Imagine, if you will, a secret meeting of the directors of an un-named evil corporation. As they sit around their conference table, plotting and scheming, one of the directors comments on the growing problem of the company’s bad image. “Too many people out there seem to think we are a bunch of cold-hearted exploiters,” he says. “If only we had a way to identify those people and target messages specifically to them — without addressing the broader public.” All the men in the room nod, but suddenly one who rarely speaks — the guy from the computer department — chimes in. “I think I might have a solution to your problem …”
In conducting Internet-based, large-scale global campaigns against employers, we are also delivering to those employers whole databases full of information about people who are involved in our campaigns. We are telling employers (and governments, who are also targetted in these campaigns) exactly who their critics are, person by person, address by address.
Of course we did this in the pre-computer era as well, when we’d submitted hand-signed printed petitions, but this is different. Today, when a campaigning organization submits 5,000 email protests to a company, it is also giving that company instant access to its own greatest asset — the list of campaign supporters.
In theory, companies and governments could make use of that information. In practice, they already have.
For example, in October 2005 LabourStart was asked to campaign in support of Mexican workers employed by a company called Rubies de Mexico. According to union sources, Rubies workers were “illegally locked out for protesting child labor violations, unsafe and unjust working conditions, and the company’s refusal to recognize their collective bargaining agreement.” Just under 2,500 messages were sent to the company using LabourStart’s ActNOW online campaign system.
We know that the company received the messages because one by one, they actually answered each person. Marc P. Beige, an official from the company, sent out a message to all 2,500 with the subject line “False charges of child labor–really a dispute between 2 unions at Rubies Mexico”. His letter went into some detail in an attempt to refute the union campaign. “I strongly recommend that you conduct a thorough investigation of the facts yourself,” he wrote, “and do not allow yourself to be misled by false accusations.”
It was not the first that time that a company chose to write back to all those who protested. Several years earlier, a campaign directed against German-based sportswear manufacturer Puma produced similar results. Hotel bosses in Nepal have been known to send angry emails back to some campaign participants.
Today with the push of a button, companies can conduct sophisticated online disinformation campaigns targetted specifically at those who are campaigning against them. If they do a good enough job, they may be able to divide campaigning organizations, or at the very least raise questions in the minds of participants in those campaigns about the accuracy of the charges being made, as Rubies had done.
And this is only the beginning of the problem. Once companies get hold of the thousands of email addresses (and sometimes, phone numbers and postal addresses as well) of their critics, they can use that data for even more subversive goals. For example, it would not be difficult for companies to use semi-legal and illegal tactics to trick campaign participants into thinking that a campaign had ended, or to deliberately spread false information.
And that’s only corporations. It gets worse.
Often we campaign against repressive regimes, governments which do not hesitate to use death squads against their opponents. When we send thousands of messages to a dictatorship — for example, to Belarus or Burma — we are giving that regime a very good database of individuals who should be denied entry visas, at the very least.
Does this mean that online campaigns are to be avoided? Not at all — the reaction of Rubies, Puma and others confirms the effectiveness of what we are doing.
What it does mean is that we must be alert and ready for corporate disinformation campaigns. The moment a character like Marc P. Beige of Rubies de Mexico sends out his first message, we must be ready with a detailed response, which should be emailed to all those who participated in the campaign, as well as being made available on the web. Amazingly, unions and campaigning organizations are not always ready to do this, and their reaction time to corporate disinformation efforts can be painfully slow.
This does not, however, solve the problem of allowing repressive governments to develop up-to-date, comprehensive databases of their opponents. There is very little we can do to prevent this — but what we can do is refrain from collecting and sending on unnecessary information. LabourStart’s campaigns require a name and email address. But other campaigns, such as one currently being waged by United Students Against Sweatshops against a factory in El Salvador, makes required fields out of street address, city, state, zip code, and country. While it is possible to protect one’s privacy a bit using a web-based email address, turning over all that other information tempts corporations and governments to build sophisticated databases of their opponents.
Beyond that, we will have to invest much more in educating our members to the pitfalls of working online. Members will need to be able to spot corporate disinformation campaigns and deal with them.
Overall, net-based campaigns do give us an edge over the corporations. We can mobilize larger numbers of people more quickly and at lower cost than ever before. Even if corporate disinformation campaigns become a regular feature of an activist’s life, if we react intelligently and quickly, and train our members to cope, we will prevail.