When doing Internet research, steer clear of the “Spin Zone”

Posted by
April 5, 2012

Back in the “old days”  — that is, the 20th Century up to the 1990s — doing research for an article meant lots of time spent interviewing people, either by phone or in person, or in the library, looking for facts, all the while hoping to hit on that great piece of information that tied everything together.

Of course, the amazing array of information that’s now a mere keystroke away on the Internet has done much to change all that. While a good story still requires interviews and footwork, most of what passes for “research” today, whether it involves getting the answer to a question or finding source material for a story or blog, is done online. And the fact that so many writers depend on Web resources has not gone unnoticed by big-money interests that hope to make their particular “facts” on an issue the first, and perhaps the only ones a researcher will look at.

I call this part of the Internet the Spin Zone, where PR flacks, well-endowed special-interest groups and lobbyists all do their part to get their message into your head. Now, these spin zone operators are not to be confused with authoritative groups or bloggers using their freedom of expression to disseminate valid information and honest opinions. Nor are they responsible for what are called “phishing” sites that masquerade as legitimate enterprises simply to steal information from you. The Spin Zone is rather a disreputable Internet neighborhood populated by high-tech con artists luring you into innocent-appearing sites that are actually fronts for powerful organizations that don’t want you to know who they are or what their agenda really is.

The biggest, baddest and most well-documented inhabitant of the Spin Zone is Richard Berman,  aka, “Dr. Evil,” president of the Washington,D.C.-based lobbying firm Berman & Company, Inc.

Berman has waged Internet war against many trusted and long-standing institutions, including labor unions, The Humane Society of the United States, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The number of so-called “charitable” groups he has organized, many under the banner of  “Center for Consumer Freedom” (CCF), is so vast, it’s hard to pick a favorite.

Some include the bizarre trans-fatfacts.com (which was taken down) that told us how trans-fats can “enhance immunity,” or mercuryfacts.org, which claims that “green groups” are putting “America’s poorest children at risk,” and that a “host of moneyed activist groups defy reason by dishonestly complaining that ‘mercury in fish’ is today’s version of ‘lead in paint.’” One of Berman’s more laughable reports, this one at the Consumer Freedom page, bears the headline: “marathon runner powered by fast food and willpower.”

One of  the Center for Consumer Freedom’s more extravagant efforts was a commercial bashing the Humane Society of the United States that ran during the 2012 Academy Awards telecast. It began with a flashing light and loud beeping and the copy “attention consumer protection alert!” The thirty-second spot, costing approximately $1.7 million, according to thinkprogress.org, was paid for by the CCF but financed — under the table — by the food industry.

‘Sweet talk’ to be wary of

The CCF web sites are slick, well-designed and dripping with industry-speak. One of the glossier ones is sweetscam.com, which welcomes you with a message claiming that “most of what you think you know about sweeteners is probably wrong. Some of this is a product of simple misunderstandings. The rest is a giant scam.”

Under the page entitled “Sweet secrets; find out who is scamming your sweets,” the CCF identifies these “mythmakers” as the Weston A. Price Foundation, Dr. Joseph Mercola and the “Naturopathy Movement,” (the core ideas behind naturopathy are “real” whole foods, and avoidance of toxic chemicals and drugs). Interestingly all three “mythmakers” are outspoken critics of high fructose corn syrup. In fact, much of the messaging at sweetsscam.com looks like it came straight out of the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) advertising campaign.

One of the slicker areas of the site is the ad section, featuring videos and print ads said to be appearing all over the country, such as a print ad called “WTF.” short for “what the fructose,” that gives us pretty much the exact same message the CRA is spending mega-millions to propagate.  A slightly over-the-top commercial portrays an exchange between a “high fructose corn syrup” character in a corn-cob costume, who ‘s lying on a psychiatrist’s couch complaining he’s “misunderstood,” being asked by a Dr. Ruth impersonator if the problem is “sexual,” and replying that the problem is all in his “stupid” name, “high fructose corn syrup.”

“What do you feel like?” asks “Dr. Ruth.”

“I feel like ‘corn sugar,'” Mr. Corn replies.

“That’s a great name,” she says,  “you should call yourself that.”

While the CCF claims to file statements as a 501c nonprofit with the IRS that are available for “inspection,” it also says that many of the “companies and individuals” who finance these campaigns have asked to remain anonymous. What a surprise!

In an article at thinkprogress.org about the group’s Oscar show swipe at the Humane Society, Ian Millhiser, writes: “Berman’s latest effort is nothing less than an intimidation campaign designed to send a clear message to charities that if they work against a wealthy corporation’s interests, they will find themselves on the receiving end of a hit job led by deep-pocketed industries capable of throwing away more than a million dollars on a single ad.”  Or as Berman himself has been quoted as saying, his strategy is to “shoot the messenger.”

So how do we know when an Internet web site or commercial message is actually part of a clandestinely financed propaganda campaign? Well, if we see “Center for Consumer Freedom,” we know that some big organization is behind it. The only other thing we can do is exercise due diligence when researching things on the Web – and realize that sometimes what we see there might actually be the handiwork of Mr. Spin himself, Richard Berman.