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Fighting Dark Money to Restore Our Democracy

Climate
Fighting Dark Money to Restore Our Democracy

It's no secret that since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision approved unrestricted campaign spending by corporations, elections have been drowning in a flood of what's referred as "dark money." Much of it has been passed through so-called social advocacy groups, such as the Koch Brothers-founded Americans for Prosperity, which don't have to reveal the source of the money they spend electing climate deniers to office. So we don't really know how much corporate money is being poured into such groups and where it's coming from. Even the shareholders who technically own these companies aren't privy to this information.

While groups like Move to Amend work to pass a constitutional amendment to end the money avalanche, there's a more direct and immediate route to holding corporations accountable. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) chair Mary Jo White has the power to curb corporate election spending. So a coalition of groups that includes Avaaz, Public Citizen, Common Cause, U.S. PIRG, Greenpeace, International Brotherhood of Teamsters and Communications Workers of America has pooled its money under the auspices of the Corporate Reform Coalition to launch a month-long campaign called "Where Is Mary Jo White?" urging her to do so.

"Publicly traded corporations, including many in the fossil fuel industry, are getting away with hiding their political spending from shareholders and the public, polluting not only our climate, but our democracy," said Greenpeace democracy campaigner Rachel Rye Butler. "The public deserves to know how corporations are spending investor cash to influence elections. More than a million people have asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to take action, so the question is, 'Where is Mary Jo White?’”

To spur White to take action, the comic strip-style ads will be plastered around Washington D.C.'s Union Station, a major transportation hub near SEC's offices. They depict White as a superhero who can save terrified investors and citizens from the "dark money monster." The ads will be promoted through social media with the hashtag #WhereIsMJW and an animated video that shows panicked citizens calling out for White to take action as towering monsters splatter the Capitol and the White House with oil-soaked bags of money.

The campaign is timed to precede the SEC’s spring announcement of its rulemaking agenda. Under former Chair Mary Schapiro, the agency had included a political disclosure rule on its 2013 agenda, but White removed it last year. A petition requesting the rulemaking was filed in 2011 by a bipartisan committee of law professors, and more than a million comments have been submitted to the SEC from investors supporting the rule, including large institutional investors such as pension funds and five state treasurers.

“Corporate political spending requires particular investor protections because it exposes investors to significant new risks,” points out Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “Corporate political spending choices may diverge from a company’s stated values or policies, or may embroil the company in hot-button issues. Investors have a right to know what candidates or issues their investments are going to support or oppose.”

A new comic strip campaign urges SEC chair Mary Jo White to take action against secret corporate cash. Image credit: Corporate Reform Coalition

That there is rising investor concern about corporate political spending, especially hidden spending, is indicated by the fact that, in the last five years, shareholders have filed more than 500 resolutions on such corporate spending. Last year such resolutions were the highest-scoring proxy proposals; four garnered majority support in spite of corporate management opposition. Already this year, investors have filed more than 110 such proposals, more than a quarter of all shareholder proposals filed in 2015. And most will receive no action and fail to move the corporations in the direction of greater transparency.

The "Where Is Mary Jo White?" campaign hopes that the SEC will take action on behalf of shareholders who are being stonewalled by the companies whose stock they own.

“From Big Oil to Big Pharma, this undisclosed dark money is rotting our corporate democracy from the inside out, and thousands of citizens are saying no more dirty secrets,” said Joseph Huff-Hannon, senior campaigner with Avaaz. “This cheeky ad campaign is calling on SEC Chair Mary Jo White to defend us and our country from these creatures. We know she can. The only question is, will she?”

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Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Sir David Attenborough look at a piece of ice core from the Antarctic during a naming ceremony for the polar research ship the RSS Sir David Attenborough on Sept. 26, 2019 in Birkenhead, England. Asadour Guzelian - WPA Pool / Getty Images

By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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