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Protect Online Dialog from Manipulation

How corporatized advocacy groups stifle online dialogue

1. Single out and shut down

When leaders associated with corporatized advocacy groups find their actions being questioned by knowledgeable activists in a public forum -- for example, on an email discussion list or on Facebook -- they will often ask those raising the issue to speak with them individually by phone or via private email. This immediately de-energizes the public debate. It also creates a context where various persuasive techniques can be used to convince activists that their concerns are invalid, or that raising them publicly hurts the animals and/or the movement.

Some activists are flattered by the attention of leadership figures, and some are intimidated. Still others allow themselves to be manipulated by specious arguments that would never hold water in a public forum.

Counter-measure: Don't take the bait. Insist that matters of public concern be discussed in a public forum. A lack of public scrutiny and accountability is one of the root causes of the problems facing today's US animal rights movement. Refuse to give in to pressure to stop discussing a topic or to remove posts or links.

2. Poison the well

Representatives and allies of corporatized advocacy groups often derail online dialogues by interjecting numerous lengthy posts that raise spurious, distracting questions and by endlessly repeating PR talking points. They also sometimes express disdain, outrage, or emotional hurt, call into question the motivations of others, and otherwise behave in ways that create a negative atmosphere that inhibits the free exchange of ideas and drives people away from the discussion. This makes it easier for them to bully or manipulate the smaller number of people who remain.

Counter-measure: Directly confront people using bullying or distraction techniques. If necessary, ask others to join you in the intervention process or in ignoring/excluding bullies if they persist. If an online bully is on the staff of a corporatized group, point out to others their affiliation and the fact that it is inappropriate for paid professional staff members to be interfering in a public debate. Call or send an email to the organization asking them to instruct their staff people to back off. Consider writing up your experience and publishing it to a relevant email list or other public online venue. Ask other activists for help and advice if you need it. Don't let healthy dialogue be shut down or pulled off center by agressive tactics.

3. Malign the messenger

When critical thinking questions are raised that corporatized groups simply can't answer without revealing contradictions or hidden agendas, they often resort to the time-tested method of besmirching the reputation of the person or persons raising the issue. Many times the attempts at character assassination are so outrageous they can drive a normally centered person to lash out in self-defense. The trick is that by shifting the discussion to the alleged flaws of the messenger, the real issues at hand are largely forgotten. The use of such cynical methods is a sign that the topic being discussed threatens the agenda of a corporatized group.

Counter-measure: Don't get bogged down in responding in detail to deliberate provocations and personal attacks. Insist that the discussion come back to the core issues. Point out that attacks of this sort are a tried and true PR industry technique used by those who don't have a persuasive argument to support their position. If the behavior persists, document the details and consider sending a letter of complaint to the board of the organization the person works for. Team up with other activists for support and to confront the use of this destructive tactic.

4. Change the channel

When new information comes to light exposing advocacy-industry collaboration, conflict of interest, dishonesty with the public, abuse of activist trust, or other unethical conduct by corporate animal advocacy groups, the people representing them sometimes attempt to "change the channel." This is achieved by quickly concocting and publishing a provocative "exposé" about those bringing forth the new information. Often included are intentionally provocative statements that appear to be substantive responses to what has been published, but are actually clever avoidances of the core issues being raised. A typical ploy would be to accuse someone who is drawing attention to industry collaboration of being "divisive," when in reality nothing could be more inherently divisive than advocates partnering with an industry that exploits those whom they claim to protect.

Those representing the corporate group(s) in question will sometimes publish these documents on blogs or the web sites of smaller organizations. This helps create the illusion that these manufactured concerns are somehow more substantial than they really are, or that they are coming from a third party with an objective perspective. However, if one digs a little, it is often revealed that the author, or the group that publishes this document, has direct ties back to the larger organization in question.

Once the provocative and often misleading response document is in place, those carrying out this sort of disinformation campaign often use their large organizational network of contacts to flood the internet and dominate both online and private dialogues about the initial issue that was raised. In attempting to "change the channel" their aim is to get people talking about this new document instead of the one that calls their own actions into question. If you pay close attention, you will notice representatives of corporatized organizations consistently sidestepping direct public debate of their collaborative relationship with the industry and the misleading nature of many of their campaigns.

Counter-measure: When someone else changes the channel, change it back! These manipulative tactics only work when most people don't recognize them for what they are. Without a deeper awareness of what is happening and why, it's easy to get pulled into unproductive argumentation about side issues. By simply pointing out that the core questions are being avoided through distraction and misdirection, and by insisting that substantive concerns be addressed in a public forum, a far greater level of accountability is possible.