Conservation dirty-tricks for a post-truth world

The world is facing a wave of populism and hyperbole, where honest discourse is less important than winning. In this post-truth world, the end justifies the means. If biodiversity conservation is a mission-driven discipline aimed at stopping the loss of species and ecosystems, should it also embrace questionable tactics?

Winners make policy and losers go home

During the 2016 US presidential election, Michelle Obama repeated the catchphrase, “When they go low, we go high”. This was supposed to imply that the Democratic Party would take the moral high road in response to negative campaign tactics from their opponents. It did not work, they lost.

While sinister tactics and dirty tricks have always been part of politics, their usage is no longer hidden in the shadows. Instead, politicians lie openly and continuously as long as it benefits them; even after being confronted with evidence to the contrary [1]. This type of behaviour has ushered in a new post-truth era, which implies that politicians can lie without consequence because society has become tolerant of untruths [2]. When shaping public opinion, objective facts are suddenly less important than appeals to belief and emotion. Thoughtful debate has been replaced by buzzwords and twitter hashtags, designed specifically to appeal to our existing biases. Propaganda, misinformation and disinformation are useful for fuelling agendas (Box 1).

Box 1: Propaganda in the war on poachers

Propaganda is information used to promote a political cause or point of view. It often relies on biased or misleading misinformation or disinformation (accidentally or intentionally incorrect information, respectively) [3].

A notable example of conservation propaganda is the emotive description of anti-poaching initiatives as the “war on poachers” [4]. Illegal hunters become “gangs of bandits armed with AK-47 assault rifles”, which makes shoot-to-kill anti-poaching policies more acceptable in the minds of the general public [4]. It is a war, after all.

However, such propaganda could be flipped to portray poachers as “desperate to lift themselves from poverty using rusted weapons; the remnants of the Cold-War era civil conflicts that left their countries in ruin”. Without denying conflict between conservation and poachers, this alternative narrative paints poachers as unfortunate victims of poverty and global events beyond their control. The way narratives are framed matters, even when the facts are not disputed.

Biodiversity conservation is a mission-driven discipline. Its goal is to stop the loss of species and ecosystems and, to date, it has aimed to achieve this using evidence from conservation science. But conservation is also a battle of ideals, where non-epistemic values influence behaviour [5]. This raises the question to conservationists: should we also consider using dirty tricks to win the minds of society in this post-truth world? To what extent – if at all – should the mission of conservation justify the use of dishonest tactics?

Conservation needs to have an open debate on the lengths it will go to protect biodiversity in a world where facts no longer seem to matter. One option is to take the high-road of “humility, transparency, and respect” by engaging with society and emphasising the importance of evidence-based policy [6]. By contrast, cynics could argue that such a high regard for truth is of little use if we cannot win the minds of people and translate this into positive outcomes for nature. Conservationists must ask ourselves whether our ideals should take a backseat to pragmatism because in the words of US senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, “winners make policy and losers go home”.

Winning by any means possible

In the post-truth era, it is no longer necessary to convince others using well-reasoned arguments. Instead, it is more important to consolidate and mobilise a support base while dividing opponents [7]. Crises offer unique opportunities to rearrange allies and enemies [8]. For the next environmental crises in the this post-truth world, it will not be enough for conservation to come to rescue, it is also necessary to identify an ‘other’ to be blamed. The key, however, is not to target a monolithic ‘other’ (like the fossil fuel industry as a whole), but rather a specific actor responsible for the disaster. Dividing powerful stakeholders in this way is more likely to encourage robust policy debate and free a wider range of viewpoints from the shadow of the status quo [8]. While conservation should praise environmentally sustainable corporate behaviour, it should also ruthlessly shame environmental hypocrisy; especially during environmental crises. During an oil-spill, for example, in addition to setting up containment booms and rescuing oil-soaked seabirds, conservationists should go on the attack by sabotaging the brands of the responsible corporations; especially in front of customers, shareholders and business partners. Other corporations within the same industry should be so fearful of similar retribution that they lead the call for industry-wide reform (Box 2).

Box 2: Greenpeace’s marketing attack on Royal Dutch Shell

In the battle of ideas, beliefs and emotions supercede facts. Conservation has already accepted that scientific data are insufficent to protect nature unless they are framed by metaphors and narratives to convey their significance [9]. In a post-truth world, however, emotional narratives must also paint opposition in a bad light (i.e. blackwashing [10]).

This was illustrated by Greenpeace using a combination of culture jamming and brandalism to delegitimize Shell’s Arctic drilling plans [11]. Culture jamming is when activists subvert an intended brand image by providing an opposing narrative, often by appropriating and modifying the very corporate branding they aim to undermine (i.e. brandalism = brand vandalism) [11, 12]. Greenpeace used the same design and layout as Shell’s own marketing material to not only highlight the potential environmental impact of proposed Arctic drilling, but also used sarcasm to expose Shell’s apparent flippancy towards these impacts [9]. They also protested the 2013 Belgian Grand Prix (sponsored by Shell) and ended a 50-year partnership between Shell and the toymaker, Lego, by superimposing an idyllic Lego diorama with a terrible oil spill. These campaigns were not only designed to tarnish Shell’s reputation, but also make their allies turn their backs to the oil company.

While many in conservation would support using environmental crises to promote a conservation agenda and attack powerful polluting corporations, this can easily morph into something much more dishonest and manipulative. It is a slippery slope between culture jamming (see Box 2) and overt disinformation, especially when the target is a local community group instead of a powerful international company.

Conservation could benefit from stoking indigenous community’s superstitions and taboos against harvesting certain plants and animals [13], even when this has no factual support. For example, Vhavenda communities in southern Africa believe that droughts occur if pangolin blood touches the ground [14]. Conservationists could propagate this misinformation ­– especially during dry spells – to counter increasing pangolin poaching. This would be fair game in a post-truth world where the ends justify the means, but conservation should discuss openly whether it is willing to stoop to these levels.

Knowing your enemy

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote “know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a thousand battles without disaster”. This is important for post-truth conservation. Although most conservationists will rightfully oppose using dirty-tricks, this does not mean that such tricks will not be used against us. In order for conservation to succeed in a post-truth world, we must at the very least be ready when dirty-tricks are aimed at us.

Environmentally-harmful corporations have strategies for countering opposition. One such strategy was made public by Ronald Duchin [15], vice-president of Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin that later merged into Stratfor (which had its emails hacked and made public by Wikileaks in 2012); two companies that specialised in gathering intelligence for the tobacco, chemical and fossil-fuel industries. Their strategy was designed to divide and manage opposition activists while consolidating industry coalitions. In their strategy, activists are classified as either opportunists, who are offered a partial victory publicly; realists, who are prioritised and roped into supporting trade-off solutions; idealists, who must be cultivated into realists by highlighting the downside of their opposition; and radicals, who should be isolated from the mainstream. Moreover, engagement with activists should be through sector-wide coalitions because (a) this draws attention away from any individual company and (b) maintains the status quo because sector-wide change is more difficult than changing the operations of a single company.

While these divide and rule tactics are not dishonest, they are regularly accompanied by dirty tricks. For example, natural gas has been marketed as a source of clean energy through greenwashing (i.e. disinformation used to promote a environmentally responsible public image [10]), by pointing out reduced carbon dioxide emissions and conveniently ignoring increased methane levels. In other examples, information is distorted through exaggeration and outright lies. This was on display during the “Climategate” debacle of 2009, when climate change deniers inflated the sinisterness of hacked emails and peddled the false narrative that climate change was conspiracy being fuelled by scientific misconduct.

Once a narrative of alternative-facts propagates, it spreads through society – often using the internet – and takes on a life of its own. Sock-puppets, which are false online identities, emerge to amplify the narrative by repeating claims and creating a false sense of consensus on social media. A more devious iteration is the strawman sock-puppet, where a false identity opposes the position, but purposely behaves in a ignorant, bigoted or naive way to discredit opposition groups (e.g. a fake animal rights activist calling on hunters to be shot for sport). In these ways, society is exposed to warped representations of actual issues and is less able to make objective evidence-based decisions. Although conservation should not stoop to these levels of deception, this does not imply that we should blind ourselves to their use.

New ethics for a post-truth world

Manipulating information to influence public perception is not unethical if one prescribes to consequentialism view of ethics, which focuses on the outcomes of actions (as opposed to deontological ethics, which focus on the actions themselves; or virtue ethics, which focus on moral character of the agent behind the action). In conservation, a precedent for consequentialism has been established by no net loss policies, for instance, where the loss of biodiversity is supposedly ethically acceptable if it is accompanied by an equivalent gain elsewhere [16]. While cherry-picking normative ethical theories does not justify using dirty tricks, it does imply that using these tricks as a means to an end should not be dismissed out of hand as unethical.

In this light, a hierarchy of post-truth tactics, which ranks tactics from most to least palatable, could start a debate on post-truth conservation. First, conservation must anticipate crises and prepare to push a pro-conservation agenda during these periods of turmoil (rather than being on the back foot and allowing others to direct the narrative). Second, conservation must accept that facts will not influence behaviour on their own, but need to be framed by emotive metaphors. Third, biodiversity conservation must acknowledge that dishonest tactics will be used against it to promote alternative agendas. Response-tactics will need to counter the spread of false narratives through traditional and online media. Lastly, and perhaps most controversially, conservation should continue helping its allies across different sectors, while punishing organisations that oppose its goals.

The post-truth era pits the weak versus the strong and although conservation need not become a bully itself, it should be willing to stand up to bullies. Even if this might call for dirty tactics.

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  12. Lekakis, E.J. (2017) Culture jamming and Brandalism for the environment: the logic of appropriation. Pop. Commun., early online, doi:10.1080/15405702.2017.1313978.
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  14. Mutshinyalo, T.T. & Siebert, S.J. (2010) Myth as a biodiversity conservation strategy for the Vhavenda, South Africa. Indilinga: Afr. J. Indig. Knowl. Syst. 9, 151-171.
  15. Duchin, R. (1991) Take an activist apart and what do you have? CALF News Cattle Feeder 28, 8-20.
  16. Ives, C.D. & Bekessy, S.A. (2015) The ethics of offsetting nature. Front. Ecol. Environ. 13, 568-573.

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