The Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting (CBTH) is reporting a fascinating development in the ongoing battle to reveal the extent that trophy hunters (= wealthy shooters who travel the world to kill wildlife) have gone to present what they do as ‘conservation’ and representing the ‘true voice’ of Africa: astroturfing on social media, especially Facebook. ‘Astroturfing’ is described as running a campaign in which a message that appears to be driven by authentic grassroots energy is in fact sponsored by an undisclosed organization (often a corporation, advertiser, or political entity) looking to sway public opinion.
CBTH links to a remarkable series of ‘misinformation’ posts by the Wild Things Initiative (WTI), who “first reported on American nonprofit organizations knowingly pushing deceitful pro-trophy hunting propaganda to influence social media users and conservation policies” back in June this year. WTI uncovered evidence of “hunting organizations conducting information warfare, using their wealth for political gain, and teaming up with climate change denial groups funded by fossil fuel industry leaders“.
It’s a complex story involving many actors, but the astroturfing campaign appears to have been organised by the Illinois-based Inclusive Conservation Group (ICG). ICG quietly funded pro-hunting lobby accounts on social media, including Let Africa Live and Proud American Hunter. The latter was targeted deliberately at (according to ICG themselves) “a rabid following of 25 – 54 year old United States males who are passionate about hunting, guns, and patriotism” (which coincidentally are current buzzwords of Republican politicians).
ICG’s campaigning was astounding, their messaging that “hunting = conservation” designed to reach millions. What ICG didn’t reveal was that the bulk of their funding came from two fanatically pro-hunting lobbyist organizations, Safari Club International Foundation (SCIF) and Shikar-Safari Club International Foundation (Shikar-SCIF). SCIF is the sister organization of Safari Club International, which is dedicated to protecting the “freedom to hunt”.
In a remarkably brazen grant application to Safari Club International uncovered by WTI (which we should note has not, as far as we can tell, been independently verified), the Inclusive Conservation Group state that they are asking for $264,000 to help cover their annual budget. This includes a $5000 monthly spend on social media analytics and another $17000 a month on social media tools. In the grant application they tell SCI that “the social media effort you fund consists of moderating, engaging, and developing content (messages and images) for posting on multiple Facebook pages“.
Inclusive Conservation Group conducted disinformation campaigns on social media promoting trophy hunting as a conservation tool.
ICG was created in 2016 as a related entity of Shikar-Safari Club International.
Safari Club International Foundation and Shikar-Safari Club International Foundation were ICG’s primary donors.
Shikar-SCIF donated more money to ICG than they donated to any other organization other than the NRA ($648,000 between 2016-2018). We can expect the amount donated to rise once tax forms for years 2019 and 2020 are available.
SCIF donated more money to ICG than they donated to any other organization in recent years ($523,000 between 2016-2017). We can expect the amount donated to rise once tax forms for years 2018, 2019, and 2020 are available.
ICG submitted a grant request to Safari Club International Foundation in 2019 detailing how they conduct information warfare on social media.
ICG stated that they took words from the SCI website and presented them through an African voice.
ICG listed their motto, “shape, inform, manipulate, mislead, expose, diminish, promote, deceive, coerce, deter, mobilize, convince.”
ICG also asserted that “under the banner of irregular warfare,” they had been “conducting information operations.”
The two main vehicles for ICG’s disinformation campaigns were social media pages called Let Africa Live and Proud American Hunter.
Let Africa Live was primarily used to promote the idea that Africans wanted trophy hunting and wildlife trade while western elites were trying to colonize them and keep them in poverty.
Let Africa Live was used to influence Botswana’s elite decisionmakers and rural communities to reverse a prior elephant trophy hunting moratorium.
Proud America Hunter was more political, pushing propaganda that included anti-liberal, anti-abortion, anti-immigrant, anti-vegan, climate change denial, and pro-gun sentiments.
There were also dozens of fake individual social media accounts that served no purpose other than commenting on and promoting ICG content to manipulate platform algorithms.
Rally Forge, LLC was the social media consultation organization working on behalf of Inclusive Conservation Group and Turning Point Action.
The pro-trophy hunting propaganda primarily targeted the United States as well as Botswana and Kenya. This was a smart way to efficiently combat anti-trophy hunting sentiments and help reverse trophy hunting bans. There was little to gain by targeting nations that already have a long history of utilizing trophy hunting, even if it was failing as a conservation tool.
Fake accounts tied to politics were repurposed for pro-hunting astroturf conversations when political conversations died down. Prior to switching to promoting hunting, the accounts were split between liberal and conservation comments, possibly to create an illusion of bipartisan support for hunting.
Proud American Hunter’s most engaging posts were anti-vegan, pro-gun, and anti-Joe Biden.
Let Africa Live’s most engaging posts were all anti-China and claimed COVID-19 was a global campaign intended to limit wildlife consumption and hurt rural African communities.
A large portion of the fake Twitter accounts followed anti-trophy hunting groups like the Humane Society, Born Free Foundation, and Defenders of Wildlife.
The fake Twitter accounts primarily targeted the groups Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting, Xpose Trophy Hunting, PETA, Center for Biological Diversity, Born Free USA, and African Wildlife Foundation.Jared Kukura, What We Learned from Facebook’s Takedown of Safari Club International-Funded Disinformation Campaigns. 12 Oct 2020
It appears to have taken Facebook quite a while to realise they were being used as a tool to promote hunting of elephants, lions, and other threatened wildlife. In October this year though they finally acted, closing down both Let Africa Live and Proud American Hunter as part of what they term “Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior“. The Facebook action was centred on Rally Forge LLC, the social media consultancy headquartered in Arizona, who (as mentioned above) was working on behalf of the Inclusive Conservation Group and Turning Point USA (an affiliated pro-Trump group, which was paying teenagers to post coordinated messages on the site, a violation of Facebook’s rules).
Rally Forge’s antics are detailed in a report by the Stanford Internet Observatory (Cyber Policy Center) titled “An Investigation into a U.S. Astroturfing Operation on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram”. The report was released on October 8th 2020 and analysed data provided by Facebook.
In a section headed ‘Key Takeaways’ the report states that:
Rally Forge-linked accounts engaged in astroturfing operations on multiple platforms, posting “vox populi” commentary about hunting or politics that appeared grassroots but was in fact paid commentary,much of it from people who do not existAn Investigation into a U.S. Astroturfing Operation on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, Oct 2020
Rally Forge is now banned from Facebook.
With Facebook’s findings and banning of Rally Forge, Proud American Hunter and Let Africa Live, pro-hunt adverts by them can now be called-out as ‘fake news’. As CBTH puts it, “The removal of Let Africa Live and Proud American Hunter by Facebook is a huge brake on the multi-million funded disinformation campaign“.
The full story is incredibly detailed and rewards spending time looking into. We can’t do justice to it here of course (and as we haven’t done any of the legwork we would ask that readers please go back to the original sources we’ve linked to anyway), but a rather neat summary is provided by Eduardo Goncalves of Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting who puts it this way:
“Social media posts such as the above promoted a pro trophy hunting narrative using fake social media accounts and were aimed at discrediting our campaign for a trophy import ban. This group was proudly expressing its ability to misinform and deceive and to use an authentic African voice to do so“.