Corporations and politicians alike bow down to big money

‘For lobbyists, Europe is the Wild West’

© Belgaimage / Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD

Lobbyists in Europe choose whether to register their activities in the Transparency Register or not. 'Europe lags tremendously behind in this area.'

To those who think of misinformation only in terms of troll factories operating from the caverns of dark regimes ­– think again. Disinformation is just as much linked to the legitimate business world in Western countries, working in all subtlety and better organised than ever ­– and there are millions to be made from it. MO* explored the secretive convergence of propaganda with corporate, media and geopolitical interests.

Translation of this article is provided by kompreno, using a combination of machine translation and human correction. More articles from MO* are included in kompreno‘s curation of the finest analysis, opinion & reporting — from all across Europe, translated into your language. Original source.

In mid-January 2023, a large-scale misinformation attempt hit back like a boomerang in the face of Azerbaijan's government. The dictatorial state's spin operation unfolded after an Australian academic put his name under a misleading article about the blockade of the Lachin corridor. A British intermediary PR firm had convinced him to do so. Unsuspectingly, Professor Bill Laurence endorsed the article.

When the article subsequently reached the Brussels-based news site EUobserver, some red lights went on, and the online newspaper refused to publish it. The main reason was a manifest untruth in the text: Azerbaijani soldiers blocking the Lachin region were portrayed in the piece as eco-activists trying to stop mining in the area.

In reality, mining is the last of their concerns. Their main intention is to cut off the 120,000 ethnic Armenians in the area from the outside world, causing a humanitarian disaster. The link with eco-activism is pure propaganda from the Azerbaijani regime.

There was a campaign to paint a positive picture of Rwanda, which involved ‘more than 100 articles a month in traditional media outlets.’

The newspaper then contacted Professor Laurence. The latter in turn took recourse to the PR firm involved ­– BTP+Advisers. What transpired from this? BTP+Advisers had framed Laurence. In the phone conversation with Laurence, they confirmed that the Azerbaijani government had paid them to sell articles with such half-truths and whole lies to Western press groups. They wanted to boost the legitimacy of their propaganda by including an eminent name from academia.

The same article was also ready for publication at the US magazine The National Interest. But just like at EUobserver, the editors swept the article off the table when it became clear how things were unfolding.

On its website, BTP+Advisers does not mention anything about its work for the government in Azerbaijan, but other campaigns shine light on their methods. There was a campaign to paint a positive picture of Rwanda, which involved ‘more than 100 articles a month in traditional media outlets.’

The public relations firm refers to reputable media outlets such as The Guardian, The Washington Post and National Geographic, among others. BTP+Advisers did not appear to be reachable for comment. We contacted them through the e-mail addresses posted on the website, but received no response.

A screenshot from a webpage of BTP+Advisers

Image management

The case mentioned above is just the tip of the vast iceberg that harbours misinformation, big business and geopolitical interests. It is a shadowy world of lobbyism that is largely hidden from the general public. Only occasionally does the truth surface, as in the Bill Laurence case.

The modus operandi is always the same. A regime in trouble hires a PR firm for big money to launder its image in the world's legislative power centres, primarily Washington and Brussels. The PR firm then tries to influence policy with targeted campaigns on social media and through meetings with MPs, or by sending out coloured news articles to the media of the countries concerned.

Manipulating the press, or making speeches in the European Parliament that appear to be sponsored by dictatorial regimes are issues that ­– needless to say ­– undermine democracy.

Manipulating the press, or making speeches in the European Parliament that appear to be sponsored by dictatorial regimes are issues that – needless to say ­– undermine democracy.

That companies conduct such PR campaigns is not news. One of the most insane PR campaigns in history came from a PR pioneer. Directed by cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris, public relations guru Edward Bernays devised the torches of freedom campaign around 1930, which was supposed to encourage women to smoke. The campaign was a resounding success, and Bernays was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life.

But it is less known that dictatorial regimes also engage in public relations. In the most extreme cases, there is not even a PR firm involved. Such was the case with the propaganda that Greek MEP Eva Kaili appeared to be making for Qatar. In this case, too, the aim was to create a positive image. In a speech to the European Parliament, Kaili had praised Qatari labour reforms in the weeks leading up to the World Cup.

She described the World Cup organising country to the full European Parliament as ‘a good neighbour and partner.’ She said the World Cup was proof of how ‘sports diplomacy can be a historic transformation for a country, with reforms that inspired the whole Arab world.’ Human rights activists fell off their chairs in utter bewilderment.

Manipulating the press, or making speeches in the European Parliament that appear to be sponsored by dictatorial regimes are issues that ­– needless to say ­– undermine democracy.

© Belgaimage / AFP

Dictatorial regimes also engage in public relations. MEP Eva Kaili (left) was found to be making well-paid propaganda for Qatar last year.

Europe vs the US

The Kaili case, as well as the Laurence case, show how much Europe appears to depend on coincidences to unmask unsavoury public relations affaires. So says US researcher Ben Freeman, who is affiliated with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and has been studying all kinds of lobbyism for a decade. ‘When it comes to lobbyism, Europe is the Wild West,’ he states bluntly.

When it comes to controlling lobbyism, the United States may feel far above Europe. The big difference? In the US, representing foreign interests requires you to register. In Europe, you can do so ­– a register does exist ­– but it is not mandatory, and there are hardly any advantages or disadvantages.

The Manafort case makes clear how differently the US and Europe view lobbyism. On 27 October 2017, the curtain fell on Mr Paul Manafort's activities: A New York court indicted the US lobbyist for, among other things, conspiracy against the United States and secretly working for a foreign power.

Since 2014, the intelligence agency FBI had already been monitoring Manafort for suspicion of criminal business dealings during lobbying activities for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. This allegedly earned Manafort and his consulting firm $75 million over the course of a decade.

The lobbyist allegedly laundered some of that money. But US prosecutors additionally charged him for not registering on the register for lobbyists (the Foreign Agents Registration Act, FARA for short). This was enough to send Manafort to jail.

He was released in 2020, halfway through his sentence, after a pardon from then-President Donald Trump. The two know each other well: Manafort was Trump's campaign manager in the run-up to his election in 2016. Manafort has a long track record as a lobbyist. Since the 1980s, he represented the interests in the US of, among others, dictators Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines), Mobuto Sese Seko (DR Congo) and Angolan anti-communist Jonas Savimbi.

The problem is that there is no obligation attached to the European Transparency Register. Lobbyists in Europe choose for themselves whether to register their activities.

For his pro-Russian lobbies in Ukraine, Manafort had work done on the ground by two different public relations firms: Mercury Public Affairs and Podesta Group, at a cost of $1.71 million.

The FARA register offers a relatively detailed insight into their efforts ­– meetings were organised with members of the US Congress and their staff, with various NGOs and media outlets. They involved a variety of media outlets, from well-known fake news websites like Breitbart News and RightDC to mainstream media such as the Associated Press and The Washington Post.

To lend a semblance of legitimacy to lobbying activities, Paul Manafort established the ‘European Centre for a Modern Ukraine’ (ECMU), which sounds like a venerable think tank. But FARA documents state that ECMU is paid directly by the Party of Regions, the party of Viktor Yanukovych ­– the Ukrainian president from 2010 to 2014. Analysts at the website LobbyFacts.eu also confirm that ECMU is a mouthpiece for the interests of the ­– Putin-backed ­– Yanukovych regime.

What is striking is that ECMU lists an address in Brussels as its headquarters, so the organisation also exercises activities on European soil. LobbyFacts.eu can say with certainty via open source data that the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine has spent at least 50,000 euro on lobbying campaigns in the European Parliament. In reality, it is probably a lot more than that.

LobbyFacts.eu gets its data from the European Transparency Register. The problem is that the register is not mandatory. Lobbyists in Europe choose for themselves whether to register their activities.

In the US, however, registration is mandatory. Anyone who fails to register in FARA as a representative of foreign interests risks a fine and imprisonment. While these measures may be limited, the FARA register at least provides some insight into the activities of lobbyists in the US.

On our side of the Atlantic, it is impossible to say exactly what Manafort's pro-Russian lobbying activities meant here, while he was jailed for the same acts in the US.

‘Europe lags tremendously behind in this area,’ says Hans van Scharen, policy officer at Corporate Europe Observatory, an organisation that investigates lobbying in Europe. He therefore advocates first of all the creation of a European counterpart to FARA: ‘A register with mandatory registration is the bare minimum.’

Are the media letting themselves be used?

Back to the ‘European Centre for a Modern Ukraine.’ The organisation disappeared from view in 2014, following the fall of Ukrainian president Yanukovych. It does still have an active Twitter channel to this day, but its last tweet dates from March 2014, mere weeks after Yanukovych took his legs to Moscow. One of its last tweets links to an article on BuzzFeed and in the Kyiv Post: ‘A 22-step guide to understanding why Crimea voted to become annexed to Russia, and why eastern Ukraine may be next in line.’

'When it comes to fake news, professional PR firms rarely enter the picture'
Lee Edwards, London School of Economics

We know today that these were prophetic words. But the piece is simultaneously full of misinformation, and makes no mention at all of the fraud that accompanied such ‘referendum.’ The article is not found in the FARA lists, but its Russian fingerprints are unmistakable. It is vintage misinformation, straight from the Kremlin's pen.

What is also striking is that neither Kyiv Post nor BuzzFeed are listed as corrupt media. Neither are The New York Times, The Washington Post and many other media outlets ­– and yet they regularly pop up in FARA's lists. We contacted the writer of the Buzz-Feed article to ask if their article was based on information from the ECMU, without success.

The 22-steps article is just one of many examples of how PR companies try to influence public opinion through seemingly independent think tanks by pushing articles in traditional media outlets. Indeed, for those researching these kinds of issues, it is mind-boggling how low-profile these companies can operate, especially when compared to the impact they have on public opinion, and the amount of money spinning around in them.

© Reuters / Lucas Jackson

Paul Manafort (centre, in handcuffs) was indicted, among other things, for not being on the US lobbyist register.

‘Organised lying’

‘When it comes to fake news, responsibility is usually placed on social platforms and media companies themselves. Rarely do professional PR firms enter the picture,’ writes Lee Edwards, professor at the London School of Economics in the research paper ‘Organised lying and professional legitimacy.’ ‘Narratives from the PR industry are presented as ethical, true and trustworthy, when in fact they are dubious.’ Edwards uses the term ‘organised lying’ in this context.

While FARA is quite detailed in some areas, it does leave one largely guessing as to the actual impact of the lobbyists. FARA does, for example, report which media outlets were contacted, but only rarely does it mention exactly which articles were published. That remains guesswork. Especially since the media outlets rarely mention the author's actual motives or background. And this is all the more true when it comes to opinion pieces.

'It is very difficult to accuse lobbyists of spreading disinformation when the problem is simply ingrained in the way the media works.'
@AfricaNews-Feeds

This is a major problem, says US media critic Adam Johnson, too, in an opinion piece on his own blog The Column. ‘Even if you accept that copying information from organisations that accept millions from Gulf dictatorships (…) is not necessarily corrupt, those conflicts of interest should at least be clearly declared,’ he says. ‘That way, media consumers get a full picture about the forces shaping our policies.’

Sometimes those contacts are simply clandestine. In 2016, The Guardian wrote that US TV presenter Larry King allegedly accepted $225,000 to interview then-Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov in 2011. Azarov was a key figure in the Yanukovych government. The interview is anything but critical, even though a few weeks earlier the main opposition figure Yulia Tymoshenko had been jailed after a sham trial. Her name does not even drop in the interview.

Connections

‘As a journalist, you are supposed to produce five to 10 stories a week. What do you expect them to do?’ responds @AfricaNews-Feeds in a conversation with MO* on Twitter. On the messaging platform, the man, who calls himself a ‘human rights researcher,’ regularly reminds journalists who ‘take information’ from think tanks and lobby groups about their responsibility.

‘When journalists are presented with a ready-made story, it is convenient. I have noticed that they look to the same lobbyists and PR firms time and again for information. Openness to readers about this is virtually non-existent. I know of no media outlet that does not indulge in this,’ he states.

Indeed, ‘most journalists don't even reply when I point out to them misinformation they took over from lobbyists. This does make it very difficult to accuse lobbyists of spreading disinformation, when it is simply ingrained in the way the media works.’

As we speak

As I write this article, an e-mail falls on the mat that perfectly captures the normality of this practice. It comes from a PR consultant working for the company ABCommunication and contains a press invitation. In it, a promise is made to clarify the substance fluoropolymers, a collective name for substances of which Teflon is the best known. Somewhat dramatically, the headline of the email reads: ‘Why a meltdown of society is imminent if fluoropolymers are lumped together with PFAS.’

By this they are referring to the forever chemicals that, wherever they turn up, cause all sorts of health problems. ABCommunication is keen to inform the press of the difference between the harmful PFAS and these fluoropolymers. At the very top of the mail is a logo of the backer in small print: GFL Productions, an Indian company that manufactures fluoropolymers.

The press conference took place on 31 January. Just a few hours later, two articles immediately appeared online copying ABCommunication's story unquestioningly, at Bloomberg Law and Omroep Zeeland. This is how an Indian chemicals giant indirectly buys cheap advertising space disguised as a newspaper article.

Lobbying versus representing interests

Hans van Scharen of Corporate Europe Observatory points out an important difference between lobbying and advocacy. ‘A bee cannot just fly into the European Parliament to make a speech about the harmful effects of pesticides. For that you need NGOs, which represent the bee's interests. After all, who else defends the public interest?’

The distinction between misinformation and lobbyism is fluid and primarily appeals to the ethical compass of those involved.

It is a pertinent observation. But where is the line that distinguishes the lobbyist's cynical pursuit of money from defending the public interest? ‘That is the million-dollar question,’ argues Freeman. ‘To know which contracts are problematic, researchers typically triage. This is based on three criteria: what is the relationship of the lobbyist or public relations firm with the foreign government? How much money is involved? And finally: What is the impact on policy?’

The distinction between misinformation and lobbyism is fluid and primarily appeals to the ethical compass of those involved. But there is no doubt that there is a gulf between an NGO worker working for the good of the bees and an EU MP with Qatari dollars piled up in sports bags.

Arne Gillis follows Latin America and Africa for MO* with a special focus on security, organised crime and commodities.

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