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This is the 7th IAE Newsletter in a series on Credibility and Validity
Credibility and Validity of Information
Part 7: Advocacy Groups
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
“Never doubt that a small group of
thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the
only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead; an American cultural
anthropologist, who was frequently a featured author and speaker in the
mass media throughout the 1960s and 1970s; 1901-1978.)
“Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the
people who are doing something you don't believe is right.” (Jane
Goodall; English anthropologist; 1934-.)
Noun—The act of pleading or arguing in
favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy; active support.
I developed the Information Age Education company to support my
advocacy work in improving education at all levels and throughout the
world. I make use of my time, knowledge, skills, some of my money, and
volunteers to carry out IAE advocacy. I make use of the Web, email, and
social networking to help accomplish my advocacy work. The U.S.
Constitution guarantees me the freedom to carry out these activities.
An advocacy group is composed of people who have joined together in a
common cause. The cause may include a single issue or a collection of
issues. If you belong to a political party, you belong to a multi-issue
advocacy group. You may not be in favor of each of the issues that your
party supports, but you agree with the underlying goals and principles
of the party.
I think of all persons as being advocates for some or many of the
things they believe in. Such individuality is an important aspect of
humans. However, a number of advocacy groups build supportive cases
that are particularly one-sided and/or lacking in credibility and
validity. Some advocacy groups receive very large amounts of financial
support from a small number of very wealthy individuals. Such groups
are able to use their resources to shape public opinion through use of
This and the next IAE newsletter explore advocacy groups in terms of
the credibility and validity of the information they provide to their
members and to others.
The quote from Margaret Mead at the beginning of this
newsletter captures the essence of a long-used approach to advocacy. A
person or a small group of people work together to advocate changes
that they strongly believe should be made. They dedicate time, energy,
and personal resources to convince others to follow their lead.
Margaret Mead practiced advocacy by using her writing and speaking
abilities. In public speaking, information is presented to an audience.
The audience members can form their own opinions about the credibility
of the speaker. As they follow the chain of arguments in the
presentation, they can do some mental checking on the validity of the
information being presented. If the speaker also takes questions or
interacts with the audience in other ways, the audience has additional
opportunities to decide on the credibility of the speaker and the
validity of the information being presented. We know, of course, that a
very dynamic speaker can sometimes overwhelm the rationality of an
An author’s writings provide readers with an opportunity to more
carefully analyze the information being presented. A learned paper or
book typically contains references to other research work that can lend
validity to the paper or book. Nowadays, it is relatively easy for a
reader to check out these references to assess their credibility and
In summary, considerable openness more often occurs when a person uses
public speaking interaction with an audience and/or learned
publications to further their own advocacy ideas. However, we are now
living at a time when a decreasing amount of openness exists in some
The U.S. National
Elections in November 2014
Political advocacy includes activities such as lobbying, media
campaigns, commissioning and publishing research. Political advocacy
groups work to influence decisions within political, economic, and
social systems and institutions.
You may have felt troubled by the vast
amount of money spent on the 2014 state and national elections in
the U.S. I suppose I was most bothered by reports that some individuals
or very small groups spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support
their interests. In Oregon, my home state, I noticed that a modest
number of large out-of-state agricultural companies and related
interests spent a huge amount in defeating a Genetically Modified Food
(GMO) labeling measure that was on the ballot.
The New York Times provides an
indication of how much political advocacy money we may see in the 2016
The political network overseen by the
conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch plans to spend
close to $900 million on the 2016 campaign, an unparalleled effort by
coordinated outside groups to shape a presidential election that is
already on track to be the most expensive in history (Confessore,
Why might we be troubled by this situation? After all, such wealthy
people are merely using their personal resources to advance causes they
believe in. According to a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, a
corporation has some of the rights of a person, and these corporations were
merely using their own resources to advance their cause.
Part of my answer lies in the statement in the U.S. Declaration of
Independence that “All men [all people] are created equal.” Although
our voting system has some major flaws, the general idea is “one voter,
one vote.” Advocacy groups with massive resources seem somewhat
contrary to these fundamental ideas. I have a strong feeling that our
democratic system and process are being manipulated and somewhat
marginalized by the big spenders.
A Growing “Science” of
Spending Money to Influence People
A “science” now exists of effectively using huge amounts of money to
influence the outcome of an election. These theories were certainly put
to the test this past November. You can be sure that as the big
spenders continue their research and analyze data from their past
efforts, their effectiveness will increase.
The growing science of election spending is closely related to the
science of advertising goods and services. We all experience an ongoing
barrage of ads in the various media. The advertisers believe that such
ads are a cost effective way to increase their sales and profits.
In early 2015, 30-second television ads for Super Bowl XLIX were
selling for $4.5 million. In addition, an advertiser likely spends well
over a million dollars developing such an ad. This ad may well have
reached over a hundred million people. As I watched the game, I
contemplated whether the advertiser was getting six or seven cents of
value from my viewing an ad.
A Case Study
Voters in the State of Washington voted on an initiative to authorize
Charter Schools in 2012 (Au & Ferrare, 2014). The initiative
obtained a spot on the ballot through a petition signature drive funded
by its supporters. It passed by obtaining about 50.7 percent of the
votes cast in the general election.
Approximately 98 percent of the funds raised to support the measure
were contributed by 21 large donors. Table 1 lists the top10 donors (Au
& Ferrare, 2014). Some of the names will be familiar to you, and
you may wonder why others were interested in supporting the creation of
Charter Schools in Washington.
Bill Gates Jr.—Microsoft cofounder and current chairman. [Microsoft is headquartered in Washington.]
Alice Walton—heiress; daughter of Wal-Mart founder, Sam Walton.
Vulcan Inc.—founded by Paul Allen, Microsoft cofounder.
Nicolas Hanauer—venture capitalist.
Mike Bezos—father of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. [Amazon is headquartered in Washington.]
Jackie Bezos—mother of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.
Connie Ballmer—wife of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
Anne Dinning—managing director D.E. Shaw Investments.
Michael Wolf—Yahoo! Inc. board of directors.
Katherine Binder—EMFCO Holdings chairwoman.
Table 1: Yes On I-1240 campaign cash and in-kind contributions of $250k or more.
Quoting from the Implications and Conclusions part of the Au & Ferrare paper:
…our findings and analysis raise
serious concerns regarding the disproportionate power of super wealthy
individuals and their related philanthropic organizations relative to
public education policy and the democratic decision-making process of
individual voters. In the case of the most recent Washington State
charter school Initiative 1240, it is clear to us that these wealthy
individuals wielded an inordinate amount of power well beyond that of
the average person in the state of Washington. Further, the power of
these wealthy individuals extended largely from their vast resources
and not because of any expertise on the subject of public education
reform (Bosworth, 2011). As such, the passage of I-1240 in Washington
State raises concerns that billionaires and their philanthropies have
become what Karier (1972) referred to as a virtual “fourth branch of government”
that is able to carry its reform agenda and ideology forward into fully
realized education policy through sheer force of material and symbolic
sponsorship, but with little public accountability. [Bold added for
Follow the Money, and Fact Checking
One might argue that every advocacy group presents
its case and information in a biased manner. However, certainly some
are much more blatant than others. The years of legal wrangling about
the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer provide a
vista in which to explore how “big money” was used to protect the
interests of tobacco companies against a steadily growing collection of
Follow the Money
Today’s media make it possible for big-spending advocates for a cause
to reach huge audiences. However, the Web makes it possible for people
with very little financial resources to search for bias and to widely
disseminate their own findings.
One way to search for possible bias in the work of advocacy groups is to “follow the money.” Where is the big money coming from? What financial gains might accrue to those providing the money?
I find it interesting to look at spending in various GMO elections in
recent years. In Oregon’s 2014 vote, opponents to requiring GMO
labeling spent over $20 million. Proponents spent about $8 million. The
measure was defeated by a margin of less than a tenth of one percent.
The top five contributors toward defeating the measure were all
out-of-state corporations. They contributed about $15 million.
Most advertising can be thought of as efforts by advocacy groups to
provide information that will influence the opinions of their audience.
While we have some Truth in Advertising and Consumer Protection
laws and organizations, for the most part consumers are on their own to
decide on the credibility and validity of ads, and to make decisions
based on the information they are receiving.
My advice to people is to be especially suspicious of well-financed
political campaigns. Look beyond the ads that tell you over and over
again how good their candidate or issue is—or, how bad and flawed their
My recent Google search of the term fact checking produced over 14 million hits. My search of fact checking.org
produced about 3.8 million hits. An amazing amount of information is
available. Warning: Unfortunately, some of the information is biased.
This is a user beware situation. If you are serious about investigating
a candidate or issue, use multiple sources and keep your thinking cap
As you investigate a particular candidate or issue, you can talk about
what you find with your acquaintances. But, nowadays, “acquaintances”
may include a very large number of “friends” in the social networking
systems you use, your own personal mailing list, and other mailing
lists you can access. Such grass roots approaches can effectively
combat biased big money.
The credibility and validity series started with the relatively simple
issue of helping students understand the need for using credible, valid
information in the papers they write and the presentations they give
for courses they are taking.
As you can see, we have progressed into more complex issues. How do we
help students to become responsible adult citizens in a world where
they are constantly bombarded by biased ads and other information
designed to shape their opinions? We want them to become thoughtful and
critical consumers of information. This is a very challenging
The next issue in the credibility and validity series will continue the
topic of advocacy. It will lay groundwork for the exploration of
credibility and validity in a number of non-political areas.
Au, W., & Ferrare, J. (2014). Sponsors of policy: A network
analysis of wealthy elites, their affiliated philanthropies, and
charter school reform in Washington State. TC Record. Retrieved 1/3/2015 from http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentID=17387.
I want to thank Robert Blomeyer, a long time professional colleague and friend, for his encouragement to write this IAE Newsletter and his help in finding resources for it.
David Moursund is an
Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and
coeditor of the IAE Newsletter.
His professional career includes founding the International Society for
Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive
officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology.
He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral
students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and
workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books
and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free
online. See http://iaepedia.org/David_Moursund_Books. In 2007,
Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free
online educational materials via its IAE-pedia,
IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See http://iaepedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell.
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