In a democracy with so many forms of open communication and social media, it would not seem possible that propaganda would have a major role in shaping public opinion and government policy today.
Yet despite all of the supposed sophistication among a population inundated with all forms of information and constant media access, modern propaganda is alive and well, and thriving in the 21st Century.
While most people think propaganda was the practice of fascist dictatorships that rose in the 1930 and 1940s, propaganda also exists in modern democracies in a variety of forms, including some of which are good and serve a valid social purpose. Think of the campaigns to use seatbelts when they were mandated during the 1960s, get a polio vaccine or the nutritional benefits of breast feeding infants, especially in the under-developed world.
Yet, propaganda, (defined by Merriam Webster as “ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc.,”) is also used for disinformation or to disparage and discredit advocates who are on the opposite side of a policy debate and to advance specific policies sponsored by corporations, special interest groups and governments.
Citizens today have been victimized by three major propaganda campaigns over the past 100 or so years designed to protect corporate profits, maintain the political and competitive status quo and derail citizen initiatives to achieve a specific goal.
The best examples that have current relevance to millions of Americans are the propaganda wars against cannabis, global warming and discrediting evidence about the addictive and toxic effects of cigarette smoking.
The Propaganda War Against Climate Change
Here are some specifics:
As reported in the New Yorker (Sept. 18, 2015), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Web site, InsideClimate News reported that executives at Exxon (now known as ExxonMobil) knew as early as 1977 that oil was heating the planet based on reports from its own internal scientists. InsideClimate News published the first installment of a multi-part exposé that will be appearing over the next month. The documents and other materials obtained from retired Exxon employees and officials show that corporate management knew about the problem, yet ignored it and went on the propaganda offensive for decades “to organize the campaigns of disinformation and denial that have slowed—perhaps fatally—the planet’s response to global warming,” according to Bill McKibben of the New Yorker.
More specifically, McKibben writes that the InsideClimate News research found the smoking gun in ExxonMobil’s reactionary corporate response:
“But it turns out Exxon didn’t just “know” about climate change: it conducted some of the original research. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the company employed top scientists who worked side by side with university researchers and the Department of Energy, even outfitting one of the company’s tankers with special sensors and sending it on a cruise to gather CO2 readings over the ocean.
“By 1977, an Exxon senior scientist named James Black was, according to his own notes, able to tell the company’s management committee that there was “general scientific agreement” that what was then called the greenhouse effect was most likely caused by man-made CO2; a year later, speaking to an even wider audience inside the company, he said that research indicated that if we doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere, we would increase temperatures two to three degrees Celsius.
“That’s just about where the scientific consensus lies to this day. “Present thinking,” Black wrote in summary, “holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
ExxonMobil gave us oil spills and now it seems they have destroyed the truth about their own discovery. Worse, this propaganda war persists today. One report shows that while climate change is happening, “a shocking number of congressional Republicans — over 56 percent — deny or question the science,” according to Bill Moyers.
Another source, Politifact, found only eight Republicans out of 278 who believed climate change was real science. This denial is important since the Republicans are pushing for the passage of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport dirty oil sludge across the US, as well as cutting the EPA and eliminating pollution standards. In 2014, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted against an amendment that would have stated conclusively that climate change is occurring. All 24 Republicans on the committee voted against the bill. A study found that the Republicans who voted to deny climate change had accepted about $9.3 million in career contributions from the oil, gas and coal industries, according to analysis by the CAP Action War Room.
The lesson here is that propaganda campaigns cost corporations billions and are waged over decades, but they pay off financially and politically for their beneficiaries. The public, however, always remain victims.
The Propaganda Campaign Against Marijuana
While the 1937 film, Reefer Madness, may be the most popular example of the propaganda war against marijuana, this campaign began as early as the 1920s and was then formalized when marijuana was classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic, in the same class as heroin, under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. This misclassification, according DrugPolicy.org, put marijuana in the most restrictive class, Schedule I, reserved for drugs with a “high potential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use” and a “lack of accepted safety.”
While this classification may have its origins in racial discrimination, for industrial purposes (to keep hemp off the market as a rival to synthetic fibers manufactured by Du Pont, or to eliminate competition from the liquor industry), or its perceived ability to deteriorate social relationships, the propaganda war continues today as evidenced in the 2016 Republican debates.
In an incisive summary of how the topic of marijuana was treated in the most recent Republican presidential debate prepared by John Hudak of the Brookings Institute, the misinformation directed against the recreational and medicinal uses of marijuana was flowing freely in the debates. Four candidates expressed their opinions; one was in favor of its use (Rand Paul), while Jeb Bush, Chris Christy and Carly Fionina were largely against. Of the four, Christy was the most strongly opposed to its use and made the long discredited “gateway” drug argument against pot. He also said he would enforce federal law to supersede state laws and thus eliminate recreation use in any state which allows it today. Christy takes this position even though nearly 60% of New Jersey residents support legalized, regulated recreational marijuana.
The Propaganda War Against the Dangers of Smoking
This may be one of the best case studies in modern propaganda and one of the deadliest ones that affected people worldwide. Like climate change, this involved the manipulation of scientific studies that were originally conducted and subsequently covered up by the same people who sponsored them in the first place. And like climate change, the conspiratorial impact of these cover-ups will impact millions of people for generations.
In a chilling report issued by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), the group described the tobacco industry as “a predatory industry whose market dynamics demand that it recruits young people. It does this by deploying vast promotional expenditures to create, communicate and amplify a set of positive values associated with the product. Once the glamour phase subsides, nicotine addiction takes over making the customer dependent on the product and securing a profitable cash flow. Trapped by nicotine addiction, the smoker is subject to a variety of sub-lethal illnesses which culminate in a one in two probability of death through smoking-related disease. The smoker’s death means a replacement customer must be found – and the cycle begins again.”
So what was the tobacco industry trying to hide? Many things. The worst being that the annual global death toll caused by smoking is 4 million. By 2030, that figure will rise to 10 million with 70% of those deaths occurring in developing countries, according to the Action on Smoking report. (This death toll should be compared to the use of marijuana worldwide (zero deaths) as an argument for its legalization.)
Then, there are issues related to second-hand smoke, especially the impact of smoking on society. One 2004 study from MIT found that the estimated actual cost of smoking was nearly $40 per pack, if the cost included its secondary health impact on others. This total included:
–$33/pack for the cost of early deaths, smoking related disabilities and other factors (which includes $20.28 a pack due to reduced life expectancy);
–$5.44/pack for the cost of the effect of second-hand smoke on significant others;
–$1.44/pack for the cost of the effect of second-hand smoke on the society as a whole.
With a pack of cigarettes costing approximately $40, it is estimated that a smoker would spend $171,000 over a lifetime. More recently, a pack of cigarettes can cost up to a whopping $150/pack, according to the web site, Natural Society.
While there are numerous web sites and films (The Insider, 1999; Thank You for Smoking, 2006) describing the tobacco industry’s cover-up, this timeline shows the scope and deceit of the tobacco industry’s propaganda campaign.
The Tobacco Industry Propaganda Timeline
1953–A group of tobacco companies met at the Plaza Hotel in New York City and devised a public relations plan to counter health concerns associated with smoking. (Source: BeyondCommonKnowledge.com)
Early-1950s–Research is published showing a statistical link between smoking and
lung cancer. At the same time the industry’s own research begins to find carcinogens in
smoke and starts to confirm the relationship between smoking and cancer. (Source: ASH)
Late-1950s–Tobacco industry scientists privately accept the association between
smoking and lung cancer, believing it to be one of cause and effect. Thirty years later, the
majority of the industry still publicly denies the causation theory – with one exception –
the US manufacturer Liggett, who broke ranks in 1997, much to the dismay of the other
major tobacco companies. (Source: ASH)
Late-1950s to mid-1960s–Tobacco industry scientists urge executives to admit to the problem and solve it, arguing that there were commercial opportunities to exploit. Research begins into the “safe cigarette,” but it soon fell under the influence of the lawyers, who successfully argued that a company could not produce a “safe” product. (Source: ASH)
1964–U.S. Surgeon General issues report linking smoking to lung cancer, tobacco. Tobacco companies seek to discredit the report.
1999–Clinton administration accused the tobacco industry of racketeering as part of a coordinated plan to deceive the public about the dangers of smoking and to cover up the knowledge they had to the contrary. (Source: BeyondCommonKnowledge.com)
2006 (August)–A federal judge ruled that the tobacco industry had actually engaged in racketeering practices, stating that the industry had engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking from their users. (Source: BeyondCommonKnowledge.com)
This is a propaganda campaign and cover-up that has lasted over 50 years and killed millions of people worldwide. It is a campaign that involved politicians, industry groups, lobbyists, scientists and doctors. It is a propaganda model that is still being used by some corporations and industries today.
Propaganda Campaigns in 2015
While many people think slavery was eliminated after the Civil War (1861-1865), there is more slavery worldwide today (an estimated 35 million) than at any other time in history.
Similarly, people should not think that propaganda is a rudiment of 1930s fascist dictatorships. It is alive and well today and it is an extremely profitable business, just ask the think tanks and some bad media outlets, which knowingly push bad information. The stakes of pushing misinformation is high because propaganda is used freely to advance specific social, religious, and political agendas, such as those opposed to the legalization of marijuana.
The counter-measure that should be used against bad, prejudicial propaganda is education. This is not high tech, but it’s most effective technique when used on a daily basis to counter distorted and prejudicial presentations that try to come off as authoritative. Simply put, truth is the best offensive weapon against lies. But the unfortunate reality is that prejudicial propaganda is a common tool in the marketplace of public opinion. It also will become worse in any election year.