Presenting the “progressive” (Guardian approved) group, Avaaz – astroturfing for Hamas.

The Guardian’s recent video series by Jon Ronson – and in particular its supposed focus on the subject of ‘astroturfing‘  – prompts one to consider organisations which (despite having so far  escaped Ronson’s attention) actually do employ the internet in order to promote certain campaigns or agendas by mobilising mass support from their online communities.

One such organisation (which has even enjoyed Guardian promotion) is Avaaz, formed in 2007, which claims to have a worldwide membership of over 10 million. It also claims that its campaigns are selected by its members themselves in democratic polls, and that it practices what it terms ‘servant leadership’. But is that really the entire story? In order to analyse the Avaaz agenda it is necessary to take a look at both its origins and some of the key players behind it.

A collection of other organisations, most dealing in online advocacy, brought Avaaz into being. Those organisations include primarily Res Publica and MoveOn as well as Purpose, GetUp and the Service Employees International Union.  The co-founders of Avaaz are listed as follows:

Ricken Patel  – Executive Director (Also Res Publica and a member of the J Street advisory board).

Tom Perriello (Also former Congressman for Virginia, Res Publica and the Catholic Alliance for the Common Good).

David Madden (Also GetUp and Purpose).

Jeremy Heimans (Also GetUp and Purpose).

Andrea Woodhouse (Also consultant to the World Bank).

Tom Pravda  – Secretary. (Also Res Publica, ‘Integrity’ and UK FCO)

Eli Pariser (Also MoveOn, Res Publica and a member of the J Street Advisory Board).

Another person involved in the establishment of Avaaz was Ben Brandzel – formerly of MoveOn and GetUp and a Democrat fundraiser. He is now involved with 38 Degrees’ – a British online advocacy organisation formed in 2009 which operates in a similar manner to Avaaz.

Res Publica was founded in 2003 with funding from George Soros’ ‘Open Society Institute’ and according to its website Avaaz is currently its primary project although in the past it concerned itself with “catalyzing a resurgence of the prophetic and progressive religious voice in America” through its ‘Faithful America’ campaign, which also received two grants of $400,000 each from the Open Society Institute in 2008.

Its fellows include Ricken Patel (currently the Director of Avaaz and formerly an employee of the International Crisis Group of which Soros is a trustee), Tom Perriello (founder of the Catholic Alliance for the Common Good, also funded by Soros) and British diplomat Tom Pravda. Res Publica’s advisory board includes Anthony Barnett (editor of Open Democracy), UK parliamentarian and patron of the UK branch of ICHAD Clare Short, Eli Pariser (of MoveOn), Zainab Bangura (formerly a board member of the Open Society Institute) and John Podesta  (founder of the also Soros funded ‘Center for American Progress’).

MoveOn is an earlier organisation, founded in 1998, initially as an e-mail group by Wes Boyd and Joan Blades and it too has benefited from Soros funding. The same Eli Pariser from Res Publica’s advisory board acts as its board director.

GetUp (founded in 2005) and Purpose (2009) are both the brainchild of Australians Jeremy Heimans and David Madden. Both work along the same lines as res Publica, MoveOn and Avaaz by activating their members in what they term “mass digital participation”.

The exception in the group of organisations which produced Avaaz is the Service Employees International Union: despite the name, the second largest American trade union and one which seems to be interested in subjects beyond its members’ employment welfare.

Although Avaaz now claims to be financially independent, it would appear that a grant from George Soros via Res Publica facilitated its establishment.

Obviously, a lot of very experienced internet campaign organisers are involved with Avaaz and its support base has grown considerably since its establishment, perhaps due to action on subjects with a fairly broad consensus such as ecology or aid to areas suffering natural disasters such as Haiti and Burma.  However, it seems that the Avaaz community – having been recruited by means of whales, bees and elephants – is also being manipulated into taking a stance on the Arab/Israeli conflict and that the information it is being given in Avaaz campaigns on this subject is, to say the least, highly partisan.

Avaaz’s Hebrew language webpage currently features a call to support the campaign by Daphne Leif and other leaders of the tent-protest movement demanding that the Israeli government to breach the Knesset approved national budget framework (and therefore plunge the country into debt) in order to meet their demands. If one wonders why a New York-based organisation such as Avaaz should be meddling in the financial affairs of a sovereign country, the answer comes in the form of Avaaz’s Senior Campaigner in Israel, Raluca Ganea.

Ganea, in addition to her work with Avaaz, is involved with numerous Left-wing organisations including Shutafut-Sharaka – for which she acts as media co-ordinator. Shutafut-Sharaka is composed of a a group of organisations, including the New Israel Fund’s ‘Shatil’, the Abraham Fund Initiative, Sikkui and Agenda – a “centre for strategic communications” which includes among its management Rachel Liel (also director of the NIF in Israel) and Oriella Ben Zvi (of Ben Or Consulting, which she founded together with J Street’s Jeremy Ben Ami, himself a former New Israel Fund employee). 

Rachel Liel was active in her role at NIF in international fundraising for the tent-protest movement and Shatil issued a guide to organising such protests.  It therefore comes as little surprise to find Raluca Ganea promoting the movement’s agenda on the Avaaz website, although that does rather suggest that Avaaz’s self-declared principle of its worldwide community selecting its campaigns is far from entirely transparent. Ganea has in the past also used Avaaz to promote her point of view on other internal Israeli issues such as the deportation of the children of illegal workers and the “aggressive Judaization of East Jerusalem“, urging Avaaz members to participate in the weekly demonstrations in the Shimon Hatsadik neighbourhood, organised by the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement. That organisation’s leader, Sara Benninga, was the recipient of an ‘Honouring our Heroes award at the J Street conference in February 2011 and foreign donations to the organisation are channelled through the New Israel Fund.

It is, therefore, quite clear that as far as domestic Israeli affairs are concerned, Avaaz is engaged in amplifying the agenda of the conglomeration of fringe organisations on the far Left (and sometimes post-Zionist) end of the political map. Many of those organisations are linked to the very cosily connected New Israel Fund and J Street and, with two of Avaaz’s founders on the J Street advisory council, and another – Tom Perriello – having had his 2008 election campaign endorsed and financed by J Street, that is hardly likely to be a coincidence.

However, it is when one examines Avaaz’s record on external Israeli affairs that the picture becomes even more interesting.

In 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, Avaaz ran a campaign entitled “Gaza: Stop the Bloodshed” calling for a ceasefire and “re-opening the borders and crossings under proper supervision, ending the blockade of Gaza’s 1.5 million civilians”. No reference was made to the thousands of Hamas rockets which terrorised Israeli civilians for years before the operation and no explanation given as to why a blockade was necessary to prevent the smuggling of arms to Gaza.  At the time, the following statement appeared on the Avaaz website:

“The people of Gaza are being squeezed to death. This week’s blackouts have finally reached the attention of the world — and the international community could help end the blockade. Our obligation is clear. This isn’t about Israel vs Palestine or Hamas vs Fatah: this is about 1.5 million human beings locked up in the biggest prison on earth…. The humanitarian crisis of sealed-off Gaza is only getting worse, and a rain of missiles is falling.”

In 2010 Avaaz firmly pinned its colours to the mast of the Mavi Marmara when it launched a petition calling for world leaders to “investigate the raid, end the blockade”, and describing the IHH/Muslim Brotherhood-organised flotilla as “humanitarian”.

Currently Avaaz is promoting a petition in support of Mahmoud Abass’ unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.  Part of its campaign includes this video – analysed by social media expert Dr Andre Obler here.

It is all too apparent that Avaaz’s Israel-related campaigns are both biased and superficial. The “instant click to sign” policy encourages its online members to add their names to petitions which provide no in-depth background information on the issue at hand and which aim to engage people by means of highly charged emotional language, the promise of belonging to a “community” which “empowers” them and the plea to “tell your friends. In other words, this is astroturfing par excellence.

The trouble is that this is not just common or garden astroturfing: this is campaigning on behalf of organisations such as Hamas and the Moslem Brotherhood by both promoting their objectives and parroting their narrative. If one wonders how it is possible that Avaaz reached that stance, it is helpful to take a look at yet another of its founding members and resident Middle East expert – a man named Paul Hilder, who was also the author of a 2009 article promoted by Avaaz entitled “Gaza is Dying.

Currently employed by Oxfam in the position of campaigns manager, Hilder previously worked in the same role for Avaaz and has written about online social activism for the Guardian. Like his Avaaz co-founder Ben Brandzel, he is a board member of the British online campaigning organisation ’38 Degrees’ and he also co-founded ‘openDemocracy.

Hilder’s credentials as social activist cum Middle East expert make him something of a favourite on the international conference circuit as well as in the media, but there is another side to his ‘expertise’.  A rather less-mentioned item on Hilder’s CV is the fact that at the same time as he was employed by Avaaz, he also worked as Policy Director for the Middle East Policy Initiative Forum. This rather bland-sounding title embodies collaboration between the Oxford Research Group and Conflicts Forum on an EU-funded report entitled From Crisis to Opportunity.

“From Crisis to Opportunity” aims to support a new, inclusive approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict by opening consultations among legitimate yet opposed stakeholders through civil society-brokered dialogue, analysis and engagement. The goal is to explore accommodations grounded in real support in the societies. The action will engage rooted elements of Palestinian and Israeli society and stakeholders from the wider region, including faith-based movements. “

Conflicts Forum was co-founded and is directed by the former British intelligence officer Alistair Crooke. Its Board of Advisors includes Hamas supporter Azzam Tamimi, Ismail Patel of ‘Friends of Al Aqsa’ and Moazzam Begg of ‘Cageprisoners’. In describing the organisation’s raison d’etre, Dr Jonathan Spyer stated that:

(Emphasis added. The document to which Dr Spyer refers can be read here.)

“It describes its aim as opening “a new relationship between the West and the Muslim world.” What this anodyne phrase means in practice is revealed in a remarkably frank document published by this group, in which it explains the means it intends to use to bring about the basic change in perception that will bring Hamas and Hizbullah into the mainstream. The document notes the need to build a “link-up between activist groups and mobilizers of opinion in order to shift the debate on Islamism from a predominantly defensive posture to a positive assertion of Islamist values and thinking.” It suggests “articulation of Hamas’s and Hizbullah’s values, philosophy and wider political and social programs… Being more proactive in statements and rephrasing discourse to focus on the positive aspects of Islamist ideology.”

Conflicts Forum’s self-assigned role as lobbyist for Hamas, Hizbollah and indeed the Iranian regime, was obviously not a deterrent to policy consultant Paul Hilder and the rest of the Middle East Policy Initiative Forum when choosing to enter into collaboration with that organisation. Neither, apparently, were the distinctly dubious track records of some of its members and contributors.  Whether or not those attributes were rather part of the attraction of working with Conflicts Forum is a subject for a different debate, but one rather obvious fact is very clear.

Conflicts Forum sought to establish a “link-up between activist groups and mobilizers of opinion” and to “link with mass organizations in Western countries – social movements”.  Its relationship with Paul Hilder appears to have yielded precisely that link-up, with Avaaz subsequently becoming engaged in the organization and mobilization of world-wide petitions in complete accord with the Hamas narrative.  Avaaz has – apparently willingly; perhaps even deliberately – become part of the orchestrated public relations campaign to re-brand proscribed Islamist terrorist organisations in the West as proponents of “social justice” and it is using its world-wide membership to advance that cause.

Avaaz’s record on both internal and external Israeli affairs clearly indicates that it is not its ‘world-wide community’ piper which is calling the tune but in fact a collection of interested parties. Its promotion of the myth of ‘servant leadership’ whilst willingly collaborating with big money and/or big ideology means that it is engaged in the cynical exploitation of its members for the purpose of political astroturfing.  It is not the democratic, principled forum for social activism it claims to be, but a sophisticated and well-greased mechanism for extremist political engineering.

Funny how the Guardian’s Jon Ronson missed that.

Related articles

Harriet Sherwood: A Tool of Avaaz Astroturfing Campaign?

Earlier this week we reported that Harriet Sherwood published a story suggesting that there was widespread support for the creation of a Palestinian state in Europe in the lead up to next week’s UN General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood.

The basis for Sherwood’s article was findings of a survey conducted on behalf of the advocacy group Avaaz which has been actively campaigning  for UN recognition of Palestine. In our post, we cast doubt on the veracity of this poll based on the prior track record of Avaaz polling and quoted from an article by Daniel Greenfield who had similar reservations about Avaaz.

Since then, an article by Dr. Andrew Oboler on astroturfing – the manufacture of fake “grassroots” campaign – as it relates to the Avaaz campaign has been brought to my attention. In it Dr. Oboler had serious reservations with respect to the veracity of the numbers of visitors to the site that Avaaz had been touting.

The campaign does have one serious drawback, and this the numbers… they simply don’t add up. When I look a few days ago the page said it had been visited 609,437 times and the petition had been signed 868,279 times. If the petition was first released through this page those numbers are actually impossible. One logical explanation is that this same petition was originally on another page. Indeed it was, but back then it was directed to specific members of the security council. That campaign was a dismal failure, so Avaaz moved the goal posts and recycled the petition and signatures, now addressing it to all UN members. The current page does not disclose this reuse. Honesty is a critical component in any grassroots campaign, without it the grassroots can quickly turn on you.

Even given this initial boost to the petition, the numbers still don’t add up. The video is hosted on YouTube, which maintains its own stats. Given the video runs automatically when the page loads, the increase in page views should be matched by an increase in YouTube’s own count of video views. One qualification is that YouTube only counts unique views. The page, by contrast, may increase its viewer count each time it is loaded, leading to a much higher count as one person may reload the page many times. If this is the case, YouTube’s count is a more meaningful measure. The popular myth that auto playing videos do not count is apparently just that… a myth. Even so, over a five day period, 296,232 new page views appear to have only resulted in 30,828 additional signatures and 4,601 additional video views. 

While there may be a logical explanation for the varying numerical data the site displays, the bottom line is that the numbers don’t add up. The conversion rate is rapidly dropping. This is not a rapidly growing viral campaign but rather a major investment that has fizzled.

And more information about Avaaz has been brought to light in a helpful fact sheet about Avaaz from NGO Monitor. Here are some highlights:

- Avaazwasco-foundedin 2007 by “Res Publica, a global civic advocacy group, and Moveon.org,” a George Soros-funded organization involved in ideological and political campaigns in the US. 

- Behind the façade of democracy and social protests (August 6, 2011), “The domain Avaaz.orgattacked[29 governments email accounts]…with more than 250,000 SMTP email protocols [i.e., individual email messages that would flood and overwhelm the system]” on August 6, 2011, according to the Israeli government Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT). In response, Avaaz claimed that there was no attack and that only 3,500 emails were sent. 

- Avaaz calls for members to participate in theSheikh Jarrah protests, providing a distorted account of the situation and using highly offensive, racially-charged rhetoric: “the unjust eviction of Palestinians, losing their homes in the aggressive Judaization of East Jerusalem.”

-Avaaz’scampaignfor a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in 2007and to “end [] the blockade on humanitarian aid to Gaza” called for a two-state solution and “respect for human rights on both sides.” But, the campaign was publicized through a highly problematic agitprop video calledStop the Clash of Civilizations.” The video draws a moral equivalence between terrorists and their victims, between armies of sovereign states and terror groups, and between September 11th and the Iraq war, claiming “are we that different?” 

With such an agenda driven organization, why is Harriet Sherwood giving uncritical publicity to the Avaaz campaign?

The Monday Morning Guardian Israel Hate Page

The Guardian Israel hate page this morning – as my dear friend MargieinTelAviv affectionately calls it – features a veritable choice of Israel-bashing articles to sink one’s teeth into.

 

First, there’s an article by Peter Preston, former Guardian editor, which contains a breathtaking insight into the malice with which he views Israel.   

As for Egypt itself, transition seems a puny word. Goodbye to Mubarak, and decades of autocracy; hello to dawning democracy, to millions on the streets, to outbursts of mass anger that, these past few days, can see Israel’s embassy while soldiers struggle for control. Maybe democracy and violent protest aren’t obvious bedfellows, but this time there is a connection – because now the crowd can come out spontaneously to make its feelings clear.[emphasis added]

Lets unpack this last sentence for a second. Preston seems to be drawing together two somewhat disparate themes: democracy and violence; the suggestion being that the freedoms associated with democracy have allowed the “Egyptian street” to express their true feelings toward Israel. However, the idea of democracy is not about unleashing the inner animal so that anarchy reins – but allowing freedom of expression to flourish within the confines of the rule of law. What Preston does through a rhetorical play on words is contextualize and justify violence against Israelis in the name of democracy.  

If that’s not enough, Preston then goes on to upbraid Israel for its stubborn refusal to commit suicide by refusing to recognize the Palestinian unilateral declaration of statehood expected to take place at the UN later this month.  

Israel ought to be voting to recognise a Palestinian state too this week, coming to terms with change before change engulfs it. But is there any sign of such awareness in the bunkers of entrenched obliviousness? An Arab spring? Fear, rather, an Israeli winter.

The theme of unilateral declaration of statehood is then picked up by the perfidious Gerald Kaufman. Under the heading “Israel’s Choices” in the letters page, Israel is presented with one choice.

President Abbas is to be congratulated on persisting in applying for Palestinian statehood at the UN (Report, 9 September), despite all the pressure and blackmail trying to force him not to. The quartet has never done anything meaningful to give the Palestinians their independence. If the US uses its veto at the security council, this will prove the smug windbag Obama to be the puppet of Aipac. The hypocrisy of those countries which vote against or abstain at the general assembly will similarly be exposed. This brave Palestinian move will change the entire environment of the Middle East and tell the Israelis that they must negotiate meaningfully if they wish to be one of the states in a two-state solution.
Gerald Kaufman MP
Lab, Manchester Gorton

[Note how for good measure Kaufman breezily employs the rhetoric more commonly associated with Jewish conspiracy theorists Walt and Mearsheimer by stating that US support of Israel in the United Nations is the work of the US puppet master, AIPAC.]

Not to be outdone by Preston and Kaufman, Jerusalem correspondent, Harriet Sherwood adds her own two cents by posting an article suggesting that there is widespread approval for the support of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state in Europe.

The majority of people in the UK, France and Germany want their governments to vote in favour of recognising a Palestinian state if a resolution is brought before the United Nations in the next few weeks, according to an opinion poll.

The basis for such a claim, we learn, is a poll conducted by YouGov on behalf of Avaaz.

The poll was conducted by YouGov on behalf of Avaaz, a global campaigning organisation that is conducting an online petition in support of a Palestinian state. It is planning to deliver more than 913,000 signatories backing what it describes as “this new opportunity for freedom” to the European parliament.

We do not know what questions were asked in this poll – all we are told is, by way of footnote, that the poll was conducted online with 2,552 respondents in the UK, 1,017 respondents in Germany and 1,011 in France. However if the track record of Avaaz polling is anything to go by, the results are not to be trusted.    

And Avaaz has an even more checkered background as Daniel Greenfield observes,

Avaaz [is] a left-wing organization conducting a pressure campaign for Palestinian statehood. Avaaz’s video lays the blame for the violence on Israel, compares Israel’s Foreign Minister to Ahmadinejad and presents the unilateral Hamas-Fatah state as a way to bring peace to the region. Viewers are not told that few things are more certain to bring violence than unilateral actions by a fanatical terrorist group whose covenant celebrates the genocide of the Jewish people.

Like its video, Avaaz is not what it seems. Unlike most organizations, Avaaz does not list its staff openly; instead it claims to practice “servant leadership” with staffers letting members decide what to do. Only when the tax returns for Avaaz are examined, does a clearer picture emerge of who is really in charge.

Avaaz’s tax returns mention only one paid employee, its president, Ricken Patel, who pulls down a six figure salary—not bad for a ‘servant’. Patel was also a co-founder of Res Publica, the organization that co-founded Avaaz.

The Chairman of the Board, Eli Pariser, is the president of MoveOn.org which also co-founded Avaaz, and  along with Avaaz’s Secretary, Tom Pravda, is also on the advisory board of Res Publica. Patel and Pariser serve on the advisory board of J-Street, a Soros organization founded to undermine Jewish support for Israel.

What’s the difference between Res Publica and Avaaz? Avaaz looks like an international activist group, which is convenient when you want to appear to be a global movement, instead of a disguised branch of the same old American left-wing organizations.

Res Publica gets the majority of its funding from the Open Society Institute, which makes Avaaz another disguised George Soros project, just like J Street. The Economic Times hails Ricken Patel as “The Man Who Gives You Your Voice”, but it’s not “your” voice, it’s Soros’ voice.

And if the anti-Israel agitrop of Harriet Sherwood were not enough, there’s a Guardian editorial to top things off reveling in Israel’s regional isolation.

If post-revolutionary Egypt and an economically resurgent Turkey make common cause against their former common ally – and there is every indication that they will – Israel‘s isolation in the region will be profound.

In other words, just another day at the “world’s leading liberal voice”.