Dec. 26, 2019

Propaganda and Misinformation

An analysis led by an Institute at Brown for Environment found that oil companies ramp up advertising campaigns when they face negative media coverage or new regulations. Major oil corporations tend to spend the most money on advertising and promotional campaigns at moments when they face negative media coverage and/or the threat of increased federal regulation. The findings, published on Saturday, Dec. 14 in Climatic Change, suggest that oil company executives target their promotional efforts in ways designed to influence policymakers and to shape the public climate-change debate. The team found that two factors motivated the majority of oil companies’ advertising spending: climate change-related media coverage and Congressional action.

This reminded me of Edward Bernays ( ) and how he led the U.S. down this path of manipulating people through advertising. It has become an insidious and ingrained characteristic of our American culture. (And it’s not just corporations, environmental organizations use advertising too. Those polar bears tug at our heartstrings.) Sometimes, it just seems that corporations run this country. Even Christmas has become more of a shopping and decorating event, overwhelming the true reason for the season. Consumerism is part of our ethos, our citizenship, and it is ruining the quality of our environment. We have become what we have and how we look rather than who we are. We have lost an understanding of our interdependence on each other and the environment.

Information, images, symbols, our very human emotions have all been used to manipulate people to buy products, but advertising is an integral aspect of our political system. (Citizens United made sure of that.) So now media, the main vehicle for advertising, is also influencing our political and ethical beliefs as well. And because we tend to stay in our media silos, information and misinformation are readily dispersed, feeding into our inner most fears and desires. The fact that simple belief in anthropogenic climate change, a scientific theory that is supported by a preponderance and convergence of evidence, is divided by political lines supports the insidiousness of the effect of advertising. Advertising has become essentially propaganda in many cases.  

Let’s look at the case of Exxon/Mobil. Exxon’s own scientists have been publishing top-notch research on the dangers of human-caused global warming for 35 years, but for the past several decades, the company simultaneously engaged in a multi-pronged campaign to cast doubt on the expert consensus of which its own scientists were part. Exxon funded outside scientists to publish shoddy research contradicting that of its own scientists, funded think tanks and other organizations to use that research to manufacture doubt about the consensus, and donated money to politicians and Alec to obstruct efforts to pass critically important climate legislation. Since 1998, Exxon has given over $31 million to organizations and individuals blocking solutions to climate change and spreading misinformation to the public.

If you watch much television, you have seen the commercials Exxon runs. There is one that shows how much the petrol-chemical industry supports local economies. Of course, those same workers could be installing solar panels or windmills, but those solutions do not involve fuel. There are also commercials that show how Exxon is leading research into alternative fuels such algae, they need us dependent on fuel so they can maintain control over energy production. Sun and wind are free and Exxon cannot control either. And I don’t want to take the time today to get into the influence of oil companies on world politics, but why else are western countries entrenched in the Middle East?

In the meantime, we continue to stay on the tit of petroleum, sucking the very life from our mother. Petroleum is a nonrenewable resource and will become less and less viable. An intelligent species would plan for scarcity of a nonrenewable resource, would adapt, would develop solutions before the crisis hits. Intelligence is our evolutionary advantage as human beings, but of course, corporations are not human beings. And they seem to be in charge.