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Why talk to downplay COVID-19 and climate seems so similar

The disinformation industry uses the same playbook to create doubt.

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Taking advantage of science illiteracy has helped fossil fuel companies, and now it’s a way to undermine coronavirus public health measures.
  • Taking advantage of science illiteracy has helped fossil fuel companies, and now it’s a way to undermine coronavirus public health measures.
For a long time, the story went that the tobacco industry cooked up disinformation and then spread it to the fossil fuel guys, the chemical industry, pharma, you name it. But one thing that became incredibly clear when we began digging into PR firms and specific publicists was that this version of history is not quite right; if disinformation strategies were cooked up by any particular industry it was the public relations industry, which put these strategies to work on behalf of fossil fuels, tobacco, chemical manufacturers and more, often all at the same time.

The very first publicist, Ivy Ledbetter Lee, worked on behalf of both Standard Oil and, shortly after, American Tobacco, for example.Daniel Edelman developed astroturf campaigns for both RJ Reynolds tobacco company and the American Petroleum Institute, as did John Hill, who went so far as to have tobacco folks join the API. He also worked with Monsanto, juggling all three clients at the same time. E. Bruce Harrison worked for the chemical guys first, then managed front groups for tobacco and fossil fuels at the same time. You get the drift.

These industries all surely learned from each other at various points in time, but that was mostly because they were working with the same publicists. The history is less that tobacco or oil embraced disinformation first and then passed it on and more that a handful of PR firms and consultants created the disinformation industry, and then put it to work on behalf of whatever industry needed it at any given time.

Today, those same strategies are at work on behalf of those who worry that the response to COVID-19 will undermine capitalism, which is why climate folks keep noting how familiar the whole anti-science component of the right-wing response to the pandemic feels. It's familiar because the exact same strategies are being deployed, in some cases by the same people. Here are a few key examples:

Disinformation Strategy #1: He who controls the language controls the narrative.

Ivy Lee's big thing, way back 100+ years ago when he was working with the Rockefellers—oh, and advising Hitler and Goebbels too—was to take control of language. If the government wanted to impose safety regulations on your industry, you described them as "extra" or "additional" or "surplus.” In climate, we've seen language shift from "the greenhouse effect" to global warming to climate change. When media finally seized the power to make its own language choices, opting for "climate crisis" or "climate emergency,” it was deemed radical, even by other journalists. In the COVID-19 context, we've seen this too. It's gone from a "flu" to "a really bad flu" to "a pandemic" in a relatively condensed amount of time. But you'll see those trading in disinformation continue to refer to it as "just a bad flu" or point out how many people the flu kills every year.

Disinformation Strategy #2: Leverage science illiteracy to create doubt.

This has been a hugely effective tactic for multiple industries because the vast majority of people don't spend a lot of time reading scientific studies, nor do they understand that scientific research has its own language. That makes it very easy to point to something like the uncertainty inherent in any scientific research and say "see, they don't really know." The best recent example of this is the re-emergence of Michael Fumento, as Drilled News contributor Paul Thacker pointed out recently. Fumento questioned health models for the tobacco guys, climate models for the oil guys, and has now returned to question public health models used to predict the spread and likely death toll of COVID-19. Fumento was also famously fired when Businessweek outed him for accepting $60,000 from Monsanto one year to write GMO-friendly pieces in his column, which was syndicated to dozens of papers across the United States. Of course models, like science in general, have a bit of uncertainty baked in; they represent both the most extreme outcomes and the most likely scenarios, they encapsulate multiple variables. And if you know enough about them, it's quite easy to cherry pick data and flaws and argue, as Fumento does, that modeling in general is bunk that ought to be thrown out.

Disinformation strategy #3: Astroturfing

Last weekend, social media was awash in the news that those anti-lockdown rallies in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Colorado were all fomented by rightwing donors. Someone on Reddit figured out all the "re-open the economy" websites were made by one guy in Florida. This is astroturfing 101, and it's a strategy that's been a key tool in the disinformation toolbox for at least 100 years. When coalminers and steelworkers were striking regularly back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, publicists like Ivy Lee, Edward Bernays and John Hill helped create fake protest groups that supposedly represented all the coal miners who just wanted these strikes to be over so they could get back to work. In more recent years, fossil fuel companies have backed fake advocacy groups like the California Drivers Alliance or the Washington Consumers for Sound Fuel Policy to fight against everything from emissions regulations to a carbon tax. Astroturfing is fake activism meant to give the illusion of grassroots opposition to policy. My favourite example is the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, a petrochemical and plastic manufacturers-backed group that protests bag bans and bag taxes. It's somewhat rare, however, to get a sitting US president supporting and promoting your astroturf campaign, as Trump has done with the fake "re-open the economy" movement.

Season 3 of Drilled gets into these strategies and more in great detail, and you're bound to see in this history the roots of today's pandemic disinformation machine.

This week is Earth Week and a lot of media outlets are focused on solutions to climate change, a conversation that COVID-19 has certainly changed. Which got me thinking: often people act like climate accountability is not a solution, like all we do is point out problems or play the blame game. Sorry for harshing your mellow about carbon capture occasionally, but for the team at Drilled News, accountability is an absolutely necessary part of addressing climate change. How can you move forward functionally if you don't know where things went wrong in the past? How can any technological solution possibly work if it's plugged into the same old system (carbon capture is an excellent example of this, come to think of it)?

Our hope, of course, is that when people learn to recognize these strategies and know what's behind them, they might become less effective. Disempowering the disinformation industry is a necessary part of any climate solution.

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This story originally appeared in Drilled News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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