Don’t trust the “independent” expert

Friends of the Earth has produced a fascinating piece of research into how “food industry front groups and covert communications are shaping the story of food.”

The report examines how the food industry deploys “covert communication tactics to shape public opinion without most people realizing the stories are being shaped behind the scenes to promote corporate interests.”

And it focuses on tactics that include deploying front groups who appear to be independent, but are in fact made up of industry or PR professionals; targeting female audiences; infiltrating social media; attacking the credibility of those who raise concerns about industrial food production; partnering with prominent media venues on “native advertising” disguised as real news content; using third-party allies to frame the story of food in favour of chemical intensive industrial food production.

This report concentrates on the food industry and looks at the links in considerable depth. But the problem extends far wider than just this sector. In a series of blogs in the last three months, I have highlighted a number of other areas – political as well as business-related – where apparently independent research should be treated sceptically.


I look at the way politicians and large corporations like to quote “independent experts” in support of their case. But even a cursory investigation shows these experts are not as independent as they seem.

And in

I show that the research carried out by academics, think tanks or consultants is not always accompanied by the neutral intellectual rigour that we would expect from such organisations.

Of course this does not mean that every academic is untrustworthy, that think tanks are all funded secretly by commercial and business organisations or that every word from every trade and industry linked organisation is designed to deceive.

But it does mean that when we read a piece of apparently independent research, analysis or advocacy, we should ask lots of questions and we should certainly not take their conclusions at face value.

These are a couple of examples of what we should ask.

o Does a piece of academic research benefit the private commercial interests of the researcher or toe the line of any of the university’s commercial sponsors? Always google the academic’s name and look up their private business interests.

o Does a piece of political analysis on a region like the Middle East reflect the views of the think tank’s sponsors? Always check the past as well as present members of its advisory board – they usually give an indication of its political links and bias.

o When an industry like the gas sector, cites independent research, always check if the producers of the research have commercial links with major companies in the sector.

o The more impressive and portentous a name, the less likely it is that the organisation is as politically or commercially neutral as it claims to be.

o And I suppose I should say that you should always look up the agendas organisations like Friends of the Earth and read their reports with care. We should have the same scepticism for those we support as for those we oppose – though I am pretty clear who I believe!!!

There are a couple of other points made in the Friends of the Earth report that strike a chord.

First the partnerships with media organisations – when a newspaper produces editorial “in partnership” with a commercial organisation or government, one should wonder how close that relationship has become.

Second; the links with Social Media. I guess it is no secret that some people are paid considerable sums of money to support products. But it is still quite shocking to discover the extent this is done by the food industry.

So the final warning is to distrust all bloggers and tweeters – and I suppose that includes me.


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