See the French translation
There is a building in Brussels tucked away in the backstreets of the European Parliament known as the Mundo-B. A small open-plan office housing dozens of environmental activist organisations like Friends of the Earth Europe, Corporate Europe Observatory, Food and Water Watch Europe … sharing staff, budgets, ideas and campaigns. With so many like-minded campaigners cross-fertilising their malice, with no exposure to those who think differently, it is not surprising how activist bias can be architecturally cemented. Moreover, Mundo-B typifies the Brussels activist strategy of tiny organisations trying to multiply their networks to appear to have some self-proclaimed loud voice of the people.
NGOs have been successful over the last decade of presenting small groups as parts of big networks, pretending to speak on behalf of the “people” when in reality they are only a couple reactionaries in a room with a laptop and a web-designer, accountable to no one and driven by a self-centred emotional zeal. Their members (usually wealthy foundations with friendly board members) are rarely consulted, but rather, marketed to once a year during fundraising season. These NGOs present themselves to policymakers as representative of civil society (the “we” they contrast to the evil “they” – see any Greenpeace report for examples), demanding equal engagement in the policy process as other stakeholders. Once they get their place at the table, they arrogantly discredit institutions, organisations and companies that are far more representative of the general population.
Who are these “people”?
In reality, the vast majority affected by policy decisions are not part of these “people” the NGOs claim to represent. The hundreds of millions in Europe or America working in companies, factories, banks, shops, farms, universities … are trying to make ends meet, pay their rent, afford a nice meal or a holiday while putting their children through school. The only label they read in a supermarket is the price-tag; the first page they read in a paper is the sports page; the main images they share on Facebook have funny cats on them, not Monsanto (which most think is some Mexican tourist resort).
These “real” people don’t have the time to follow environmental debates or emotional chemophobic campaigns and feel it is not for them to get involved. If they vote, it is related to jobs and economic issues (and not glyphosate, chemicals or artificial sweeteners). They can easily be made confused, and thus afraid, about what to eat or whether or not they should vaccinate their children, but most don’t have time to get into the subject matter and still trust their doctor, scientists or supermarket brands.
If one were to honestly and patiently present any NGO position to them (with the potential job losses, price increases, loss of quality and access to markets), their reaction would be direct and reasonable: No way! One time during a hospital stay in Belgium, I explained to a nurse why the NGOs wanted to replace PVC blood-bags with glass – she was overwhelmed by the stupidity of their argument. It seems that no one in Greenpeace had ever consulted nurses on what it would be like to work with glass blood bags. But then again, why should NGOs engage with other “people”? It would not be in their interest.
I sometimes wonder why large consumer brands bow so quickly to the Food-Babe-Army, when, taken at full force, it only represents 0.3% of the US population and is in decline.
Privileged zealots in silk pyjamas
The hundreds of activists know these hundreds of millions don’t engage in the debates and can simply be discounted from the “people” the NGOs say they represent. Their people are the privileged zealots in silk pyjamas who, impassioned by some revolutionary attack on the system, will relentlessly storm regulators, brands and retail outlets with their campaign materials or actions. They are failed film-makers and documentarists who produce shows for their tribes, broadcasting their shite online to confirm the bias of a tiny minority of angry activists.
For example, the film “Vaxxed” which attacked the vaccine industry made a lot of noise and got people to think these anti-vaccination nut-jobs had influence (by using some high-profile victims to spread their bile) but only a few people (less than 20,000) actually paid to see their propaganda. “Vaxxed” grossed 165,000 USD in the first half of 2016. If we compare this to Finding Dory, a film about how parents love children with special needs, which grossed 136 million USD in the US on its opening weekend, we can begin to see how little support these activists actually have among the “people”.
So while everyone who claims the open title of “journalist” needs to do a “documentary” on Monsanto, endocrine disruption or big banks, if nobody actually watches their activist campaign work, do they in fact represent the public interest (or just a limited self-interest)? They would argue, as self-appointed intellectual elitists (although charmingly anti-science and lacking any specialisation), that the people (or as they call them: “Sheeple”) don’t know any better and should not be engaged in these debates. Who cares what the 99% think!
Some examples of these over-extended zealots in silk pyjamas:
Testbiotech calls itself the Institute for the Independent Impact Assessment of Biotechnology, providing independent scientific advice on all things biotech (including now NBTs). It is the German voice of the anti-GMO movement. Sounds impressive! Indeed, when there is a question about GMOs in Germany or Brussels, Testbiotech is there with a statement, a petition, its signature on a letter signed by a dozen or so other “representative” NGOs or is involved in some march or attack on policymakers.
But who actually are behind this “voice of the people”? This very active representation of the public interest? This force for good over the evils of industry? Does anyone really know?
Their website shows five people working for the organisation but a simple glance at their European Transparency Registry page would show that Testbiotech is actually made up of two people, each working 50% for the NGO (six months ago it was 2 X 20%) – in other words, one person in Full-Time-Equivalent (FTE)! This is hardly a resounding reflection of the democratic voice of the German people. Actually, Testbiotech is a microphone for Christoph Then, and if you read their last annual report, there is a lot of him going around! Their total budget last year was €200,500 but when one looks at the number of legal cases they have launched against biotech companies and governments, there must be a zero missing on their declared lobbying expenses of under €50,000.
How did this “Great and All Powerful Oz” reach such a state of influence to have blocked German farmers and consumers from the benefits of agricultural technologies? Testbiotech serves essentially as an empty vessel that environmental mercenaries, cranky academics and Die Grünen politicians from all corners use, filling this “Institute for the Independent Impact Assessment of Biotechnology” with their baseless rhetoric. Individuals have just one voice, but if they have a seemingly official-sounding “Institute”, well, that becomes a louder collective voice (no matter how empty it actually is).
One such example is the wonderfully stealth Angelika Hilbeck, ostensibly from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, but seemingly everywhere that an anti-GMO campaign can be found. She has been a project leader for Testbiotech, her institute has funded or supported different studies with the NGO, including projects where Hilbeck was the lead author. She chairs the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) which is funded by the same foundations that fund Testbiotech. Indeed Hilbeck has been associated with Séralini, his research organisation, Criigen, and her name has even showed up in confidential activist strategy discussions in the UK and with US organic industry lobbying campaigns against conventional agriculture. This single person seems to represent a lot of people, using Testbiotech as a campaign base.
US Right to Know (USRTK)
We have a right to know who is actually behind the US Right to Know organisation. Essentially it is one person, Gary Ruskin, who spends his days hacking into bloggers’ Facebook accounts and writing out Freedom of Information requests hunting for scientists linked to the food industry (the part that doesn’t pay him). Apparently Stacy Malkan is a founder of USRTK, but she works full-time defending safe cosmetics; Carey Gillam also works for USRTK, but she prefers to call herself a journalist. I would also be ashamed of such an affiliation if I were her, but here is the thing: she is a paid lobbyist for USRTK and then she goes around saying she is a journalist (and all of her articles just happen to be about USRTK issues) – as I have mentioned before, this is deceptive and lacking in integrity, with a mother-load of hypocrisy from an organisation with the byline: “Pursuing truth and transparency”. But with one full-time person, the US Right to Know does generate noise and manages to distract the mainstream bodies from more serious discussions. When you are against the institutions and societal structures, distraction is considered an achievement.
And who are they working for? Ruskin’s little basement operation is almost wholly funded by the organic food industry lobby, in particular, the Organic Consumers Association. What the organic industry does is distribute contributions from over 3000 organic food companies and retailers to vile lone wolves like Ruskin to attack conventional agriculture with lies and innuendos, destroy public trust in the food chain (at a time when food in the US has never been safer) and thus provide more customers nervously clamoring for the much more expensive organic food label. This is the most unethical marketing campaign ever devised and such willful scare tactics should be illegal. With a character like Ruskin, one can only scream out for the organic food industry lobby to adopt (and follow) some sort of ethical code of conduct. I’ve asked – they won’t!
Corporate Europe Observatory
Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) is an example of a networked-out organisation. Absolutely everyone working for the organisation is part-time CEO while being involved in other activist occupations (Spread the hate!). They employ 15 people, but only account for five FTEs (full-time equivalents): six are employed at 50% by CEO and 9 only work 25% for the NGO. They started with a budget of 69,000 for 5 employees in 2004 and have grown to almost €1 million (but only pay around a third of that in salaries).
Given that they pay peanuts for office costs at the Mundo-B, and any event expenses are covered by Green MEPs (who don’t see that as a conflict of interest), we can only conclude that about half a million euros each year go towards buying off freelance journalists (or should we call it “network expenses”!) – see image. It is amusing to think that an organisation so obsessed with making lobbyists behave properly would engage so many people who can never actually acknowledge who they represent when they pick up the phone. It is outrageous that an organisation so obsessed with transparency would whore so much money from some very non-transparent foundations.
CEO belongs to ten other networked organisations, so when one runs an anti-industry campaign, CEO jumps in with both feet for the zealous stomp! One of them is ALTER-EU, which works out of the same Mundo-B office as CEO and Friends of the Earth Europe. It has a membership of 200 organisations who stand against industry lobbying, and is running a campaign for stronger ethics in lobbying (although like most NGOs, ALTER-EU does not have its own ethical code of conduct). They employ 13 people (none more than 25% FTE and five from CEO) with €75,000 in donations from two main CEO funders (something others would call money laundering, but for NGOs it is common practice to pretend poverty) plus €24,000 from Friends of the Earth Europe (actually, from the European taxpayer). This front-group is dedicated to exposing industry front-groups. Seriously, you can’t make this hypocrisy up!
It is not that I am claiming that organisations like CEO, USRTK and Testbiotech are frauds – they are just tiny and insignificant. But they do pretend to be more, and represent more, than they in reality are. Policymakers and the media need to be aware that they are the voice of the few, privileged and definitely not of the people! In other words, they should be ignored.
These pseudo-revolutionary anarchists know that the system can be undermined by the determined few with networks in the right places. Lenin arrived in the Finland Station with a few committed souls; Hitler built a power base from less than a quarter of the German population’s votes; Olivier Hoodwink is plotting to dismantle the structures of western capitalism with six anti-industry protesters at his side!
Networks of networks (no “people” required)
A good indication of the jaded reality of these little Pinky and the Brains is when an activist social media post has more shares or retweets than likes or favorites. When a campaign post is made on Facebook or twitter, the activist networks dig in, and even without reading the posts or considering the value, de rigeur, spread the zeal widely among their followers (who are mostly running their own small activist organisations). We know these NGOs are not very good at basic maths (shown from their capacity to ignore data), but they seem to excel at multiplication. The rule is that networks matter, not people. It doesn’t matter that these networks include the same activists each working 25% for each other; if you exponentially count them, they give the impression of adding up.
Social media tools allow this multiplying of the loaves to become a reality. While social media metrics are diverse (depending on site, device, content and time of day) a general 10% rule might be useful to apply as a baseline (10% of contributions seen get liked, and 10% of likes get shared). NGO campaigns on social media don’t follow that metric. For example, Corporate Europe Observatory, which receives over €200,000 per year from the Adessium Foundation originally for the purpose of expanding their social media presence, trends in the opposite direction with posts on the CEO Facebook page frequently getting more shares than likes. In other words, their web-presence is orchestrated and not genuine (built on networks of networks rather than on people who actually have an interest). It is easy to create a Facebook persona (just ask the Risk-Monger), or even ten, but it just needs that added touch of a lack of integrity to abuse this practice to create false perceptions of support.
What is happening is a simple extension of the Search Engine Optimization strategy from 15 years ago – of finding ways to trick the Google algorithms into giving your site more attention. But instead of trying to place a website in the top position of a search request, the goal now is to place an ideology in the first place of a policy debate. There are larger ethical ramifications when the consequences include expanding scientific ignorance, needlessly creating risks to vulnerable populations and destroying trust in institutions. I get that donations depend upon perceived victories but there needs to be integrity somewhere in these organisations. I don’t see it.
Minnows in whale’s clothing
Social media allows small organisations to make maximum noise at a low cost by exploiting the viral structure of online networks. With minnows pretending to be whales and pushing hard in the policy arena, it is no surprise that clueless government officials shake when the “voice of the people” comes down hard on their positions, like:
- the use of an AVAAZ rent-a-campaign petition force (the one on the bees, for example, motivated the European Commission to act before thinking about the risks of applying the precautionary principle on neonicotinoids when AVAAZ produced a couple million signatures from their network of antis);
- Social media surge campaigns can create artificial twitter storms via Thunderclap where activists spend a week writing tweets that will be released at one moment in the future (to trend on twitter and give an impression of a wider public outrage);
- An obsessive activist scientist who can single-handedly run a campaign to ban the herbicide of the century with an army of self-interested tweeters at his beck and call.
There are many tricks for these minnows to deceive clueless policymakers and the media. This is manufactured perception, what I have called “commonality”, a communications manipulation lacking in truth or integrity … but until now, it has worked. Kudos to the ethically challenged!
SumOfUs is another “citizens’ action group” that abuses the perception of a “movement” by using the amplifictitious advantages of social media. It is no surprise that their staff has an imbalance of software designers and web specialists (more than a third of their FTEs). They have even gone so far as to extend their platform (and network) to outsiders wishing to run their own grassroots campaigns via the SumOfUs site. I can’t tell you how many times the Risk-Monger has been tempted to use their platform to launch a disruptive campaign (like a petition to demand that Greenpeace adopt an ethical code of conduct).
The clicktivists who sign these on-line petitions usually have absolutely no idea of the details of the campaign they are supporting (saving the bees, reversing the Brexit vote, stopping access to cheap energy … anything that upsets the apple-cart must be good). It offers millennials the chance to click, absolve themselves and get back to Tinder or Pokemon Go with as little distraction as possible. Policymakers have yet to realise the vacant meaninglessness of such cynical exercises.
The media false-balance fallacy
While we have hundreds of activists who want to ban pesticides, hundreds of millions want secure, cheap and attractive food; while we have a few small NGOs that want to ban synthetic chemicals, the majority want to enjoy the benefits of these chemicals in their mobile phones, cars and solar panels; while a few internet gurus and movie stars hanker on about the threats of Big Pharma, billions of people take medications every day to improve the quality of their lives. How is this possible for these self-appointed zealots to get such attention and be able to dictate public policy against the will and the interests of the vast majority (as well as infuriating the research community)?
The media is still locked into a need to balance opposing views (a Hegelian dialectic developed in the days when people thought before reacting). If one side makes a claim, a well-trained journalist seeks opposing views to appear objective and so the reader can make an informed judgement. This amplifies attention to those whose ideologies might be better left ignored. For example, when European leaders began to take responsibility for the recent waves of refugees brought about by their failed meddling in Syria and Iraq, the mainstream media found a few dozen euro-rednecks to interview to inject their Islamophobia into a humanitarian crisis.
This simplification of a complex issue into poles of interests, for the sake of balance pretends to be objective – it is anything but! It is worse for issues like agricultural technologies, chemicals, vaccines and access to energy, where these puritan zealots have used this journalistic responsibility for balance to create public fear and destroy trust in our institutions. Worse, being confronted regularly with opposing experts, this activist manipulation (with the likes of Séralini, Goulson and Portier) has cheapened the public respect for scientific advice. Some journalist should write a story about this!
The media needs to do its homework. Unfortunately, many of those who assume the title of journalist today (not a hard thing to do if it only requires updating your twitter “About” section) have discovered that activism sells. From the Guardian to Le Monde, what is passed off as “news” today by these little revolutionaries would make the icons of journalism from the 20th century turn in their graves. Activists who call themselves freelance journalists seem comfortable with the relativity of their virtue. I reiterate my call that there needs to be a transparency registry for journalists.
The Risk-Monger is a little shit!
Until people learn that activists on social media are merely facades (empty fronts exponentially multiplied to support narrow-minded ideologues), they will garner more attention than they merit. Social media is still in its learning phase; we have to take blogs, tweets and shares less seriously, more for entertainment value than as a learning tool. The stories that my friends and networks tell may not be true (anecdote is not evidence). We have to more vocally call out the charlatans who have no ethical qualms about making up networks of fictional online personas to amplify their campaigns. Every social media guru selling a book, diet plan, supplements or referral fees deals with trust as a deflection tool – undermine trust, provide a solution, gain attention and make money.
The Risk-Monger is a good case in point. This blogger sometimes receives far more attention than he admittedly deserves, as he sits in his dingy basement, tapping away on his dusty keyboard while on his third Merlot. Indeed, this well-imbibed charlatan should definitely not be taken seriously. If he can kick up so much dust on his own without any budget, then any mal-intentioned, opportunistic jackass can (and this scares him). Once social media matures, and policy debates return to a certain reasonableness, there will be no further role for that little shit to play!
I am sure a certain Professor Zaruk will be mighty pleased when that day comes!
Image source. Legal disclaimer: Some parts of this blog are satirical!