Logo of 'Protect Our Pensions', an astroturf lobbying group opposing efforts to push endowments, foundations and pension funds to divest their holdings in fossil-fuel companies. Graphic: Protect Our PensionsBy Benjamin Elgin and Zachary Mider
16 November 2017

(Bloomberg Businessweek) – James Short, a retired deputy fire chief, is the founder of an organization called Protect Our Pensions. At least that’s what it says on the group’s website.

But ask Short about his role at Protect Our Pensions, formed last year to oppose efforts to push endowments, foundations, and pension funds to divest their holdings in fossil-fuel companies, and he has a different take.

Standing in the doorway of a brick bungalow in southeast Washington, D.C., in August, a Cadillac with the license plate “Short 1” parked outside, he refused to answer questions before shutting the door. A follow-up call elicited this response: “That is not me. I do not know who is putting those blogs out.”

Protect Our Pensions isn’t what it appears to be. While Short’s name and those of other coalition members show up on letters to state legislators and opinion pieces, much of the writing is actually done by public affairs firms operating in the shadows, according to documents and emails obtained by Bloomberg News. Instead of an active group of public servants and pensioners eager to discuss an important issue, most of the 41 people listed on the website didn’t respond to emails and phone calls. Some said they were proud to support the cause, but a few couldn’t remember signing up.

“The disturbing thing about this is they pretend to be organic, like it’s just this one firefighter who started it,” said Jim Griffith, a city council member in Sunnyvale, California, who rejected a recent request to join the group. “But it’s not.”

Grass-roots lobbying—the creation of groups of ordinary citizens to advocate for causes—has been around for decades. But when corporations hide their involvement or recruit members indifferent to the issue, tactics known as astroturfing, it can provide an appearance of public support that doesn’t actually exist.

James Short, titular head of 'Protect Our Pensions', an astroturf lobbying group opposing efforts to push endowments, foundations and pension funds to divest their holdings in fossil-fuel companies. Photo: James Short / FacebookThe internet only makes such subterfuge easier. Anyone can set up a website and launch a social-media campaign while disguising who’s behind it. As Congress and federal investigators probe how such tactics helped spread disinformation during the last U.S. presidential election, Protect Our Pensions shows how similar strategies can be used to create an artificial veneer of public support for policies that stand to benefit corporations.

“These campaigns generate a series of problems regarding how political leaders and members of the mass public interact,” said Edward Walker, a University of California at Los Angeles sociology professor who wrote a book about the grass-roots lobbying industry in 2014 [Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy]. “When industry groups or wealthy donors masquerade this way, it allows policymakers to take actions that primarily support the well-heeled patrons funding the effort.”

Protect Our Pensions sprang to life in March 2016 as institutional investors, including university endowments and pension plans, debated cutting ties with fossil-fuel companies because of the industry’s role in climate change and its decades-long efforts to cloud the public’s understanding of the issue. More than 800 institutions have agreed to at least a partial divestment, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund and Syracuse University. [more]

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