Think tanks: Independent does not mean objective

Somewhere along the way, in the debate of public policy issues, we seem to have forgotten that “independent” does not necessarily mean “objective”.

Think tanks in particular are the guiltiest in using this sleight of hand. In stressing that they are independent scholarly organisations, think tanks attempt to lay claim to a higher moral ground that comes from academic objectivity.

With a sage nod and the dispassionate tones of an academic, think tank representatives refer us to the word “independent” in their Wikipedia entries in a Jedi-like attempt to distract us from the partisan players who sit on their boards or fund their activities. They MAY be independent, in that they’re not formally affiliated with political interests, but most think tanks are NOT objective by any stretch of the imagination. Generally, this is because political interests created them in the first place.

This deception is by no means a new dimension to the battle for political influence. Nor is it the only illusion inflicted on the mostly unaware populace.

The flourishing of think tanks indicates the evolving nature of public trust; articulate and organised “third parties” almost magically blossom from whichever groups the community trusts most. And when that trust moves from one group to another, then new “independent” voices spring from that group too.

It’s a classic lobbying tactic, to which the name astroturfing no longer fits because of its broader scope. I call it the creation of friendipendents, that is, the active establishment by partisan interests of third parties which claim to be independent but actually push their creator’s agenda.

There have been several different manifestations of this tactic. When the community vested its trust in non-government organisations like environment groups, these proliferated. Business interests set up their own NGOs with pro-environment names to muddy the waters. As NGOs lost their gloss, and academics consistently outpolled them on trust, then lobbyists (of all political persuasions) swathed their agendas in academic garb by establishing “independent” think tanks.

And let’s not forget the classic astroturfing tactic which arises when the most trusted voice in a community is “one of us”, resulting in the fabrication of grass roots support to influence the debate.

Sometimes, because of the disparity of public opinion on a broad or complex issue, lobbyists use a combination of these approaches to influence the key demographics. The most evident example of this is the Say Yes campaign, which combined green NGOs with the “independent” think tank The Climate Institute, and faux grass roots organisations such as GetUp!.

The Climate Institute’s prominent involvement in the Say Yes campaign seemed to me to be the first time a self-described independent think tank had publicly displayed such political activism. It caused me to question whether this was appropriate. My judgement was no doubt coloured by The Climate Institute’s close association with one political party; TCI was established by The Australia Institute, which has Bob Brown’s current Chief of Staff on its Board and is headed by a former Greens’ staffer.

I was told that TCI’s activism was appropriate because the Say Yes cause was just and also consistent with the think tank’s area of expertise. I wondered nonetheless whether political observers would have been equally sanguine if the Institute of Public Affairs, which has some prominent Liberals on its Board, had participated to the same extent in the No Carbon Tax rallies.

That’s not to say the IPA doesn’t pursue it’s interests just as vigorously. By identifying, grooming and touting a bevy of articulate “independent” commentators, the IPA has assertively imposed its free market perspective into all major public policy debates including that on climate change.

This brings me back, then, to where I began. Independent does not mean objective, although think tanks (and their creators) depend upon us not making that distinction.

Think tanks have agendas and the justness of those agendas will differ in the eyes of each beholder. Think tanks have too long hidden behind the cloak of independence and should be subject to more scrutiny. They should be recognised as active players in political debate, and not the dispassionate observers that they pretend to be.

This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum

Should online commenters register with a credit card?

I’ve lodged a comment today on Greg Jericho’s latest interesting piece at The Drum about privacy and freedom to comment.

My reason for doing so is the confusion that seems to have arisen about whether online commenters should register with a credit card.

I recall discussing this with both Greg and Jonathan Green at The Drum, so thought I would share my views on how/why it could be done.

This is what I had to say:

Another nice piece Grog. The irony of the Australian doing a feature on you yesterday was extreme to say the least.

Only to be exceeded, in fact, by your graciousness and generosity in doing the interview IMHO.

On the credit card point. I think that might have been something you and I once discussed. If so, I suggested that paying $1 by credit card to register to comment on an online news/opinion site would be more effective in proving that one is a “real” person than using one’s Facebook profile (which is a method used by some media organisations).

Using emails addresses or Facebook profiles does not weed out anonymous or pseudonymous commenters (clearly), or the astroturfing that can be perpetrated by them. But paying $1 by credit card demonstrates you are actually who you say you are, because the issuing bank will have made sure of that before issuing it to you. Or you would hope so……

Time to throw out the astroturf and step forward

Astroturfing denotes political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.

Wikipedia.com

At any given point in time activists, political parties or business interests are at the forefront of techniques carefully honed to influence public opinion.  We never really know for sure which of these has the ascendancy until one of the combatants blows another’s cover.

The nature of the “disguise” has changed over the years.  Decades ago, when a vested interest provided a public rationalisation for their actions, they would automatically be met with a variation of the Mandy Rice-Davies response: “well you would say that, wouldn’t you”.

It was clear at this time that those who sought to influence opinion could not credibly do so in their own right.  Alternative methods were identified and explored.

As the art of influence became more sophisticated, the players took note of market research that indicated people were most likely to believe what scientists and esteemed scientific institutions such as the CSIRO had to say about contemporary and controversial public policy issues.  This finding heralded the “battle of the boffins” era.

This era saw governments and corporates mobilise behind the scenes to identify, solicit and enlist scientifically credentialed third parties to “endorse” their preferred position.  Activist and pressure groups refined this dark art even further by strategically placing a number of their field-savvy campaigners into scientific roles in academic institutions, as well as establishing their own think-tanks and creating their own “independent panels of concerned scientists”.

This approach proved to be counter-productive for all concerned.  Faced with scientific boffins squabbling over what were generally seen to be esoteric issues, ordinary people turned their backs on the divided scientific community and looked inwards to their core values for guidance.

Arising from this introspective mood is the phenomenon we now know as astroturfing.  At its heart, astroturfing is a fake grass roots campaign.

Once the vested interests realised that they had lost the community’s hearts and minds with their battling boffins, they undertook more market research and found that people had reverted to focusing on the mitigation of tangible issues at the local level.   Those seeking to influence public opinion studied and learned from the successes of Landcare and Rotary and then established faux local interest groups to support and promote their own interests.

Activist and interest groups followed swiftly with the establishment of similar entities.  Some did not make much effort to hide this sleight of hand, with some “local interest” groups publicly sharing fax numbers and postal addresses with high profile activist groups.

Today, the casually interested observer in political and public policy issues is confronted with an array of information sources, some of who may or may not be who they say they are.  No wonder there is little confidence in the credibility of most public information sources.

The huge irony in all this, is that people are now demanding that vested interests step forward and publicly defend their own positions. Many people have moved on from the Rice-Davies form of skepticism to a new variation that says “if you are not prepared to publicly defend your own position, product or party then there must be something indefensible about it”.

Activists, political parties and business interests should take note of this change in community expectations.  Throw away the Astroturf and step forward.  Being prepared to publicly defend your position is the first step in winning new hearts, minds and supporters.

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