Filed under: Co-option (If You Can't Beat 'Em...), Hype, Propaganda and Disinformation, Spin
Editor’s Note: The manipulative, deceitful and very effective tactics I have used over the past 40+ years as an artist, activist and culture jammer to shed light on institutional, corporate and media efforts to mislead the general public have now been fully co-opted by the organizations victimized by them. It’s interesting to see the pendulum swing. Kudos to Ann Landman for this insightful and very useful article aimed at unmasking corporate and political tricksterism that blatantly utilizes disinformation to sway public opinion. One hopes the general public becomes more aware and is willing to fight against this insidious hype, hypocrisy, propaganda, and disinformation. JS
Attack of the Living Front Groups: PR Watch Offers Help to Unmask Corporate Tricksters
by Anne Landman
PRWatch.org / Center for Media and Democracy
August 28, 2009
Fake “grassroots” groups have started springing up like toadstools after a rain, and this time they’re coming at us from every angle: they’re on TV, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube: “Americans for Prosperity,” “FACES of Coal, “The “Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights,” “Americans Against Food Taxes,” the “60 Plus Association,” “Citizens for Better Medicare,” “Patients First” … It’s making our heads spin! Issues affecting some of the country’s biggest industries, like health insurance reform, a proposal to tax sodas and sugary drinks, and the FDA’s possible reconsideration of the plastic additive Bisphenol A, have boosted corporate astroturfing up to a dizzying pace. With all these corporate fronts coming out of the woodwork, how can citizens tell true grassroots organizations from corporate fronts operated by highly-paid PR and lobbying firms? Here are some tips to help readers spot this kind of big-business hanky-panky.
What is a “front group,” really?
A front group is an organization that purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other party or interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned. The front group is perhaps the most easily recognized use of the third party propaganda technique. One of the best examples is Rick Berman’s Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), which claims that its mission is to defend the rights of consumers to choose to eat, drink and smoke as they please. In reality, though, CCF is a front group for the tobacco, restaurant and alcoholic beverage industries, which provide all or most of its funding. Not all organizations that engage in manipulative efforts to shape public opinion can be classified as “front groups,” however. The now-defunct Tobacco Institute was a highly deceptive industry trade and lobbying group, but it didn’t hide the fact that it represented the tobacco industry. There are also varying degrees of concealment. The Global Climate Coalition didn’t hide the fact that its funding came from oil and coal companies, but nevertheless its name alone is sufficiently misleading that it can reasonably be considered a front group.
The shadowy way front groups operate makes it difficult to know whether or not a seemingly independent grassroots group is really representing some other entity. Thus, citizen smokers’ rights groups and organizations of bartenders or restaurant workers working against smoking bans are sometimes characterized as front groups for the tobacco industry, but it is possible that some of these groups are self-initiated (although the tobacco industry has been known to use restaurant groups as fronts for its own interests).
Look for signs of astroturfing on the Web:
Characteristics of a corporate front group
A front group typically has some, but not necessarily all, of the following characteristics:
An organization that only has a few of these characteristics may not be a true front group. For example, the tobacco industry has given funding to youth organizations such as the Jaycees and 4-H clubs, which serves a public relations goal by helping the industry cultivate an image of corporate responsibility. This PR tactic is an example of the third party technique, and organizations that trade their reputations for corporate funding may be naive, gullible or opportunistic, but this in itself would not make them a front group.
Rolling back the astroturf
Looking beyond a feel-good name, like Americans-for-Something-Sane-and-Sensible, and examine what a group really seeks to do is just the first step in countering the proliferation of astroturf groups.
More importantly, you — along with other curious citizens — can help document in our collaborative SourceWatch wiki site groups that you consider could be front groups. Many of the profiles on front groups in SourceWatch started out as a simple one or two sentence article created by citizens who were unsure whether a group was legitimate or not. As profiles expand, it becomes easier to make an informed judgement on the origins and agenda of a group. Perhaps just as importantly, a profile created in SourceWatch on a newly founded front group is likely to quickly be in the top results of as web search, enabling web-connected citizens and journalists to access referenced material on what is known about a group.
If you have never added material to SourceWatch before, don’t worry! Our regular editors are at hand to help get you started. If you have never edited a SourceWatch article, you can register here, and learn more about adding information to the site here, here and here.
As people get more savvy about recognizing corporate front group activity, PR and lobbying firms can respond in one of two ways. They could opt to go to even greater lengths to obscure the origins and funding of groups they form. Or, they could abandon the practice of creating astroturf groups because increased citizen journalism meant that groups were being exposed so soon after they were created that clients decided to save their dollars and spare themselves the embarrassment.
Documenting the activities of front groups is perhaps the single most important step in helping roll back the rise of astroturf groups.