The Risks of (dis)information Campaigns

The European Commission recently proposed a number of policy measures aimed at tackling deforestation in developing countries. The EC commissioned a European consultancy, COWI, to assess the feasibility and effectiveness of these policies. One such policy was the idea of ‘awareness campaigns’. COWI considered this to be a feasible, low-risk strategy. In fact, the opposite is true.  These are simply disinformation campaigns funded by Europeans taxpayers for the benefit of more expensive, less competitive European oilseed products.  At the end of the day the result is clear: European consumers pay twice because their governments continue to enact policies that are both flawed and targeted to benefit the few.

The COWI report outlines what a campaign might look like. It states,

“The envisaged intervention should aim to increase awareness among consumers of the direct link between consumption of certain types of products and the risk of deforestation. It would pass the message that even small changes in purchasing behaviour to favour certified products can help halt deforestation and forest degradation, using case stories.”

The COWI report considers that a potential stumbling block in terms of feasibility is whether the messages would only reach those consumers who are already what it calls ‘deforestation-conscious’.

This is absurd. The risks are actually myriad.

First, there is a clear risk that any information campaign will only portray imported commodities such as palm oil in a negative light.

As has been stated previously in our blog series on the COWI report, the problem from the outset is that asking people to switch away from an existing product already implies that it is bad. The ‘awareness campaign’ is sending a strong negative signal through the simple fact of its existence.

This is the precise reason that ‘negative claims’ about product ingredients can’t be made in the EU without a body of significant evidence.

Second, there is the clear risk that any information campaign will not easily distinguish between products that are certified as sustainable, and those that are not.

This risk has become apparent for organisations such as RSPO, which have had to go to great lengths to distinguish themselves in the European market – at the expense of palm oil produced, for example, by small farmers in Malaysia.

The clearest example of this was the ‘Good Bad Palm Oil’ campaign that the organisation pushed approximately 12 months ago. The campaign tried to make some distinctions between certified and non-certified palm oil.

However – and this is no criticism of the campaign – there was and is clearly a problem with how palm oil is perceived in the European market. And these problems have been caused by players and voices that are outside of the control of the industry, i.e. those that fundamentally object to the use of palm oil.

No matter what the European Commission does, or how fair and balanced it says it will be, there is nothing that can stop anti-palm oil voices from continuing their attacks.

Third, there is the risk that any communication materials produced by an EC programme will be taken out of context by these opponents of palm oil, and used to further denigrate palm oil.

This has precedent: it has clearly been the case with work on illegal logging across the European Union. Information campaigns that were supported by aid agencies generated material that was further used by campaign groups to cast doubt on the legality of all imports of tropical timber.

Fourth, reports and information or awareness campaigns commissioned by the European Commission are always subject to disclaimers. A recent report by FERN, commissioned by UKAid, was highly questionable. It contained conjecture, as well as many statements that were simply unverifiable or arguably wrong.

The motivation for this report, it seemed, was to generate the political momentum for a FLEGT arrangement on palm oil. Yet, in doing so, it made claims against palm oil that were both reductionist and overblown.

Fifth, and related to the above point, the funding of such reports reveals a situation where the EC effectively pays activist groups to campaign against palm oil, to make unsubstantiated allegations against palm oil producing countries, and to lobby EU lawmakers for tighter restrictions on palm oil.

Consider the mirror situation. Imagine the political fallout if the Malaysian Government were to pay activists to campaign against European cars such as VW in Malaysia, claiming that they were damaging the environment, or that punitive restrictions should be placed on the cars across Asia. The EU (and Germany) would – with some justification – be furious. Yet, this is what the EU is doing to Malaysia’s #1 export commodity.

What if such funding or campaign were instead to claim that wine and brandy from France offended religious sensibilities across Malaysia and so should also be subject to review or restriction? Again, this would be met with disappointment, at best, in Brussels and Paris.

The way that COWI has assessed these information campaigns, it gives the distinct impression that they are benign. COWI’s assessors have clearly not read enough EC-commissioned reports. These information campaigns are not benign, they are not innocent or harmless, and in many cases they are not, actually, a constructive approach at all. It would be naïve to believe that an EU information campaign would be neutral or helpful to Malaysian Palm Oil. The opposite is true.

The ‘Amsterdam Declaration’, which was signed by EU member states, was effectively a missive against palm oil that has been used by NGO campaigns. Any information campaign by the EU would be used in the same manner, and could backfire against Malaysian businesses and small farmers.

If the Commission is to undertake an information campaign, it should think twice.  In recent weeks, the European Ambassadors have had to undertake the hour-long drive to Putrajaya to defend the policies of Brussels.  At the same time, the EU is attempting to make progress on its trade and defence deals in the ASEAN region, specifically a trade deal with Malaysia. It is particularly keen to open export markets for European companies. Further, if the EU sets out with its ‘disinformation’ campaigns about palm oil, Malaysia can and should reserve its right to launch ‘information campaigns’ about the alleged cancer-causing, climate destroying problems of German diesel cars, or the illicit nature of French alcohol products, for example.

Using EU money to pay activists to smear palm oil is not wise policy. Brussels should understand the gloves will come off.

#Policy News