Triumph of Astroturfing

by Limbic on May 29, 2008


eSkeptic newsletter has a fascinating story about how a Canadian law designed to force health supplement companies to correctly label their goods or face serious fines has come under fierce attack from a faux consumer watchdog campaign mostly orchestrated via Facebook and an apparent consumer watchdog website,

The whole thing a sham run by one of the threatened supplement companies.

“The website is slick, professional, and profoundly misleading. It presents screamingly hyperbolic misinformation under the guise of an urgent democratic appeal to Canadian citizens. “CALL TO ACTION” read the homepage headline over a lovely graphic of the Canadian flag. “YOUR FREEDOM AND HEALTH IS AT RISK!”9

What risk, exactly? The site urges us to “send our fact sheet to everyone you know.” According to the fact sheet, “Bill C-51 will … remove 70% of Natural Health Products from Canadians” and worse, “Punish Canadians with little or no opportunity for protection or recourse for simply speaking about or giving a natural product without the approval of government.” If you “give another person an ‘unapproved’ amount of garlic” this will “warrant action.” What sort of action? According to, “Inspectors will enter private property without a warrant … take your property at their discretion” and even “seize your bank accounts.

This is implausible on the face of it, of course. The idea that the Canadian federal government has the authority, inclination or even the manpower to storm the homes and seize the bank accounts of everyday folks for using garlic or vitamins is patently ridiculous. Federal authorities can’t even control the flow of marijuana, let alone police the herbs in your garden. (These claims distort C-51’s worst-case-scenario provisions for supplement manufacturers who flagrantly ignore the Food and Drugs Act: for example, Health Canada may impound drugs found to be counterfeit, adulterated, or poisonous.)

Nevertheless, many people who read these allegations were prompted into action. Which was the idea. Organizing protest rallies and urging Canadians to write and phone their MPs in complaint, the campaign spread the word through the web and through mass emails. The conspiratorial International Advocates for Health Freedom mailing list noted with approval that over 18 million emails had been sent to “dietary supplement consumers, supplement company CEOs, health food store owners, Naturopaths, Chiropractors, and other Alternative Practitioners triggering massive traffic to [sic]. So many people have been accessing the site that at times it won’t open and at other times the images on the site can’t be seen due to the effects of the traffic.”

So who is behind it all?

But who was behind it all? Nothing at disclosed the authors of the site, nor did the site provide a contact address for the site’s administrators.12 This coy façade was evidently good enough for many anti-C-51 activists, who promoted the url and the claims from the site without probing the heavily biased source.

But, it was a pretty thin facade: the 1-888 contact number for rally organizing13 is actually the phone number for a controversial online supplement company called Truehope Nutritional Support Ltd. (also called the Synergy Group of Canada Inc — both entities share the same directors and are involved in selling the same product14 ). In fact, the rally information number even spells “1-888-TRUEHOP.”

I sent formal requests to both Truehope and Truehope’s CEO asking for clarification of the relationship between Truehope and I received no reply, but I was still able to further confirm the connection: the domain was registered by one Ian Stewart, who remains the Administrative Contact for the site.15,16 Mr. Stewart is the “the director of regulatory affairs for Truehope.” His mailing address, listed with the domain registration, is Truehope’s P.O. Box.18,19

The primary organizer for the anti-C-51 campaign was revealed to be a vested commercial interest — a vested interest with a very shadowy history.

[From eSkeptic: May 28th, 2008]


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