Monday, January 20, 2014

Astroturf and Front Group Research: The Center for Union Facts

I was searching for a video on Youtube and an advertisement started before I could watch it. I had my cursor hovering over the "skip ad" button as the necessary five second buffer ticked away, but I noticed the ridiculous nature of the ad and let it continue playing. The absurdity lay in its obvious distortion through child actors of the nature of union voting. There was obviously no pretense toward presenting an accurate picture of unions and it was obviously not designed to appeal to anyone other than rabid anti-union people. Furthermore it engaged in the depiction of gross ethnic stereotypes -- Greaser Italians and shade wearing African-Americans as union muscle/enforcers who are a threat to "our" democracy (I'll leave you to speculate who is the "our" population that is threatened by these ethnicities). My only conclusion was that it was designed to whip up hysteria in the already-faithful followers of this ideology and ensure that they did not waver from their support of the Employee Rights Act (notice the Orwellian doublespeak in Orrin Hatch's proposed bill that gives one the impression it is designed to protect workers). Most likely the creators of this ad hoped they might also sway some naive citizens:



At the end of the video it states that you can follow a link to find out more. The link takes the curious to the The Employee Rights Act website. This website once again does not provide any obvious information "about" (the requisite link/button that appears on any legitimate site) the organization behind the website and it is loaded with more videos (including ones that attempts to link unions with totalitarian societies like North Korea... once again so gross a distortion of reality one has to wonder who would buy into this disinformation). The Center for Union Facts is listed in name only as the organization that promotes this legislation and created the ads. They are attempting to appear as a citizens, grassroots group just looking out for workers' rights. They have many more thinly disguised websites, such as Labor Pains, seeking to amplify their voice online through the appearance of multiple organizations all joining in on the support of this legislation.

I decided to find out more about The Center for Union Facts and visited Sourcewatch to get some background on this organization. This is a secretive front group set up by lobbyist Rick Berman and is part of family of front groups under the umbrella organization Employment Policies Institute "created by Berman & Co., a Washington, DC public affairs firm owned by Rick Berman, who lobbies for the restaurant, hotel, alcoholic beverage and tobacco" industries. They are also behind one of the more notorious front groups Center for Consumer Freedom, whose efforts notoriously included running:

media campaigns which oppose the efforts of scientists, doctors, health advocates, animal advocates, environmentalists and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, calling them "the Nanny Culture -- the growing fraternity of food cops, health care enforcers, anti-meat activists, and meddling bureaucrats who 'know what's best for you."

Berman & Co. efforts to mislead American citizens is so egregious that they start off Sourcewatch's entry on what is a Front Group.

A reminder: research the information you are presented with, especially when it is so blatantly trying to sway your opinion. If an organization does not clearly represent to their audience who they are and what their purpose is, then there is most likely a reason why they are hiding their true identity. For instance, while googling the Sourcewatch website this advertisement appeared (it says "ad" in small letters next to the link, but the unaware/naive often miss that and it is placed strategically at the top of my search results). It claimed to have proven that Sourcewatch has a hidden agenda and funders. Click on the host website Judicial Hellholes "about" link -- it is a false link. Who is ATR, the organization behind the Judicial Hellholes website and why are they not forthcoming about their agenda/identity? What is Judicial Hellholes purpose -- seems obvious they are a site designed to advocate for "tort reform," but why are they once again so secretive about who is supporting this effort and what are their broader connections (for more on these misleading "tort reform" campaigns listen to an interview with documentary filmmaker Susan Saladoff.

As an example of a forthright group, check out Sourcewatch's "about" link. Notice how the first thing they do is mention their parent organization with a full link to its website and another link about their purpose/funding/members.

Once again, even without full research one can sense when a front group is trying to mislead citizens. I would like to encourage all citizens to develop the skills necessary to uncover the background to information they access and then share these skills with others so that we can protect ourselves from front group disinformation campaigns.

Paul Dean at The Sociological Cinema provides a good analysis of the purpose of this type of misleading/manipulative ad campaign: "Ideology and False Consciousness in a Super Bowl Ad"

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