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

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About Drag0nista

Political blogger and columnist on the interwebs. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989. Otherwise known as Paula Matthewson.

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