Deception is our product

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In a three part trilogy on the role of deception, environment editor Sandi Keane exposes the shadowy world of PR, where astroturfing and propaganda is used to coerce the public into sacrificing their own interests for those of big corporations.

Part one: 'Deception is our Product'.

Deceiving the public these days is a lucrative industry. Experienced PR practitioners now coerce you through astroturfing and other socially engineered forms of brainwashing to sacrifice your interests for those of their clients – especially those with the biggest war chest – the fossil fuel industry.

Indeed, it was the rise of citizens groups in the US opposing action on global warming that led Greenpeace to discover that these so-called grassroots uprisings were organised and funded by the fossil fuel lobby.

Public opinion is a precious commodity. It’s what elects governments and governments can deliver profit and power to those whose largesse it enjoys.
Americans pay more for 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. It was funded by “free marketeer” mining billionaires — the Koch Brothers.

Today’s PR supremos are making serious money out of commodifying public opinion, manipulating it and touting it to this ready market. PR spin is gradually replacing old fashioned journalism as the number of mainstream journalists dwindles, according to a 2010 report by the Pew Centre of Journalism.

The onslaught of suasion in the last few years has been unrivalled in tricking or swaying people to do the unthinkable:

To put corporate interests before their own!

Classic 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 other “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 some 17 reviews) from around the world debunking “Wind Turbine Syndrome”.

As a result, the Baillieu government in Victoria has all but made future wind farming in Victoria impossible, with an estimated $3 billion in investment gone offshore.

In the US, the lavish road show, Hands Off My Healthcare was the biggest fraud played out on the American public so far.

Americans pay more for 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. This was not the result of citizens’ democracy, but a cynical campaign run by ideological advocates Americans for Prosperity, funded by “free marketeer” mining billionaires — the Koch Brothers.

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, on ABC’s Background Briefing, 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” was the brainchild of PR heavyweight Burson Marsteller, whose leaked email “Doubt is our Product” laid bare the ruse behind tobacco’s denial campaign during the tobacco wars.

The same ruse has been used for the last decade by the mining industry to create doubt about global warming.

Few mining magnates – or the army of policy wonks, PR hacks, scientists, front groups, think tanks or political parties they fund – doubt the world is warming — just as the tobacco industry was in no doubt about the link between cigarettes and lung cancer

As the stakes for control of public opinion grow, so does the sophistication of the technology. 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.

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”. Undeterred, API’s latest Vote 4 Energy campaign depicts phony ‘real’ Americans supporting oil’s 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. (A guide to spotting astroturfers, bots and avatars is coming soon!)

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. 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 an astroturfer created by the Koch Bros to derail any action on global warming, recent evidence has come to light confirming this with members being “bought”.

With their massive $17 billion in mining interests making their company the 2nd biggest private company in the USA, the Koch Brothers and their political machine, the Tea Party, have seriously sabotaged any chance of rational debate on global warming.

What of the current raid by Gina Rinehart on Fairfax?  Last week, enviro-blogger, Graham Readfearn, exposed Christopher Monckton (who has been sponsored by Rinehart to push the free-market, climate skeptic agenda) urging the super rich at a mining strategy think tank to

“capture the high ground on what are still the major media”.

Sounds like Rinehart was listening.

The mining industry is spending up big on political campaigning — most of it political donations to the Liberal and National parties. The Australian Electoral Commission revealed a spend of $8 million in the 2010/2011 year on top of $22 million the previous year. Another $70 million 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.

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 …. [W]e 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.

IA was the first to expose the political and vested interests behind the Landscape Guardians and the Waubra Foundation.

Sandi's investigation is now in Hansard after being used as a speech to the House of Representatives in Canberra by Labor's John Murphy MP.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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