Remember the term ‘astro-turfing’ that was coined a while back to describe fake grassroots campaigns? Last week I came across perhaps the most shameless example of such a thing – the Australians for Coal campaign from the Minerals Council of Australia.
If you were making up Australians for Coal as a parody, you couldn’t really do any better. It celebrates the role of coal in the country’s economy, hailing the size of reserves, the jobs created and the taxes paid.
It’s textbook stuff from the 10 principles of propaganda. Appeal to patriotism, hence the name. Make it personal, and engage with people’s fears: “If you are concerned about your electricity bill, please support the Australian coal industry.”
Make false connections. Coal is black, dirty and uninteresting, so it seeks to create some positive associations: “Over the next four years, Australia’s coal industry will pay $18.3 billion to state governments. This will build hospitals, schools and roads.”
Australians for Coal makes it clear that there is a sinister enemy out there, and it demonstrates the principle of pressing home the message through repetition admirably:
- Coal in Australia is under attack from powerful groups determined to shut the industry.
- These jobs are under attack from powerful groups determined to shut the industry down.
- These taxes and royalties are at risk from attempts by powerful groups to shut the coal industry down.
- Your electricity bill is being driven up by powerful groups trying to shut the coal industry down.
The site doesn’t say who these ‘powerful groups’ are, but I heard about it from 350.org, so I presume it’s them – the hospital-hating, energy bill-boosting, job destroying minions of Bill McKibben. I’m guessing they aren’t specified because that would make a connection to climate change, which the Australians for Coal website studiously avoids. There is a page dedicated to the environment, but only to explain why the coal industry doesn’t threaten the Great Barrier Reef, which wouldn’t have been my first concern. (Incidentally, it does, through ocean acidification.)
What did 350.org do? They’re running their Fossil Free campaign to encourage divestment from fossil fuels. They’ve gone after the money, urging funders to withdraw investments from energy and mining companies, and they’ve just had a couple of high profile wins in Australia.
Australians for Coal is part of the coal industry’s response. Another part of it is to lobby the Australian government to make divestment campaigns illegal. Sounds like powerful groups want to shut 350.org down.
For all the scaremongering silliness of Australians for Coal, the industry does have a point. Moving away from coal would cost the Australian economy one of its key exports, and closing mines would harm coal mining communities. But as a hot and dry country already, Australia could be devastated by climate change. So which is the greater risk? And who gets to make the decision?