Tuesday, 2 August 2022
cGRATH () (): Tonight I wish to expose the hypocrisy of a prominent authority on disinformation and the architect of the teal's digital campaign. In October 2021, an astroturfing campaign named, 'We love our hospitals'—WLOH—surfaced on social media. It had a website and a Facebook and Instagram presence. The website mostly featured generic stock photos of hospital scenes, but one image featured what appeared to be surgeons in scrubs holding up a sign that had been amateurly photoshopped to include the WLOH logo.
Cam Wilson, Crikey's associate editor, was the first to twig to this mysterious astroturfing campaign, in an article: 'Who's spending $10K on anti-Morrison Facebook ads? We don't know—and that's a problem'—find it and read it. According to Crikey, the 'about' section of WLOH's Facebook page claimed that it's for showing appreciation 'for our hospitals and the wonderful people who work in them'. But the page's posts focused on attacking the federal coalition government for a lack of hospital funding.
It's important to appreciate that in October 2021, after 10 months hovering under 100, COVID hospitalisations had risen to a new peak of around 1,500, with 300 people in intensive care. After the Crikey article, the Facebook page was deleted and the website was amended to remove imagery and references.
Very funny! However, Facebook's ad library still contains three of the WLOH's digital ads, on which it spent $12,136, targeted to audiences in Queensland and Tasmania.
Now, there are several clues as to the not-so-clever creator's identity. Open-source information analyst Elise Thomas noted on Twitter that the metadata of the image of surgeons holding up a sign which had been amateurly photoshopped to include the logo shows it was created on 28 September by user 'Ed', using the design tool, Canva. The image of the logo was also created by Ed on the same day. The logo is still on the weloveourhospitals.org site, accessible by Wayback, and also contains a reference to Ed in the metadata.
Significantly, Facebook's ad library also lists what appears to be a VOIP forwarded phone number submitted by the advertiser on 1 October 2021. That number was (02)51140859. It went dead following Crikey's story.
But guess what, Senator Scarr? When this number was called, a recorded voicemail message said: 'Hi, you've called Ed Coper. Thanks for calling.' An audio recording of that voicemail exists, and I'm more than happy to table it, should senators wish.
Who is this Ed Coper, you may ask? Surely he can't be the Ed Coper who in the last year has become something of a go-to guy for the media on fake news and disinformation. This Ed Coper is the founder and executive director of the New York based Center for Impact Communications, a non-profit research centre dedicated to establishing best practice for social impact communications and that Ed Coper who is the author of Facts and Other Lies: Welcome to the Disinformation Age which has received considerable think tank, TV, radio and print exposure and has been hailed by Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan, Malcolm Turnbull and, ironically, Bernard Keane from Crikey. An SMH profile noted that Ed Coper has worked with Greta Thunberg on her communications and advocacy campaigns.
In Fact and Other Lies, Ed Coper noted that the UN body responsible for addressing disinformation has identified astroturfing campaigns as a potentially harmful disinformation practice.
He would know. A year ago, Ed Coper warned Sydney Morning Herald readers about the evils of digital astroturfing, whereby an organisation is passed off as grassroots and its true origin or agenda is obscured. Surely that Ed Coper couldn't be the author of a despicable, ugly astroturfing campaign aimed at blaming the Morrison government over hospital funding at the time of rising COVID admissions? But hang on! In his book Facts and Other Lies, this Ed Coper described Labor's federal 2016 digital campaign, which falsely claimed the coalition would privatise Medicare. In that same breath, he admits to being the one serving them all those 'Mediscare' ads. Because—guess what, Mr Acting Deputy President and those listening at home?—Mr Coper was also director of campaigns at GetUp, an organisation renowned for its dishonest campaigning, and the scratchy voice of Ed Coper, the crusader against disinformation, sounds identical to the voicemail recording of Ed Coper, the 'We love our hospitals' astroturfer. So Ed Coper, the crusader against disinformation, needs to set the record straight.
Mr Coper is currently a director and co-owner of Populares—you might have heard about them—where he heads the firm's disinformation practice, leading a team of digital brand damage and narrative-building experts. In March, Populares was outed as a Labor and GetUp staff campaign house responsible for the digital campaigns of the Mr Simon Holmes a Court backed teal Independents.
I know—something Coper now brags about to journalists, but which Populares and Zali Steggall went to great lengths to keep under wraps before the election.
A lot of coal donations went there. It seems fair to say that Populares was incubated at Olvera Advisors as a purpose-built campaign vehicle to assist teal candidates. Populares webpage lists its purported clients, but many are organisations like GetUp for whom Populares principals have worked in former roles. The Smart Energy Council is listed. In the lead-up to the recent election, the Smart Energy Council, which has Simon Holmes a Court as a board member, blatantly flouted charities laws by campaigning against coalition candidates.
Ed Coper needs to answer some questions. He needs to answer questions about his involvement in this astroturfing campaign. We want to know also: Who was the client? Was it GetUp who ran a dishonest hospitals funding campaign against the coalition in 2016? Was it the Labor Party? Was it a union? Was it one of these so-called teal Independents before they decided to become a teal Independent? Was Populares working for this client at the same time as the teals? If it was, as seems likely, how does astroturfing sit with the noble aims of Coper's Center for Impact Communications and its status as a US section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable organisation? The US has similar laws to Australia's regarding charities, and I'm going to be writing to the relevant authorities in the United States, bringing the actions of Mr Coper to their attention.
Finally, if it was Mr Coper, the teals should justify their relationship with an astroturfer—particularly the member for Warringah, who seems to be especially sensitive about her relationship with Populares, given her so-called focus on truth in political advertising.
Senate adjourned at 20:39