Epistemic status: actually, this is more a question predicated on some sort of case study - and not an opinion I'm willing to defend.
TL;DR: what should you do if you saw something like a post with a campaign called “Effective astrology” on a blog belonging (apparently) to an EA group?
On Oct 18th, Oxfam Brasil launched the campaign Antirracismo Astral (Astral Anti-racism): it hired a Black astrologist (plus activist) to read daily horoscopes with embedded anti-racism messages. The project faced stark criticism from anti-racism activists who considered the campaign was too “soft” on the problem of racism in society, only providing people something to appease their conscience; also, it was mocked by many, because, well, astrology is bogus. An EA friend of mine (let’s call them F) even complained that they don’t know why TLYCS still recommends Oxfam – though I replied that Oxfam is a confederation of independent organizations, so we can’t hold all Oxfam orgs accountable for something Oxfam Brasil did (but see Appendix I for other reputational damages Oxfam has faced in the last few years). Plus, maybe they knew it was bogus all along, they were just fighting for attention.
And that’s the real issue I’d like EA to discuss about.
Oxfam Brasil replied to the criticisms by stating that its campaign had been based on a netnographic research (that’s a real field of study) focused on middle-class young white people, which concluded that they don’t know how to take stances on matters of inequality and racism in Brazil. Oxfam didn’t share the survey, though. Then, they explained they chose astrology because it’s popular, “presenting a non-obvious way to establish a debate” (my translation) on racism. Honestly, I fail to see the connection between the conclusion of the survey and picking astrology – which is basically the core of the criticisms here. One week into the campaign (Oct 26th), Oxfam Brasil decided to cancel it. From their announcement (Appendix II), I hypothesize their own Board was against it.
My whole point: the problem
Instead of seeing this as a stance of “Oxfam X screwed up,” we should think of it as a cautionary tale about how movements and organizations working in a totally decentralized way might create (and neglect) reputational risks concerning all its members – i.e., a damage to their credibility due to badly chosen content. Rep risks are well-known in corporate governance studies – they’re pervasive, e.g., in multinational companies and cooperative confederations. Thus, organziations often display a lot of concern with accountability and risks of misconduct, and there are known procedures to denounce illegal activities or harassment (which is good) – e.g., Oxfam has been investigating accusations of misconduct in RDC and Haiti, and its Secretariat created an online tool to denounce misconduct anywhere. But I know of no procedure to complain about social media content (even if it's done with the best intentions, like in the example above) that might hazard Oxfam’s message and credibility.
Of course, this applies to EA, too, and that's why I'm writing this here. I’ve seen posts touching similar issues concerning marketing tactics for EA (some even joking that maybe EY should have invested more time in mems instead of writing HPMOR), risk management, or speech policing and cancellation (like in the Munich case), discussions on the fidelity in the spread of EA ideas and movement growth… Of course, it's obvious (at least for me)that only CEA really speaks for Effective Altruism, and we members are recommended to be careful with what we post regarding EA, and group organizers sort of keep in touch so they can advise each other, and we should avoid citing EA in the names of groups, etc. And evidently no one considers holding CEA, or EAs in general, responsible for every online content under some “EA" tag....
And yet, as I said before, what should anyone do if they see a blog with a campaign like “Effective astrology” linking it to EA?
[I'd consult likely someone else close to me and, if we agree that the content might be harmful, I'd go bother CEA, or Aaron. But my point is that I'm not sure about what I should do, and it would probably be beneficial if there was common knowledge on what to do in such cases]
Of course, one could remark that my example is an unimportant outlier - it's very unlikely that something similar would happen in a organization big and famous enough, in the Anglosphere, so as to draw significant negative attention... I think that's true in the near-term future. However, as EA continues to expand, I conjecture that such situations will become more likely - and their impact more relevant.
Appendix I –Oxfam
Just to be clear, Oxfam is not an EA-aligned organization, but it’s recommended by The Life You Can Save and well known for its programs and advocay concerning poverty and inequality. According to Wikipedia [and Oxfam’s website]:
Oxfam is a British founded confederation of 20 independent charitable organizations [plus the Oxfam International Secretariat – OIS] focusing on the alleviation of global poverty, founded in 1942 and led by Oxfam International. It is a major nonprofit group with an extensive collection of operations.
Charity Navigator gave Oxfam America a three-star overall rating, a two-star financial rating and a four-star accountability and transparency rating for the 2019 fiscal year [and 2020, too]
Oxfam has faced some accusations of antisemitism (related to Oxfam stances on the Palestine & Israel conflict – they rejoice in avoiding political neutrality) and sexual misconduct in Haiti, Chad, and RDC.
Appendix II – Oxfam Brasil Campaign
I’ll paste here campaign webpages, providing my own translation for the texts:
- Suspension: the announcement that the campaign was suspended on Oct 26th
- The Campaign: the original webpage announcing the campaign, which I accessed through Google Cache – as it’s not online anymore.
Oxfam Brasil, an organization committed to fighting inequalities, announces that it has suspended its Astral Anti-Racism campaign.
After listening to different opinions about the aforementioned campaign, among which that of our Deliberative Council, we welcome the criticisms made by activists from the black movements and other sectors about the approach adopted. We apologize to the people we offended, albeit unintentionally. We understand that it is important to rethink our mobilization and engagement strategy.
By way of information, the campaign was built after conducting a netnographic survey to understand how white youth perceive and position themselves on issues of inequality and racism in Brazil.
The objective was to draw attention to the need for young white people to recognize their privileges and incorporate concrete attitudes into their daily lives to contribute to the fight against racism in the country, at the individual level, in family relationships and friendships, at work and in studies.
Oxfam Brasil remains open to dialogue and reaffirms its respect for black movements, all people who took a stand and those who engaged in the campaign.
We thank the people who worked on this initiative, especially Papisa, Tati Lisbon, a Black astrologer, recognized for developing serious and relevant work in her field.
It is also worth noting that the decision to suspend the campaign does not invalidate the importance of the people who engaged in the proposed actions and its dissemination, to whom we are also grateful.
Finally, it is important to reiterate that the objective and urgency of joining forces to fight racism in Brazil remains a premise for our organization.
2. The Campaign
To dialogue with white youth about their role in the anti-racist struggle, Oxfam Brasil resorts to astrology with the campaign “Astral Anti-Racism – You a Little More Anti-racist Everyday”, which begins this Monday (10/18), in partnership with social activist and astrologer Papisa, who has been using astrology as a resistance tool for years.
The choice of white youth as the target audience for the action follows a surveys that indicate their low participation in debates on the topic. While a part of this group does not identify as co-responsible for the problem, dissociating the privileges inherent to the whiteness from the latent social inequality, where the racial issue is structural; another part claims not to understand their place of speech, resigning themselves to superficial ideological support in social networks.
The campaign will promote reflections and suggestions for actions in five instances of social participation: the personal (through the construction of an anti-racist repertoire, such as the consumption of information and media produced by black people); family (provoking dialogue and intervening in racist attitudes in this context); school and work (claiming the hiring of black people and articulating works on the anti-racist struggle); in the urban space (engaging in social movements and not tolerating racist attitudes); and in society in general (encouraging voting for black candidates and advocating public policies that promote racial equity).
The use of astrology as a dialogue tool was chosen for its great appeal to white youth and for its playful element, which can significantly contribute to expanding the reach and reception of the message, enhancing its engagement proposal.
For Katia Maia, executive director of Oxfam Brasil, the campaign seeks to add strength to the work developed by the Brazilian black movements, strengthening the presence and acceptance of the agenda among the white population. “We understand that our role is not to take the lead in the debate, as the black movement has very well-structured organizations and a very engaged activist base. Our goal is to show white youth that they are a fundamental part of the problem, and that not being racist is not enough. As long as the individual is not actively anti-racist, understanding the structural nature of racial discrimination in the country and working to dismantle it, he will not be part of the solution.”
How does the campaign work?
Focused on the digital environment, with the insertion of materials on the social networks of Oxfam Brasil and its partner in the action, the astrologer Papisa, the campaign will invite young people to consume the content on Whatsapp and Spotify, where horoscopes of all signs will be published daily.
The horoscopes, created by Papisa from the astrological transit of each sign (such as lunations and retrogradations), will bring messages that encourage and instruct white youth to practice anti-racism daily, offering tips on content authored by black people to build a repertoire anti-racist, and offering resources for anti-racist action in all spheres of life.