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

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