US opposing action on global warming which led environment organisations such as Greenpeace to investigate why any thinking person would put mining interests before their grandchildren’s future.  What appeared to be citizens democracy or genuine grassroots movements turned out to be “astroturfers” organised and funded by the fossil fuel lobby, with the help of very clever PR strategists.

So what can look like a groundswell of public opinion is often the result of a carefully targetted PR campaign.

Public opinion is a precious commodity. It’s what elects governments and we know that governments deliver profit and power to those whose largesse it enjoys.

Today’s PR supremos are making serious money out of commodifying public opinion, manipulating it and touting it to this ready market.

Here’s the point:

Political parties receive money in return for favours, you don’t.

Their actions are a conscious decision. Yours, more than likely, are not.

Your good opinion is not for sale so it’s a good idea to ask the time-honoured question “who benefits” because the onslaught of suasion in the last few years is unrivalled in tricking or swaying people to do the unthinkable:

To put corporate interests before your own!

Good examples were  Hands Off My Healthcare, in the US, and, in Australia, the watering down of tax on miners, the about-turn by the public on the ETS, and the recent success of the Landscape Guardians to stop wind farms replacing coal-fired power in Victoria.

Like the fake flies used as bait to lure unsuspecting fish, fake grassroots are used as bait to lure unsuspecting people, who, in turn provide a veneer of green shoots amongst the plastic to fool “real” citizens (into getting on board) and an unsuspecting media, helped by complicit governments.

The Landscape Guardians, their front group, the Waubra Foundation, with their links to mining interests, skeptics, the Liberal Party and the Institute of Public Affairs, were first exposed by this author in an investigation in July last year. Their bogus health scare campaign is a classic example of how genuine citizens were duped to disregard the mounting evidence by the large and growing body of evidence (now numbering nearly 20 reviews) from around the world debunking “Wind Turbine Syndrome”. The fictitious debate split communities and, in the case of the Daylesford community, left some wishing they had never seen or heard of Dr. Sarah Laurie, the “medical director” of the Waubra Foundation. As an unregistered and non-practicing doctor, a GP’s code of ethics doesn’t concern Laurie.

As amateurish and easily detected as it was, the Landscape Guardian’s astroturf campaign was a brilliant success. The Baillieu government in Victoria has all but made future wind farming in Victoria impossible with an estimated $3 billion in investment gone offshore.  We wait to see whether NSW and SA (should the Liberals gain office in the next election) go the same way.  Already, the Liberal Party in SA is publishing material written by the Landscape Guardians.  No guessing the future of the wind industry there!

Americans have been besieged by vested interest-funded phony grassroots campaigns but the lavish road show, Hands Off My Healthcare was the biggest fraud played out on the American public so far.

Americans pay more for their healthcare than any other western nation, but the Hands Off My Healthcare campaign duped credulous Americans into believing Obama’s healthcare reform was a socialist plot.  Putting corporate interests before their own, they foolishly helped secure the profits of the health insurance monopoly by watering down Obama’s bill.  This was no citizens democracy but a cynical campaign run by the libertarians, Americans for Prosperity, itself a front group funded by “free market” mining billionaires, the Koch Bros, who paid for the busses, the tele-marketing-generated petitions, the media buys and the kind of high profile exposure that a genuine community-driven group could only dream of.

A search of the media will unearth legions of PR strategists from hacks to heavyweights offering the latest in cynical, self-serving instruments of deceit:   phony grassroots organisations or “astroturfers”, its off-spring “crowdturfing” (a combination of “astroturfing and “crowdsourcing”), front groups, bots (robots) and avatars – all designed to deceive the public and skew debate.

According to Sydney-based PR strategist, Ravi Prasad, in a revealing interview with ABC’s Background Briefing, public debate in Australia has already been shaped in a profound way by astroturfing. The public’s loss of appetite for a price on carbon was no accident:

“If you look at the debate around the carbon tax, the debate around mining supertax, and the public debate around asylum seekers, the public debates in these major areas of policy are being shaped in meaningful ways by astroturfing”

Faked “citizen action”, such as the now infamous and discredited Smokers Alliance, was first used in the tobacco wars by corporate and ideological forces to influence public opinion.  It was the brainchild of PR heavyweight Burson Marsteller whose leaked email “Doubt is our Product” laid bare the ruse behind tobacco’s denial campaign.

The same ruse has been used for the last decade by the

mining industry to create doubt about global warming!

Few mining magnates or their army of policy wonks, PR hacks, scientists, front groups, think tanks (such as the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia) or political parties such as the Tea Party doubt that the world is warming – just as the tobacco industry was in no doubt about the link between cigarettes and lung cancer.  But the PR campaign by Burson Marsteller and later Apco Worldwide was so brilliant in delaying legislation and locking in profits, it was inevitable that Apco would be hired by the mining industry to repeat the success. Same strategies, same tactics, even the same scientists!  It’s been a resounding success for Big Mining.

Anti-environment sentiment is common in many industries. If you’ve wondered why pro-environment on-line articles attract a larger share of abusive comments, the threads are often sabotaged by vested interests using phony avatars created by computer software programs or real activists using multiple identities as in the case of Solaris v. Greenpeace on MuMBRELLA. Solaris Paper Pty Ltd was accused by Greenpeace of destroying Indonesian rainforests to make toilet paper.The IGA chain pulled the product.  Disturbed by a nasty turn in the debate on the comments thread, the saavy web manager checked the service, IP Lookup, to see if a single individual was behind the toxic comments. Bingo! The multiple identities were all from the one source. An executive at Solaris was later forced to resign.

As the stakes for control of public opinion grow, so does the sophistication of the technology now available. The US Army recently put out a tender seeking a system that would detect social media attacks against the US and manipulate the mob mentality to its advantage. Technowizzards in university labs around the world are now looking at ways of detecting avatars, bots and other computer generated programs designed to sway public opinion such as the automated software handling 100s of sock puppet accounts.

Detection doesn’t always stop the worst offenders. The American Petroleum Institute was outed when Greenpeace received a leaked memo calling on the CEOs of some of the world’s biggest oil companies (ExxonMobile, Shell, BP and Chevron) to get their employees to masquerade as concerned “energy citizens”. This hasn’t stopped them. Their latest Vote 4 Energy campaign depicts phony ‘real’ Americans as supporters of the oil profiteers’ dirty agenda.

.As you plumb the depths of the shadowy world of astroturfing, names that include “citizens” are usually a dead giveaway just like the words “independent” or “grassroots”. Real community groups have no need of these words.

How widespread is the practice globally?  In China, ordinary people, known as ‘the 50-cent party’ get paid 50 cents a post by the government to respond to any criticism of the government. Cash-poor Indians are now also getting into the act.

Fearless Australian filmmaker, Taki Oldham, went undercover in his documentary (Astro) Turf Wars, to capture activists in the US Tea Party training members how to wage their own “50-cent” style war. Already under suspicion as being an astroturfer created and funded by the Koch Bros to derail any action on global warming, recent evidence has come to light confirming this with members being “bought” by the Koch Bros-funded Americans for Prosperity.

With their massive $17 billion in mining interests making their company the 2nd biggest private company in the USA, the Koch Bros (US’s answer to Gina Rinehart) and their political machine, the Tea Party, have seriously sabotaged any chance of rational debate let alone action on global warming.

The coming of the digital age may have seen democracy flourish delivering the Arab Spring and global on-line community forums.  But we’re also seeing oligarchy flourish in the unregulated landscape of cyberspace. The super wealthy now also have their own political parties, viz. the Tea Party organised and funded by the Koch Bros. In a leaked video clip by Get Up!, Lord Monckton is seen urging the mining industry’s “super rich” in Australia to wrest control of the media in order to hijack debate on global warming. The Rinehart raid on Fairfax is the likely result. Is a political party next?  Or is this unnecessary while transparency laws re political donations are so lax?

German sociologist Robert Michels developed the political theory, the “iron law of oligarchy”, claiming that the goal of democracy to eliminate rule by an elite or “oligarchy” was a façade legitimizing the rule of a particular elite. We saw the Green Party in 1970-80s Germany fail to break the “Iron Law”.  We’re seeing it now in Russia, the USA and Australia as mining profiteers use their wealth and power to repress free and meaningful democratic debate on global warming.

Be in no doubt about the size and implications of Big Mining’s war chest. It can buy huge chunks of what little remains of the independent mastheads in Australia’s mainstream media.  It funds the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), its very own front group, the AustralianEnvironment Foundation (with name and logo deliberately chosen to confuse the public into thinking it is the independent, genuine pro-environment Australian Conservation Foundation) and the Liberal and National Parties.

Just as the Bush administration received a boost in funding from the fossil fuel lobby, so, too, have the conservative political parties in Australia received a boost in funding from the big miners.

The recent report from the Australian Electoral Commission puts it at around $8 million in the 2010/2011 year on top of $22 million the previous year. Another $70million in political donations is unaccounted for thanks mostly to Howard’s trigger for transparency being raised from $1,000 to $11,500.  Not surprisingly, neither the Labor Party nor the Greens received a cent.

It is ominous that the IPA has increased its funding 3-fold over the past 10 years not that they will readily disclose the source in spite of former Executor, Mike Hahan promising a supporters’ list.

Where does this leave us?  Are we, the citizens, simply going to lie down and accept this assault on our democratic rights?  Should we be out there countering the corporated-funded astroturfers and their legions of bots and avatars with an army of our own?  And just how ethical is the Australian PR landscape? I asked the question of the National President of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, (not to be confused with the IPA) Nicolas Turner.  He was clear on where PRIA stood in relation to astroturfing:

“our members operate under a code of ethics which govern and guide responsible behaviour….we believe PR practitioners recognise and understand the need to build and maintain good relationships with their communities and stakeholders, thus safeguarding the trust and respect of customers, suppliers, shareholders, and various levels of government.”

In other words, the freedom for Australian citizens to have access to the facts instead of drowning in a sea of propaganda.

But not if Monckton and his paymasters have anything to do with it.

The battle lines have been drawn. Democracy versus plutocracy.

On one side, the genuine climate scientists, those politicians not yet in the pockets of the miners and those who care about the planet and their children’s future. Their opinions will struggle to be heard as independent mastheads come under siege and ethical PR resources dry up.

On the other, all those who have jumped on board the mining gravy train and turned their backs on our democratic ideals of a fair go for all.

PR’s Scam Bag rating 8/10

(article first appeared in Independent Australia 7 February 2012)