Thursday, July 12, 2018

Big Oil’s Explore Offshore Propaganda Is Corporate Ventriloquism

A couple of weeks ago, Reuters reported on a new effort by the American Petroleum Institute:  Explore Offshore.  It’s goal is “to convince Hispanic and black communities to support the Trump administration’s proposed expansion of offshore drilling.”

Per Reuters, a key part of API’s effort to convince minority communities to support a product that disproportionately hurts them is through a series of op-eds.  Media Matters took a look at the pieces that have been published so far, and surprise! they’re misleading.  They can’t even get the API talking points, which are going to be biased, right, as one API stat about economic benefits of drilling was exaggerated “ by a factor of 20.”
Clearly, then, this movement seems to be an inauthentic and cynical attempt to use minority communities as pawns of the pro-oil agenda.  Typically, this type of thing might fall under the banner of “astroturfing,” the name for advocacy efforts that appear as grassroots but are in reality a corporate PR campaign.

But API isn’t even bothering to cover its tracks.  In fact, though Media Matters mentions that some of the op-eds don’t disclose Explore Offshore’s API backing, API has been relatively vocal about its new project.

While Explore Offshore may not be strictly astroturfing, it has the characteristics of something similar:  corporate ventriloquism.  This term was coined by a team of four writers in a book on the coal industry’s rhetoric responding to environmental concerns, Under Pressure.  In it, they describe how companies are moving beyond secretive astroturf campaigns and into more overt advocacy campaigns.

After the embarrassment of the 2009 “Faces of Coal” campaign, in which the coal lobby’s attempt to show real everyday Americans supporting coal was exposed as an astroturfed, stock photo farce, the industry appears to have learned that a sliver of honesty is the best policy.

In a way, Under Pressure explains, that’s even more dangerous.  Once astroturfing is exposed (and at this point, it pretty much always is) it tends to lose all potency and backfire.  When corporations are upfront about their backing of advocacy that advances their interests, though, they still get to control the message (like a ventriloquist) while also entering into the public discourse as though they’re a neutral party.

Instead of hiding its influence, a corporation’s engagement sends the message that it is just another voice, with the right to free expression just like anyone else once SCOTUS ruled corporations are people.  This “flattening,” as it’s described in Under Pressure, glosses over the vast difference between industry will millions to spend on free speech, and the general public’s relatively limited ability to do the same. 

Corporate ventriloquism allows industries to spread their exact message through a secondary source, just like astroturfing, but without threat of embarrassing expose that would undo the messaging work already accomplished.  And in the process, this technique further legitimizes their profit-driven pursuits as just another voice in the crowd, as though those who seek to protect public health from pollution and those who only want to protect polluters are equally valid.

Read more at Big Oil’s Explore Offshore Propaganda Is Corporate Ventriloquism

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