While in the Denver area for a conference, Center for Media and Democracy Associate Director Judith Siers-Poisson and I met with staff and board members of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center (RMPJC). We wanted to hear about RMPJC's fine work, especially on nuclear weapons issues, and to describe CMD's online resources to them. One offshoot of that meeting was the following article, which I wrote for RMPJC's newsletter. Please feel free to run it in other publications, as long as you credit the Center for Media and Democracy.
In January 2006, a local resident walked into a neighborhood meeting in Boston and asked to speak as a “concerned citizen.” He warned those assembled that there was a tragedy waiting to happen in the Boston Harbor: a ship carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) could explode. He suggested that the group support a proposed island-based LNG terminal, to avoid the nightmare scenario he had described. He directed them to the website of his group, the Coalition for an LNG Solution – but did not disclose that the group had been established by a public relations (PR) firm on behalf of the company seeking to build the new LNG terminal.
In March 2006, the New York Times reported that emails distributed by another PR firm on behalf of the retail giant Wal-Mart had appeared on various blog websites, as though the text had been written by the bloggers themselves. The emails were part of a Wal-Mart campaign to increase support among non-traditional media, and were intended to shape online coverage, not to be used verbatim. But unsuspecting web surfers read entries praising Wal-Mart, describing large numbers of applicants for jobs at some Wal-Mart stores, and slamming state-level bills requiring large employers to cover a minimum percentage of employees’ healthcare costs – all without realizing that Wal-Mart was behind the columns.
These are just two examples of deceptive techniques used by PR practitioners to influence public debate and policy. Unfortunately, such practices are not uncommon – especially when corporate profits are at stake. Slick, deceptive campaigns can seriously disadvantage the hard work of progressive activists, who rely on accurate information and public involvement to ensure that corporations, government agencies and other deep-pocketed interests respect the environment, public health, human rights, disadvantaged communities, and the democratic process. So, what can you do to identify and counter disinformation campaigns?
The short answer is that knowledge is power. Knowing the history and affiliations of PR firms, corporations and government officials – and other opinion-shapers such as think tanks, lobbyists and pollsters – is key to understanding their current or predicting their future actions. Being familiar with commonly used PR techniques and case studies of past campaigns helps uncover how misleading messages are introduced and promoted, and suggests how best to counter them. Luckily, more and more activists are realizing that no matter what other issues they address, they must also engage, critique and work to improve news media.
That’s why the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) was founded in 1993. Based in Madison, Wisconsin, CMD works to strengthen participatory democracy by investigating and exposing spin and propaganda, and by promoting media literacy and citizen journalism. CMD conducts investigations into deceptive media campaigns, and publishes the information on its main website, www.prwatch.org; in its quarterly newsletter, PR Watch; and in the books authored by senior CMD staff John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton. CMD also offers a free email update, “The Weekly Spin,” and responds to frequent questions from journalists, researchers and activists.
In early 2003, CMD added a new tool to its anti-propaganda efforts – an online encyclopedia of people, issues and groups shaping the public agenda, SourceWatch (housed at www.sourcewatch.org). In April 2006, Congresspedia -- a "citizen's encyclopedia on Congress" -- was added to SourceWatch, with profiles on each member of the U.S. Congress, major legislation and Washington DC scandals. As of July 2006, SourceWatch boasted more than 11,200 articles on everything from PR firms to greenwashing campaigns to corporate lobbyists-turned-federal regulators.
SourceWatch is unique, in that it promotes collaborative research and reporting. Like Wikipedia, SourceWatch uses “wiki” software, which allows anyone to add or edit information. The website integrates and organizes large numbers of individual contributions, updates articles instantaneously, and receives high rankings on online search engines. This combination results in the wide dissemination of SourceWatch content, especially the articles that are relevant to current events and other “hot” or controversial topics.
The key to SourceWatch’s success is a growing, online community of dedicated citizen journalists, coupled with CMD’s research and technical expertise. Although CMD staff have not vetted every single article, volunteer contributors maintain a high degree of accuracy. Occasional efforts to vandalize articles are easily reverted, and disruptive users are blocked, although this is rarely necessary. The complete edit history for every article is publicly available, adding another measure of transparency. In addition, each article has an accompanying discussion page, where opinions and other information relevant to the topic, but not appropriate for inclusion in the article itself, are compiled.
What does this all have to do with grassroots propaganda busting? CMD’s two websites are good places to start investigating media manipulators. You can easily do text searches of www.prwatch.org and www.sourcewatch.org, using the “search” option on the left sidebar of either site. Both websites also contain topical indexes.
More importantly, you can help other activists, researchers and journalists by adding new material to SourceWatch. The website’s help pages will walk you through basic formatting and referencing guidelines, and the “Sandbox” page is like a scratch pad that new users freely experiment on. SourceWatch also has guides on how to conduct research on the web. If you get stuck, feel free to contact CMD, by email at editorATprwatch.org (replace "AT" with "@"), or by phone at 608-260-9713.
CMD is especially interested in increasing the amount of local and regional information on SourceWatch. While a disinformation campaign may be waged on a specific local issue, the corporations, lobbyists and / or PR firms involved may be carrying out similar activities in other communities across the state, around the country, or even around the world. If nothing else, similar techniques will be used to stymie progressive activists elsewhere – and you can help them fight back by sharing your information and experiences. Remember, information is power.