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.