excerpts from the book

The Silent Takeover

Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy

Part 3

Politics For Sale
Shop Don't Vote

by Noreena Hertz

Arrow Books, 2001, paper

Quid pro quo

This level of campaign spending is inherently problematic. The escalating costs of running campaigns and supporting political parties can no longer be met by membership contributions, union funds (where they are given) or personal donations. Even in counties that provide some degree of direct state funding to political parties, the funds provided by the state are nowhere near enough for today's political extravaganzas. 'The democratic political process costs money-in ever increasing amounts.' So who do politicians turn to, to meet the shortfall? As grandma would say, the private sector, of course.

All over the world from Moscow to Paris, from Washington to London, corporations and business people are bankrolling politicians and political parties. Parties and candidates are given support; money is contributed to campaigns; political rhetoric is publicly endorsed; unwritten IOUs are registered.

Such funding comes from a small elite. In the US, for example, 'only one-quarter of one per cent of the population gave $200 or more to congressional candidates or the political parties in the 1995-6 election cycle and ninety-six per cent of the American people [didn't] give a dime to any politician or party at the federal level. America's largest 500 corporations, on the other hand, gave over $260 million to the Democrats and Republicans from 1987 through 1996.

Of course, corporations are not in the business of giving something for nothing. Money buys action and influence. In exchange for amounts of money, that are often quite small from their point of view, they expect a significant return. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter has said, 'There is certainly an appearance . . . that large contributors are simply going to get a better service, whatever that service may be, from a politician than the average contributor, let alone no contributor.

George W. is ... the king of quid pro quo. Embracing the 'revolving doors' school of politics, Bush recruited key officials to his administration direct from the nation's boardrooms. Dick Cheney was head-hunted from the oil services company Haliburton. Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, had been chief political strategist for Philip Morris from 1991 to 1996; Mitchell Daniels, the head of the White House office of Management and Budget, is a former vice-president of Eli Lilley; and the treasury secretary Paul O'Neill came from the giant aluminum manufacturer Alcoa.

And since taking up office Bush has passed a series of laws that appear to favor big business. He has scrapped a raft of work safety measures which had been negotiated between the federal government and the unions for much of the previous decade. He proposed a bankruptcy bill, long demanded by the banks and credit card companies who sponsored Bush and his party to the tune of over $25 million, whose effect will be to strip Americans who have declared themselves bankrupt from some of the legal protection they have from their financial creditors. And he has passed a number of measures intent on protecting the interests of the energy companies that bankrolled his campaign. In addition to withdrawing from the Kyoto protocol on global warming the President reversed several executive directives passed in the final days of the Clinton administration, which aimed to protect 58 million acres of federal land by restricting logging and road building; he reneged on his own campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants; he discussed the opening up of the vast and virgin Arctic wilderness in Alaska for prospecting and drilling; and he reversed Clinton decrees on clean-air standards for buses and big trucks. He also allowed Enron executives (good judgment here - not) to vet candidates for the Commission regulating the US energy markets, filling the vacant Republican seats on the commission with commissionaires who had the backing of Enron and other power companies. The interests of the US people were suborned to those of the major US energy giants that bankrolled him: $31.2 million was all it cost.

Politics has been on sale even in issues with potential national security implications. In 1997, for example, President Clinton overrode the objections of the Justice Department, and permitted an American company, Loral Space and Communications, to export technology to China that would allow it to improve its nuclear missile capabilities, granting a waiver to sanctions that had been imposed after the 1989 massacre of hundreds of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. Bernard Schwartz, chairman of Loral, was the largest personal donor to the Democrats that year. President Clinton of course denied any quid pro quo. 'The decisions we made were made because we thought they were in the interests of the American people,' he later said. Which American people was that, exactly? And it has been argued that the Bush administration initially blocked US secret service investigations into Islamic terrorism because of the influence of powerful oil corporations, many of whom had stumped up wads of money for the Bush campaign. John O'Neill, former head of the FBI's counter-terrorism office in New York, who later became head of security at the World Trade Center and was killed in the September 11 attacks, left his FBI job complaining that his investigations into al-Qaida had been obstructed, stating that 'the main obstacles to investigating Islamic terrorism were US corporate oil interests and the role played by Saudi Arabia.'

A hundred years on . . .

In the twenty-first-century world of global capitalism, while nations compete for investment flows and the jobs and growth that corporations can provide, and politicians need ever greater funds to compete with their rivals to win over the electorate, governments actively do what they can to promote the interests of business. They court corporations, sponsor their causes, pander to their needs. Rather than keeping them in check, governments are providing them with countless alibis. Rather than aiming to control and limit their activities, governments are allowing business to help shape them and their policies.

In 1876 US President Rutherford B. Hayes remarked of his government, 'It is a government of corporations, by corporations and for corporations.' In the chaotic and blatantly corrupt environment of late nineteenth-century America large companies were virtually able to buy legislation. As Matthew Josephson put it in his classic study of early American capitalism, the Robber Barons, 'The halls of legislation were transformed into a mart where the price of votes was haggled over, and laws made to order were bought and sold.'

Over a hundred years later the situation seems broadly similar, not only in the US, which has a well-charted history of corruption and pork-barrel politics, but elsewhere too. As we enter the new millennium, arguably the entire world is of (international) corporations, by (international) corporations and for (international) corporations. The problem is the same, its geographical extent significantly worse. Corporations have, in effect, begun to lay down with force what is and what is not permissible for politicians all over the world to do.

The end of politics

With governments, regardless of their political persuasion, increasingly impotent, unwilling or unable to intervene on their citizens' behalf, and seemingly having lost any sense of moral purpose, it is hardly surprising that the electorate is turning its back on conventional politics, even in countries that proclaim democracy as one of their greatest achievements. No wonder that their citizens are ignoring the ballot box, and parliament itself, as a means of registering their demands and protests. People are growing more distant from political parties, and more critical of political institutions. Never since the development of the mass franchise has there been such disengagement from politics.

The sound bite culture in which politics now operates has debased political rhetoric and helps to make voters feel that political institutions are increasingly irrelevant to their lives. The issues discussed in parliaments rarely have much to do with their concerns. In the UK, Gallup polling since 1991 has consistently shown that people see the most urgent problems facing Britain as health, education, the cost of living and unemployment. Yet debates in the House of Commons are dominated by controversies over the European Union - of little interest to most voters - or legalistic debates that seem to fail to engage the interest of many MPs, let alone the general public.

Politicians are increasingly seen as impotent, irrelevant and dishonest. People see their governments as unable to deliver what they promise, obsessed with unimportant issues and internal politicking, riddled with corruption, clinging to outmoded notions of authority, and increasingly in the pockets of business people. The distinction between incompetence and dishonesty is becoming blurred as, in country after country, senior politicians are discovered to have engaged in corrupt practices.

In today's 'one-ideology' world, where parties have such similar policies on key issues such as taxation and welfare that it is almost impossible to differentiate clearly between them, voters are failing to develop an enduring sense of party identity and are increasingly unwilling to offer long-term loyalty to any political party. If current trends continue, less than half the American population will identify with any political party, making election results increasingly volatile and unpredictable.

Many people have simply lost faith in politics. According to polls in the UK, the percentage of the electorate who had 'great confidence' or 'quite a lot of confidence' in parliament dropped from 54 per cent to 10 per cent between 1983 and 1996. A survey of British 16- to 21-year-olds carried out in 1998 found that 71 per cent believed the way they vote will make little or no difference to their lives. In a 1990 poll, 60 per cent of French respondents expressed 'no confidence' in political parties. In the United States, a 1997 poll showed only 14 per cent rating the honesty and ethical standards of congressmen as 'high' or 'very high' - only narrowly beating car salesmen and advertising executives.

All over the world, from the developed democracies of the United States and Western Europe to Latin America and the Far Eastern countries, poll respondents have less confidence in their institutions of government than they had a decade earlier. In all advanced industrial democracies the public is effectively detaching itself from party loyalty and disengaging from politics. Most people, wherever they live, seem to believe that elected officials don't care about their concerns.

Boycotting politics

Alienated, dissatisfied and sceptical voters are boycotting politics, even in countries where democracy has a long history. The 'landslide' victory for Labour in the UK general election of 2001 was achieved on a turnout of 59 per cent of the voting age population, down ten points from 1997, sixteen from 1992, and the lowest turnout since World War II. Less people voted for any of the British political parties than voted in the final round of the United Kingdom's version of Big Brother. In the United States only 51 per cent of voters turned out in the 2000 presidential election despite the knowledge that it would be close run; 55 per cent had voted in 1992. More than 90 million Americans today do not participate in elections at all. The public's sense of resigned alienation manifests itself in other ways, such as tuning out of public affairs altogether. For example, 40 per cent of the American people did not know the name of the Vice-President of the United States. The elections for the European Parliament in 1999 saw less than 50 per cent of the EU's 297 million electorate bothering to vote, down from 57 per cent in 1994. In the UK the turnout was only 24 per cent of registered voters - in the same week that one million British people bothered to vote to change the Choco Krispies brand name back to Coco Pops. Even in Eastern European countries that only finally managed to become democracies in 1989-91, turnout has been falling. In Poland turnout started out at 64 per cent in 1989 but had fallen to 49 per cent by 1997. In the Czech Republic, turnout in 1990 was 93 per cent but it has fallen at every election since then, and stood at 77 per cent in 1998. In Hungary, turnout fell from a high of 76 per cent in 1990 to 60 per cent in the 1998 election.

Membership of political parties in Germany, France, the United States, in fact pretty much anywhere in the developed world, is lower than at any time since the war. In 1950s Britain, for example, the Labour Party claimed a membership of about a million; today that is down to 360,000. Over the same period membership of the Conservative Party declined from some 2.8 million to less than half a million. By comparison, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds currently has over one million members.

How are the politicians responding? Desperate to woo those who will vote, and to re-assert their legitimacy, politicians and political parties are turning to business to provide them with the tools. Pollsters, image consultants and advertising specialists, such as James Carville, Stanley Greenberg and Philip Gould - the team who helped Clinton to victory in 1992 and have subsequently been active in Britain, Germany and Israel - are being brought in to advise politicians on how to project

themselves to increasingly less interested electorates. 'From Latin America, through Europe to India and Australia . . . professional media consultants have swelled in number and increased in influence. Where once electoral strategy was determined by party leaders it is now increasingly influenced by the media professionals, relying on in-depth focus group surveys . . . direct mail and market research.'

What influence do politicians really have in a world of global capitalism? Single-handedly, not much, as we have seen. Governments are now like flies caught in the intricate web of the market. And voters see their powerlessness. They sense that politicians' hands are tied and that their promises are increasingly empty. They watch politicians dancing to corporations' tunes. They are aware that the political rhetoric they hear is not being translated into any sort of actual reality; they feel that in many cases politicians have entered into a covert pact with business. And so, increasingly, they are turning their backs on politics.

As the political class clamours ever more loudly to be heard, and goes to ever greater financial lengths to be noticed, evidence suggests that voters have stopped listening. In this ideologically singular world, where democratic parties and politicians are becoming increasingly homogeneous, and in which the people's interests are being usurped by those of business, the people are registering their discontent by not voting. After all the long fight for universal franchise, the great-granddaughters of women who chained themselves to railings for the vote are now making their political statement by refusing to buy politics.


Shop Don't Vote

The Church of England-approved prayer book for the millennium, New Start Worship, counsels the faithful that:

Where we shop, how we shop and what we buy is a living statement of what we believe ... Shopping which involves the shopper in making ethical and religious judgements may be nearer to the worship God requires than any number of pious prayers in church . . . If we take our roles as God's stewards seriously, shoppers collectively are a very powerful group ...

The liturgy then goes on to say:

If, when we ourselves are not on the poverty line, we always go for the cheapest price, without considering that this price is achieved through ethically unacceptable working conditions somewhere in the world, we are making a statement about our understanding of the word neighbour.


All that glitters ...
News broadcasting is becoming increasingly commercialised as the pressure on broadcasters to make profits continues to increase, creating an overriding focus on ratings and advertising revenues. Once again, the pressures are greatest in the US, but other countries are following fast. Belgium is the only European country where television still remains free of commercials. In the UK, as David Liddiment, Director of Prograrnmes ITV Network has put it, 'We are less able to ignore the commercial imperative than ever before, although we're not running an audience delivery service for advertisers. Our job is to provide a service for viewers that serves the advertisers at the same time.

Of course, serving the best interests of the advertisers may not be in the best interests of viewers...

Recognising the explicit corporate agenda, we tend to be sceptical of the claims of product labels and advertising copy but are less likely to scrutinise the traditional sources of our news, which we assume are free from external influence Rupert Murdoch is, of course, notorious for using his control of information to support his business interests. As is by now well known, in his quest to capture a substantial slice of the Chinese media pie Murdoch worked hard to gain the favour of the Chinese authorities. In 1994 he dropped the BBC World Service from his Asian Star TV satellite after it criticised Chinese leaders for the Tiananmen Square killings - the BBC's independence and impartially were potentially damaging Murdoch's prospects in the Chinese market. And in 1998 HarperCollins, a Murdoch-owned publisher, cancelled publication of East and West, a book by Hong Kong's last British governor, Chris Patten. It was clear that publication risked aggravating the Chinese authorities given that Patten's recollections of his time as Governor of Hong Kong were highly critical of the Chinese government.

The suppression of stories that may harm corporate interests is hardly unique to Murdoch's media empire. A segment that was aired on NBC's Today show about defective bolts in nuclear plants reportedly omitted the following lines: 'Recently General Electric engineers discovered that they had a big problem. One out of every three bolts from one of the major suppliers was bad. Even more alarming, GE accepted the bad bolts without any certification of compliance for eight years. General Electric owns the network. Disney-owned ABC dropped a report which alleged that paedophiles had been employed at a Disney theme park.

When tobacco advertising was still allowed on US television, a clear correlation was found between the amounts of money the networks derived from tobacco advertising revenues and their willingness to enter the debate on the health effects of smoking. In Italy, where two influential newspapers, Il Messagero and Il Tempo, are owned by construction companies, 'there is plenty of auto-censorship by journalists keen not to upset their bosses. Liza Brinkworth, the British investigative journalist who exposed tales of under-age sex and drug abuse at the Elite model agency, failed to sell her story to numerous women's magazines - they were clearly not prepared to risk fashion-related advertising. It was the publicly funded BBC that eventually broke the story.

Either to avoid jeopardising relationships with advertisers or to safeguard their wider interests - increasingly these media organisations form parts of larger groups of companies, with business interests outside the media - news reporting has frequently been found to be skewed in recent years. This is not, of course, a new phenomenon. 'A study of women's magazines in the period 1983 to 1987 revealed that not one magazine that carried cigarette advertising published any full length feature, column, review or editorial on any aspect of the dangers of smoking. During the same period lung cancer was determined to be the number one killer of women surpassing even breast cancer. Not one of the magazines surveyed mentioned this fact.

What is new, however, is that there has been a consolidation of the media industry over the past few years, and as few as ten global media players now wield immense power. As a result, the regulation of broadcasting has been much weakened, particularly in the United States where, for example, in August 1999 the FCC did away with longstanding media ownership rules that forbade the largest television companies and networks to own more than one station in the nation's largest cities; and where a federal plan to license hundreds of new non-commercial low power stations throughout the country was, in December 2000, effectively killed off by a huge lobbying campaign launched by big media interests. What we do or do not learn, at least through traditional channels, will increasingly depend on the decisions of a very few.

Aidan Whilee, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, the world's largest organisation of journalists representing more than 45,000 members in 103 countries, said when the $350 billion Time Warner-AOL merger was announced:

We are now seeing the dominance of a handful of companies controlling information and how that information reaches people. Unless action is taken to ensure journalistic independence we face a dangerous threat to media diversity . . . Otherwise we will have corporate gatekeepers to the flow of information who will define content to suit their market strategies.

As consumers of news, we are unable to police the news providers in the way we police other corporations. Unless the media are held accountable to an external and independent force, our independent press, one of the vital components of democracy, may be in danger.

Seeing the unseen

In a world in which governments are increasingly unable to keep corporations in check, and consumers and shareholders have to take on this role, loss of a free press is devastating. For if a story is not told, if a problem is not seen to exist, people have no reason to protest.

Ignorance is impotence. While it is likely that such scandals still usually - and eventually - come to light, not least given the media's attraction to David and Goliath stories which also appeal to the public, even when they do come out consumers, faced with the subsequent public relations onslaught, find it increasingly hard to gauge which sources of information can be relied on.

Consumers who sought a realistic assessment of the risks of genetically modified food, for example, were left to piece together the evidence on the basis of hard-sell from the agrochemical companies, half-hearted reassurances from governments, hysterical press reporting, and passionate denunciations by environmental groups. The findings of scientists who claimed to have rigorously tested the effect of GM foods were disputed by other scientists. In this, as in many other cases, it became impossible for consumers to act on the basis of objective evidence. They simply did not know whom to believe.

Even for those who wish to actively seek out the truth, dealing with the range of potentially conflicting information, not to mention misinformation, is both time-consuming and confusing. Whom to believe? Whom to trust? Which issues to champion? Is it Nike, Reebok or Adidas that I shouldn't be buying? With so many contradictory stimuli, and so many brands, even the most concerned consumers face information overload and compassion fatigue. Simply increasing the amount of information does not solve the problem, especially if the sources are tainted. Without a reliable source, the big consumer battles are likely to be won by those who shout the loudest.

When stories break, the media's interest is fleeting. Consumer campaigns are highly dependent on media coverage, but the media are by nature short-termist in their outlook. Their intense but brief attention to most political protests rarely reflects the longer-term nature of the issues. Like pressure groups, they have a vested interest in creating a hysteria that stimulates interest and sells more newspapers. During 1999 the campaign against GM foods went from being the preserve of left-wing environmentalists to a tabloid crusade and has now fallen back to relative obscurity.

Once something is no longer reported, people inevitably start to think the issue has gone away. For all except the most committed, boycotting of products tends to be short-lived, and once the issue is less newsworthy consumers generally revert to their original preferences, unless their chosen substitute has actually turned out to be as good or better. The issue of the safety of British beef has been in and out of the news over the last few years, although it appears British beef is no safer now than it was when concern over BSE began, while cases of human CJD have yet to peak.

Although consumer activism is undoubtedly entering the mainstream, campaigns which are high profile, intense and fashionable are understandably more attractive and successful than those that are more routine and prosaic, however worthy of support. In recent years it has been possible to witness the fashion trends of consumer protest: from Nestle boycotts in the late 1970s, through anti-apartheid protests in the early 1980s, global warming and rainforest depletion later in that decade, live animal exports in the early 1990s, then the rights of workers in developing countries, and most recently food safety. At each stage protesters secured small victories and corporations changed tack, but with the exception of apartheid in no case was the war won so conclusively that further protest was unnecessary, as we saw with the repeated denunciations of sweatshop labour. Consumer activism seems most effective when consumers remain active.

In the US, corporate funding of academic scientific labs more than doubled over the ten years to 1997, when it stood at $2 billion. In Britain scientific public research money fell by 20 per cent between 1983 and 1999, leaving a deficit that corporate funds were more than prepared not only to fill but also to augment. Although these boosts to research budgets can clearly be beneficial, conflicts of interest can, unsurprisingly, arise. Samuel Cohen, a University of Nebraska researcher on saccharin, whose findings were heavily relied on by the US government in justifying its decision to take saccharin off the list of cancer-causing chemicals, was revealed to have been funded in part by an industry group whose members included Cumberland Packing, the makers of Sweet-N-Low saccharin products. Exxon Mobil has provided funding for maverick scientists who claim there is insufficient evidence of a human factor in climate change. In 1998 the company donated $10,000 to the science and environmental policy project run by Fred Singer, a highly vocal critic of the global warming theory, and also gave $65,000 to the Atlas economic research foundation, which promotes Singer's work as offering 'a wealth of information, credibility and encouragement.' Particularly worrying given that George W. seemed to use these views to justify his rejection of Kyoto, claiming that the scientific work of global warming was still 'unsettled'. And Bush's regulation czar John Graham solicited $25,000 in funding from Philip Morris at the same time as he was overseeing a study that concluded that there were no health risks from secondhand cigarette smoke.

'I feel academia is becoming tainted in this,' says Drew Pardoll, an oncologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 'it's an issue of public trust." If scientists will not publish in medical journals, for fear of losing out financially, or if findings are suspect because of potentially divided loyalties, our ability to access impartial scientific research in many areas will be lost.

It is not just the impartiality of scientific research that is being questioned. University centres, think-tanks, public interest organisations, consumer organisations and even religious leaders are now funded by corporations. Nottingham -University announced in December 2000 that it had accepted £3.8 million from British American Tobacco, which at the time was under investigation over smuggling allegations, to finance a new school of, most ironically, 'corporate social responsibility,. The US National Consumers' League, which describes itself as 'America's pioneer consumer advocacy organisation', got 39 per cent of its income in 1997 from corporations and industry associations. 'Almost every current project, seminar, brochure, newsletter and fundraising dinner is sponsored in large part by major corporations or industry associations.' These donations clearly risk jeopardising impartiality. And according to the World Health Organisation, Philip Morris sought to identify and encourage support for Islamic religious leaders who opposed interpretations of the Koran which would ban the use of tobacco.


In this confusion of information and misinformation from traditional media, governments, corporations, think-tanks and research institutes, new sources of information have become essential to activists... ln a 1996 survey of public confidence in various sources of information about modern biotechnology, respondents trusted consumer and environmental organisations most, by 30.5 per cent and 22.4 per cent respectively. Only 7.8 per cent put their trust in public authorities, and 1.6 per cent in the industry itself.

But what has really revolutionised information over the past few years, and has opened up completely new sources of information for all of us, is of course the Internet. Most of this information, at least at present, is out of the control of corporations or large organisations. Information provision is no longer the domain of the media giant. Any individual or organisation, with a minimum of technical know-how and equipment, can tell the world whatever they want it to hear by creating their own website.

Those who are looking to monitor corporate activity have never had an easier time of it. Type 'McDonalds' into any search engine and you will quickly be directed to the 'I hate McDonald's' site - the voice of a single disgruntled customer - and the McSpotlight site at www.mcspotlight.org, which gets over one million hits a month. This site not only provides full background on the infamous 'McLibel' trial, at the end of which in March 1999 three British Lord Justices ruled that it was 'fair comment' to say McDonalds workers worldwide suffer poor pay and conditions, but also accuses the company of doing all kinds of harm, from environmental destruction to the 'McExploitation' of kids.

Go to the Corporate Watch site at www.corpwatch.org, and you can 'find resources designed to help you find out more than you probably wanted to know about transnational corporations' and obtain advice on how to 'dig up the dirt on your favourite corporation'. On its Nike page, for example, you can read Ernst and Young's confidential November 1997 labour and environmental audit of Nike's facility in Vietnam, examine the lawsuit brought against Nike for presenting an allegedly false picture of their working conditions, peruse a collection of news articles on Nike's operations, and look at photos taken inside a Nike plant in Vietnam - including pictures of workers using dangerous materials, such as glue and solvents, without appropriate protective gear.

Don't like Bill Gates? There are numerous sites, including Corporate Watch, a research organisation that provides materials for activist or campaign groups, that have taken up the battle against Microsoft. NetAction, a US-based non-profit organisation, features reports and activist resources for 'fighting the Microsoft Monopoly' and provides a digest of anti-Microsoft websites. Under www.usdoj.gov you can find the United States Department of Justice's legal documents for its anti-trust case against Microsoft. Elsewhere you can find a memo leaked by a Microsoft whistleblower, describing an internal management plan to prevent consumer groups and state attorney generals from pursuing anti-trust action against the company.

The range and quality of such sites is irnmense. And as quickly as companies try to close them down, they reappear in other guises. A recent development has been that of corporations buying the domain names of oppositional sites. Domino Pizza bought 'ihatedominopizza.com'; and Chase Manhattan Bank has acquired the rights to 'ihatechase', 'chasestinks' and 'chasesucks'. But this strategy seldom works; there are just too many permutations. Scott Harrison, a 23-year-old New Yorker, launched a site against Chase in protest of an erroneous bill of $650 that it took him seven months and thirty phone calls to correct, and called it 'chasebanksucks.com'. Hardly activism at its most noble.

But the Internet does not only provide information passively. What most differentiates the Internet from traditional media is that it is an interactive medium. Community boards and newsgroups allow members to share stories and complaints. Wal-Mart Watch (www.walmart.watch.com) actively solicits personal stories relating to Wal-Mart's impact on local business, employees and consumers which are then posted on its site. Wal-Martyrs (www.walmartyrs.com) asks Wal-Mart employees, or former employees, to share their experiences and post their stories. And chatrooms provide live forums for discussing companies.

The Internet is like a game of Chinese whispers multiplied and magnified. It provides the ultimate medium for conspiracy theories; rumours pass across borders and time zones almost instantaneously. Messages appear on screen promiscuously, and there is no easy way to separate the truth from lies. From companies' point of view, this aspect of the Internet is chipping away at the significant benefits they are deriving from the dotcom revolution. It is proving to be a corporate nightmare, a medium which, to quote the CEO of one of the world's largest car manufacturers, 'promotes half truths and irresponsible representations of their companies that cannot be controlled or influenced' - although they are of course trying to do so where possible. Many corporations are now hiring third parties such as e-watch to monitor anti-corporate sites for libel and to help with damage control when criticism of their companies is posted on the Net.

From the consumer's point of view, however, the Internet provides a means to scrutinise corporations more directly than ever before and unprecedentedly easy ways of taking action against them. There are sites that provide information on boycotts, sites that give standard form letters of protest to CEOs, sites encouraging people to write to corporate moguls, and sites telling which stores to picket. The Essential Action site (www.essential.org) was, in its own words, 'created to alert activists to current international campaigns and activities'. Current campaigns include an onslaught on the tobacco industry; race discrimination lawsuits against Coca-Cola; and 'Boycott Shell/Free Nigeria'. The Boycott Board's stated purpose is 'to provide the socially conscious consumer with a means of learning about various boycotts in progress'.

Search under 'child labour' on www.directhit.com, and the seventh site that you are urged to visit recommends that you:

Ask the right questions

By making store managers and corporate officers aware that you have concerns, you encourage them to take action. Does their company guarantee products being sold are made under humane conditions? Can you get a list of names and addresses of contractors and subcontractors? Does the company have a code of conduct? Can you have a copy?

Visit stores

Retailers have a saying that 'The customer is always right.' They may not actually believe that, but it does point out the importance of customers' opinions. After all, without customers, there's no store! Ask your store manager questions, and make sure they know you want honest answers. Often, organised visits by groups of customers can produce immediate results as chain store managers will call head office to get the answers.

This site it not that of a radical fringe organisation, but of the UCLWA, one of America's largest trade unions.

It is uncertain how long the Internet will be able to retain its irreverent and anti-establishment leanings. Takeovers, corporate influence and control and commercialisation are all likely in time to threaten its democratic and egalitarian spirit. Microsoft already steers net users to its own websites and those of its commercial partners although if the US anti-trust ruling currently under appeal is ultimately upheld it will no longer be able to do so. Time Warner can now direct a torrent of information to AOL's 22 million subscribers.

But that does not mean that the traditional media will ever be able to rule cyberspace. Despite the head start that traditional media companies have in terms of available funds and avenues to promote their websites, the explosion in socially responsible sites, portals and public forums over such a short period means that in all likelihood many of these alternative news sites will not only remain intact, but will actually become larger and more powerful. Disinfo.com receives 11,000 visits a day; indymedia.net gets more than 1 million hits a month. Type in 'Nike boycott' on a typical search engine and you get a list of over 6,000 sites. E-activism on the net continues to rise.

The number of people who actively seek out this kind of information may be relatively small, but once their findings are passed on to others the numbers grow exponentially. E-mail allows people to send news to hundreds of others almost effortlessly. Each of these, in the same way, can pass the story to hundreds of people on their address lists. Add this to the increasing ease of communication all over the world with mobile telephones, satellite pagers and so forth, and the virus-like infectivity of today's news is clear, not to mention the impossibility of containing it. Where governments have started to crack down and regulate the Internet, as has happened in Vietnam and Burma, ways have been found to bypass attempts at controls; for instance, accessing the Internet illegally by dialing out of the country using a mobile phone. 'By jumping over borders, by opening cheap access to information, and by providing forums for debate in countries where the media are monopolised, the Internet offers the disenfranchised a chance to participate.'

The pervasive urban myths of the 1980s and l990s - the rat found in the Kentucky Fried Chicken carton, Marlboro's relationship with the Ku Klux Klan (the secret sign was revealed by folding a Marlboro cigarette pack in a certain way) - miraculously managed to circle the globe even in the pre-Internet era. Now such things are commonplace. Truths, half-truths and blatant lies cross national borders with ever increasing speed.

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