Do you really know when they’re faking it

It’s a sardonic line but a cautionary tale: the internet is the place where men are men, women are men, and 14 year olds are the FBI.

It’s indisputable that we should be alert to and protect ourselves from online fakery. Much effort is devoted to safeguarding our privacy, our finances and our children from this risk. Others cast the net more broadly. Some suggest the use of anonymity or pseudonymity online, particularly in the online exchange and debate of ideas, can distort or even stifle free speech.

There is, however, another type of online misrepresentation that concerns me. They’re the people and organisations that seek to influence political and other public debates but aren’t quite what they claim to be. I call them Synthetic Supporters and Friendipendents.

Synthetic supporters are an extension of astroturfing, or fake grassroots support. Both are based on the principle that the public are more likely to believe someone from their own community or peer group than a politician, businessman or activist.

Astroturfing was created by canny campaigners who saw the success of community groups like Landcare and Rotary, and established faux local interest groups to support and promote their own interests. Synthetic Supporters extend the concept of orchestrated support even further.

An example is the activist group GetUp!, which claims to have 580,000 members. This is in fact the total number of people who’ve encountered GetUp in some way, by either signing up for the organisation’s newsletter, putting their name to a petition, or liking their Facebook page. It’s not a realistic indication of the number who actively support GetUp’s campaigns. Even taking into consideration the low threshold of engagement on Facebook, GetUp has garnered only 20,000 likes, which may be a closer indication of their true support base.

Similarly, Say Yes Australia’s partnership project of ‘leading civil society organisations representing youth, workers, the environment and the community’, claims to represent over three million Australians. Yet they too have only 30,000 supporters on Facebook, and only 5000 people have left a message on the SayYes website to show their support for the carbon price legislative package.

Confected support is by no means restricted to one side of the carbon price debate. Despite the promise that thousands representing ‘the silent majority’ would pour into Canberra as part of the Convoy of No Confidence, only two hundred vehicles and 3000 real supporters appeared on rally day.

While it might seem unfair to quibble about the number of active supporters (what’s a few zeroes between friends) the point is that the vast majority of these supporters are synthetic. They’re a fabrication specifically designed to exaggerate an organisation’s true reach and influence, and to elicit a bandwagon response in target groups: progressive Australians in the case of GetUp; young Australians by SayYes; and older conservative Australians by the Convoy.

Perhaps this is where another old saying comes into play: who needs real friends when you have money? Particularly when you can buy them.

So who’s made it their business to buy friends? It seems that several of the groups that use synthetic supporters are funded by organisations that claim to be independent but actually are supporters of one political stance or another. I call these groups Friendipendents.

While industry, advocacy and pressure groups are reasonably transparent about whose interests they serve (ie. their members or constituents) most of the think tanks that operate in Australia proudly claim to be independent of any vested interest. A member of the public could take this to mean that, having weighed up all the relevant factors, a think tank would objectively determine which is the ‘best’ policy on a given topic.

Perhaps independent does not mean what I think it means. Apparently it does not mean objective. Someone from the other side of the political spectrum to me, Simon Banks, explains it this way:

Concern is also growing about the role of think tanks and whether they are ‘independent’ or not. These concerns have been expressed about think tanks occupying the political spectrum, from GetUp! and the Climate Institute to the Centre for Independent Studies and the H.R Nicholls Society.

Most think tanks claim to represent an intellectual or philosophical perspective and thus assert their opinions cannot be bought. We all hope that is true. But even if you accept that the views expressed by these think tanks are genuine, their focus, size, research capabilities and influence in the public debate are all inevitably linked to how much money they have.

A great deal of attention has already been given to the free-market Institute of Public Affairs and their lack of transparency when it comes to funding sources, which undermines their claims to independence/objectivity.

While progressive think tanks like The Australia Institute and The Climate Institute are more transparent about their funding sources, academic Guy Pearce recently questioned the independence of environment groups who are inter-connected and funded from a small number of philanthropic sources.

Pearce reports that two wealthy farmers and the philanthropic funds they administer have variously been the Australian Conservation Foundation’s principal donor for many years, given millions to the World Wildlife Fund, established the Climate Institute, support the Australia Institute, and fund the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, the Total Environment Centre and Climate Action Network Australia. They’ve also sat on the boards of World Wildlife Fund Australia, Climate Institute, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australia Institute. Five of the groups they fund are amongst the nine that comprise Say Yes Australia. GetUp is another.

So, as Pearce points out, while it might seem that a diverse range of green groups support the federal government’s carbon price package, they’re largely funded by two people. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as the groups remain as independent as they claim to be.

The appearance of independence in some think tanks, if not the practice, is not helped by the composition of their boards and personnel. Former politicians of all persuasions, and in one case even a current political staffer, sit on the boards of prominent think tanks and have an influence on their strategic directions. Many former MPs and staffers feature on the staff lists.

Does this affect their independence? How can it not? Tellingly, Guy Pearce says that in the case of The Climate Institute, a former insider ‘tells me its unofficial mission when established was to ‘get rid of John Howard’ and that post-Howard, the CEO is said to have defined its new role as being Labor’s ‘mine-sweeper’. That’s certainly not independence in my book.

So, what does this mean for those of us who seek objectivity and independence in political analysis and commentary? To use one last cliché: be alert but not alarmed. Never take anything at face value. Follow the money. Scrutinise the board. And demand real supporter numbers. Then you’ll always know when they’re faking it.

This piece originally appeared in The Kings’ Tribune

Is the tide turning for Tony Abbott?

It’s a truism in politics that while one opinion poll might evoke an interesting point, it’s the trend in poll findings that reveals much more.

The same could be said for opinion pieces written by journalists who report federal politics. Each piece has its own merit (or not), but when there’s a trend in the opinion being advanced, then this is something worth noticing.

Why? Because the appearance of a theme in a string of opinion pieces suggests, not that several journalists autonomously and simultaneously came to the same conclusion, but that an external action or actor initiated that thought.

The external factor could range from something as innocent as journalists musing aloud to colleagues over coffee, to something more Machiavellian like a political operative briefing against opponents. Either way, it’s worth taking note when a trend appears in political opinion pieces.

Such a trend appeared this weekend. At a time when there is seemingly unending mainstream media criticism of the PM and her government, not one but five senior political reporters appeared to significantly escalate their scrutiny of Tony Abbott’s tactics and policies.

In his weekend column, SMH Political Editor Peter Hartcher ran the rule over the Coalition’s known policy positions and found “the Coalition is changing from the free-market, pro-business, economically sound party of Howard and Costello to a populist party under the influence of Abbott and Barnaby Joyce.

“Abbott’s opposition shuts down debate about workplace reform, shows signs of being tempted away from a wholehearted commitment to free trade, proposes a new tax on big business to fund an expensive parental leave scheme, and, while it certainly monitors government spending closely, has yet to explain its own fiscal policy.”

Hartcher’s stablemate, Lenore Taylor, pointed in her weekend column to the new heights in spin being employed by Abbott, “ignor[ing] facts altogether” to score political points.

Yet another Fairfax journalist, the Age’s Associate Editor Shaun Carney, sharpened the policy scrutiny focus even more in his weekend piece:

“Abbott’s assault on Labor has been almost entirely policy-free… He attracts support largely because of what he says he will not do and by his relentless critique of the government. His vision for Australia is defined by his negative appraisal of Labor. Even with the Coalition’s massive opinion poll lead, the time is coming when Abbott will have to do more than that. Perhaps it has arrived.”

Similarly, the West Australian’s Federal Political Editor Andrew Probyn, blogged that “Tony Abbott has sown the seeds of his own destruction. It’s not that he won’t win the next election. He most probably will. But unless he sets about seriously reconfiguring various policies, when he becomes prime minister he will either have to break promises, commit humiliating backdowns or attempt to wheedle his way out of controversy.”

And over in the News Ltd camp, somehow foreseeing this trend, The Weekend Australian’s National Chief Reporter Tom Dusevic contributed a feature on Abbott that examines his policy credentials.

What does this mean? It’s not that these pieces are the first to canvass the need for Abbott to show policy depth and integrity. Incoming Liberal Senator, Arthur Sinodinos, advanced it in his weekly Australian column back in early September. Canberra Press Gallery doyen, Laurie Oakes, covered it in his opinion piece last week on politicians lying.

But other columnists did not pick up the point until now. And all at the same time.

What does this mean? Do the reporters in question regularly chat, and decided last week that it was time to turn the heat up on Abbott’s policy credentials? Is this an indication that the tide is turning for Abbott in the Canberra Press Gallery? Perhaps.

Or has the Prime Minister’s newly-appointed Communications Director turned the heat up on journalists and demand parity in policy scrutiny? Maybe, but he has not yet officially started in that post.

We’ll never know how this alignment of political opinion pieces came about. Whether through independent thought, osmosis or suggestion, they do suggest a turning point; the beginning of a new phase for the Opposition Leader in which he is expected to do more than just oppose.

Time will soon tell whether a new trend has emerged. Stay tuned for more: it will be fascinating to watch.

Postscript: One week later – this from the Financial Review’s political editor, Laura Tingle. And then this from Laurie Oakes. Other notable pieces since then include this from The Australian’s Paul Kelly (paywalled), and this from Michael Gordon.

Would somebody please think of the intellectuals?

I didn’t realise until today that my life is so much the poorer for not having intellectuals in it.

Really. Particularly when it comes to my involvement in Australia’s democratic processes. I mean, I didn’t realise that jousting with fellow tweeps while watching Q&A on a Monday night was as detrimental to my cerebral health as a deep fried Mars Bar is to my physical wellbeing.

Thank goodness Mel Campbell of The Enthusiast was able to enlighten me with her instructive piecein yesterday’s Crikey. Known as @IncredibleMelkon Twitter, Campbell bemoans our anti-intellectual culture and says that Q&A is:

The dully predictable, preening, posturing spectacle that passes for public debate in this country, accompanied by demented quipping and ranting on Twitter. Q&A is just the worst. Imagine if people actually fed their souls and read a book or watched a film for that hour instead.

Incredible Melk goes on to say that Q&A is intellectually barren because it reduces the notion of public debate to ritualised grandstanding and point-scoring. Perhaps I lived in a parallel universe to Mel when I learned debating last century, because I’m pretty sure both are legitimate debating tactics.

Nevertheless, Campbell dismisses the Australian viewing public’s engagement with Q&A as intellectually shallow and jocularly adversarial. It must be with unrealised irony then, that she goes on to explain why last night’s show was so unique and special.

This was due, Campbell exclaims, to the involvement of intellectuals on the panel. Clearly, Campbell was particularly taken with the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek. Zizek is fabulous, apparently, for amongst other things his bearded and dishevelled appearance, his lisp and wild gesticulation, his marriage to a model and his having the audacity to flip Tony Jones the bird.

Oh, and also his intellectual-ness, along with the other mega-brains on the panel. (Not counting The Australian’s Greg Sheridan, of course, who Campbell dubbed an “ill-informed numpty”.)

The best part of all was watching proper intellectuals – people who spend their lives thinking broadly and critically about the world around them. Whether or not you agreed with the panellists, it was electrifying to see them speaking insightfully and passionately about big issues and ideologies, abandoning Q&A’s usual numbingly parochial focus on federal government policy and giving the usual pack of suit-wearing Young Liberals in the audience very little to jeer at.

But I think Incredible Melk is missing the point. While she might bemoan the lack of intellectuals on Q&A, perhaps she should stop to think whether the program is in fact giving its dedicated audience what they want.

ABC Managing Director Mark Scott made clear in a recent speech that recognising what consumers want and giving it to them is an important part of fulfilling the ABC Charter.

We need to recognise that audiences expect to consume content in different ways. They don’t just sit on the couch and watch what’s on. Every day more content is time-shifted; more of the internet is consumed on a big screen; more television is watched on phones and tablets. The best radio from around the world is now available no matter where you live, just as you can read the world’s newspapers, anywhere, anytime.

And the demands of audiences increase. They want the latest news now. They want last night’s program today. They want to hear the Jon Faine interview – call in on talkback, comment in a chatroom. They want to ask the question from their living room of the Prime Minister on Q&A – and then tweet a comment on whether they liked the answer.

Scott specifically used Q&A as an example of the ABC’s changing relationship with their audience; of building upon the best of the old to deliver the new. He explained how Q&A is based on a ’70s program called Monday Conference, which featured a host, a panel of experts and a studio audience who asked questions. In those days, if you wanted to watch Monday Conference, you needed to tune in when it aired on the ABC’s only television channel. If you wanted to ask a question, then you had to be physically present in the ABC’s Gore Hill studio in Sydney.

Scott then went on to explain that the differences between Monday Conference and Q&A show how the ABC is meeting the new media world.

You don’t need to be at the ABC in Sydney to ask a question any more. Questions come in from people across Australia and around the world before and during the show – by email, through SMS, on video. Thousands of comments on Twitter as the show goes to air.

And you don’t just have to watch it on the main channel at 9.35 on Monday night. You can watch it live anywhere in the country and join the conversation through ABC News 24. You can watch it streaming online, or on your iPhone or an iPad. You can listen on News Radio. Or, if you are offshore, you can listen live on Radio Australia or watch live on Australia Network. And if you miss all that, catch up on iView.

Scott’s conclusion to this vignette sums up, for me, why the ABC continues to be a successful media organisation while others do not:

We are creating content that is informed by our audiences and engages them – and we deliver it to them at a time they want, on a device they want, in a format they want. And Q&A is making an important contribution to the public debate and discourse. Around a million tune in or catch up each week and watch it – and every politician in this town knows how important it is. And every time we get the chance to take it out of Sydney, the reaction from the places it goes to – Perth or Hobart or Albury – demonstrates its appeal. It has been an important addition to our mix of public affairs programs, and has allowed the public to hear more views and different voices around significant issues.

This is what Incredible Mel is missing with her ponitification about the lack of real intellectuals on Q&A. It’s most probably because most of us aren’t interested in hearing from lofty windbags with no real connection to our own lives. We’re more interested in hearing from people we know, like, dislike, aspire to be, or want to punish at the ballot box.

Yes, Q&A is a modern Punch and Judy show. Yes it can be hit and miss with its panellists and overly obsessed with political issues of the day. But I believe we think of it more as a theatre-in-the-round than a podium, a place to get a bit rowdy and controversial and let off a bit of political steam. Sure, there’s a place for intellectualism too, but not at the expense of our robust and enthusiastic engagement in this delightful, dynamic and digital colosseum.

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……