Harriet Sherwood: A Tool of Avaaz Astroturfing Campaign?

Earlier this week we reported that Harriet Sherwood published a story suggesting that there was widespread support for the creation of a Palestinian state in Europe in the lead up to next week’s UN General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood.

The basis for Sherwood’s article was findings of a survey conducted on behalf of the advocacy group Avaaz which has been actively campaigning  for UN recognition of Palestine. In our post, we cast doubt on the veracity of this poll based on the prior track record of Avaaz polling and quoted from an article by Daniel Greenfield who had similar reservations about Avaaz.

Since then, an article by Dr. Andrew Oboler on astroturfing – the manufacture of fake “grassroots” campaign – as it relates to the Avaaz campaign has been brought to my attention. In it Dr. Oboler had serious reservations with respect to the veracity of the numbers of visitors to the site that Avaaz had been touting.

The campaign does have one serious drawback, and this the numbers… they simply don’t add up. When I look a few days ago the page said it had been visited 609,437 times and the petition had been signed 868,279 times. If the petition was first released through this page those numbers are actually impossible. One logical explanation is that this same petition was originally on another page. Indeed it was, but back then it was directed to specific members of the security council. That campaign was a dismal failure, so Avaaz moved the goal posts and recycled the petition and signatures, now addressing it to all UN members. The current page does not disclose this reuse. Honesty is a critical component in any grassroots campaign, without it the grassroots can quickly turn on you.

Even given this initial boost to the petition, the numbers still don’t add up. The video is hosted on YouTube, which maintains its own stats. Given the video runs automatically when the page loads, the increase in page views should be matched by an increase in YouTube’s own count of video views. One qualification is that YouTube only counts unique views. The page, by contrast, may increase its viewer count each time it is loaded, leading to a much higher count as one person may reload the page many times. If this is the case, YouTube’s count is a more meaningful measure. The popular myth that auto playing videos do not count is apparently just that… a myth. Even so, over a five day period, 296,232 new page views appear to have only resulted in 30,828 additional signatures and 4,601 additional video views. 

While there may be a logical explanation for the varying numerical data the site displays, the bottom line is that the numbers don’t add up. The conversion rate is rapidly dropping. This is not a rapidly growing viral campaign but rather a major investment that has fizzled.

And more information about Avaaz has been brought to light in a helpful fact sheet about Avaaz from NGO Monitor. Here are some highlights:

Avaazwasco-foundedin 2007 by “Res Publica, a global civic advocacy group, and Moveon.org,” a George Soros-funded organization involved in ideological and political campaigns in the US. 

– Behind the façade of democracy and social protests (August 6, 2011), “The domain Avaaz.orgattacked[29 governments email accounts]…with more than 250,000 SMTP email protocols [i.e., individual email messages that would flood and overwhelm the system]” on August 6, 2011, according to the Israeli government Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT). In response, Avaaz claimed that there was no attack and that only 3,500 emails were sent. 

Avaaz calls for members to participate in theSheikh Jarrah protests, providing a distorted account of the situation and using highly offensive, racially-charged rhetoric: “the unjust eviction of Palestinians, losing their homes in the aggressive Judaization of East Jerusalem.”

Avaaz’scampaignfor a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in 2007and to “end [] the blockade on humanitarian aid to Gaza” called for a two-state solution and “respect for human rights on both sides.” But, the campaign was publicized through a highly problematic agitprop video calledStop the Clash of Civilizations.” The video draws a moral equivalence between terrorists and their victims, between armies of sovereign states and terror groups, and between September 11th and the Iraq war, claiming “are we that different?” 

With such an agenda driven organization, why is Harriet Sherwood giving uncritical publicity to the Avaaz campaign?

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