Natural Life Magazine

Spin: Influencing us by managing information

By Wendy Priesnitz

Who is trying to influence us by managing information and why … and what we can do about it.

Most people know that companies use various techniques in their advertising to get us to purchase what they are offering. What seems to be less well known is that those persuasion techniques and more are used in many other situations. In fact, there are few issues that aren’t manipulated or “spun” in order to shape our reality and our lives, and to get us to behave in certain ways. It happens in relation to the news, the food we eat, the products we buy, the politicians we vote for, the medicines and medical treatments we accept from our doctors, the entertainment we consume and the celebrities we follow, even the education provided to us and our children – in essence, all aspects of our lives. This article will explain how this spin works, who does it, how to recognize it, and what to do about it.

The Problem with the News

Even though newspapers have traditionally been seen to be biased in favor of a certain worldview, journalists have generally been well-trained, thorough, and professional in the way they have reported the news. But the media landscape has changed dramatically over the past few decades. As technology has increasingly allowed us to get information from many sources – including those directly involved in making the news or witnessing it in real time – it has also required us to be more discerning about that information.

Social networking platforms are a great tool for sharing news, and we’re using them more and more for that purpose, with a large percentage of the population getting its news from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media sites. But even though these networks are important sources of website referrals for many news outlets, the users who arrive on those sites via Facebook and the like spend far less time and consume far fewer pages than those who arrive on the news websites directly. In fact, users are becoming well known for skimming – reading headlines and maybe pullquotes or bulleted summaries, rather than digging deeply into the information. And that can lead to misinformation.

This has caused a problem for the professional journalism outlets (daily newspapers, weekly news- magazines, TV and radio stations): Their bottom lines have shrunk as a result of the proliferation of new sources of information. Loss of eyes and ears means loss of advertising and circulation revenue. This has led to some going out of business, and others merging. Now, most of North America’s newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV stations are owned by the same transnational corporations about which they report. In addition, cable news stations are increasingly providing skewed analysis and entertainment masking as news.

“A lie would have no sense unless the truth were felt dangerous.”
~Alfred Adler
The corporatization of the media usually leads to budget cutbacks, staff reductions, overworked reporters, and less time for careful research in the news departments. As the corporate mindset becomes entrenched, news becomes just another product. In order not to lose even more advertising revenue, and to protect their corporate parent companies’ reputations, many media outlets have loosened or removed altogether the traditional boundaries between editorial and advertising departments. In some cases, news is filtered and no longer simply reported, always with an eye to keeping advertisers happy.

Add to that the proliferation of so-called bot accounts on social media designed to promote particular ideological perspectives, and you have a situation where it is hard to know what or who to believe.

Following the Money

In William Goldman’s screenplay for the 1976 film All the President’s Men, the source called “Deep Throat” advises the journalists researching the Watergate scandal to “follow the money.” That is something I have learned to do as a way of sorting out the spin from the reality. Money has enormous clout; it is at the root of virtually all spin, which is why we should follow its trail.

In its simplest form, the impact of money on the information we receive involves advertising dressed up in news’ clothing. A company, often represented by a public relations (PR) agency, will submit a press release, article, photos, and/or video to a news organization, magazine, or website, hoping to tell its story as “content.” The subject could be an event sponsored by the company, a staged stunt, footage of people wearing a company’s logo on their clothing, or even a mere announcement of a new business or product launch. In an atmosphere of low budgets, overworked employees, or even personal friendships between someone in the newsroom and someone in the company, this material will often get used, sometimes as-is with no disclaimer. If it is used, the reader, viewer, or listener may not understand that it’s geared to promote a company. According to a Nielsen Media Research study, about eighty percent of television stations in the United States use video news releases, with some of them using eight or more a day in their news coverage.

Another common tactic involves using experts – typically academics or former politicians – on television panels, radio talk shows, or for comment in an article discussing topics with which they have a vested financial interest. More often than not, that conflict of interest is not disclosed by the media outlet.

Some large advertisers ask editors – especially of magazines – to submit articles to them before publication. Corporations would rather pull their advertising than risk having their corporate image tarnished or being attacked by special interest groups as a result of their ad sharing space with a controversial article. The journalism profession frowns on this practice. Magazine industry associations have frequently condemned the practice of submitting articles to prior review by advertisers. And writers’ and editors’ organizations have established rules of conduct for their members. However, the practice continues.

Sometimes, whole newspaper sections, websites, and free magazines will be one hundred percent advertorials – articles submitted by and promoting companies who advertise alongside the articles. In some cases, it is clear to the reader that the article was written by the advertiser; in others, the editorial is presented as fact in spite of its bias.

The stakes get larger, the money spent greater, and the tactics harder to discern when a company moves from overt promotion and advertising to spin because it fears its overall profits and even its core business are threatened. We first saw this when nonsmoking laws threatened the tobacco industry. More recently, potentially billions of dollars have been spent by oil companies and others on anti-global warming propaganda in fear of government restrictions on the burning of fossil fuels, the loss of tax subsidies, and the growth of renewable energy technologies. As of my research in 2014, the rich and influential American oilmen the Koch Brothers, who have made billions from their oil corporation, had spent over sixty-seven million dollars since 1997 funding groups denying climate change. Likewise, major U.S. agriculture, biotech, chemical, and food manufacturers are spending multimillions on successfully fighting ballot initiatives that would force the labeling of food products that contain genetically-modified ingredients.

Some of this money goes to fund “think tanks” that issue reports favorable to the causes of their corporate supporters. According to the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, a right-wing think tank that is often used as a source by the media, global warming does not exist as an environmental problem. In a brochure advertising a conference to debunk global warming, the Institute states that: “The public has been barraged with apocalyptic predictions of global warming. This campaign has been so successful that global warming is now reported as fact...the evidence, however, does not support the predictions.” One of this group’s funders is the aforementioned Koch Brothers (under the guise of their charitable foundation).

Astroturfing is another tactic used to spin the facts and influence public opinion about important issues. Astroturfing refers to the masking of the sponsors of a message or organization to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants. This can take the form of a PR firm setting up a phony grassroots organization whose mission is to spread disinformation about an issue to influence public opinion, and sometimes to pressure politicians regarding pending legislation. Such an organization will usually have a catchy, grassroots-sounding name and cleverly hide its corporate roots. Another related tactic involves one individual creating many personas (typically Twitter accounts or identities for commenting on websites) to give the impression of widespread support for their client’s agenda. Such tactics are illegal in some places, but still flourish.

Greenwashing is another tactic undertaken by companies to create or preserve market share. This is the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service. The organic food and body care market is growing rapidly, and many companies are jumping on the profit bandwagon. But not all of these and other companies wanting a slice of the green market are creating quality products. Instead, greenwashers slap meaningless and unverifiable words like “natural,” “green,” “eco-friendly,” “non-toxic and “chemical-free” on their labels and packaging, and often raise the price, but fail to create products with integrity. The term greenwashing is also used to describe a wide range of other attempts by businesses to attract environmentally aware consumers by association, including the creation of organizations, celebrity endorsements, and event sponsorship.

“Political designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” ~George Orwell

Some examples of this sort of questionable marketing include golf courses that bill themselves as natural and green in spite of heavy pesticide use, and office equipment that is promoted as energy-efficient in spite of high hazardous material content, indoor air quality issues, or incompatibility with recycled paper or remanufactured toner cartridges. Then there is the attempt to paint nuclear power as environmentally friendly because they it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases; what is left unmentioned, of course, are the greenhouse gas emissions involved with uranium mining, milling, enrichment, and fuel fabrication, not to mention the unsolved problem of how to dispose of radioactive waste.

Just Plain Fake

A new way to make money by spinning or creating false news uses fake news websites. “We’ve seen stories on satire sites – fake news sites – getting tremendous traction because they feed on people’s fears,” says Craig Silverman, the founder of Emergent.Info, in a story on the website Verge by writer Josh Dzieza. Many of the stories on these sites begin as jokes, get taken out of context, are written up in news stories, and take off on Facebook before anyone bothers to verify them. But some are deliberate attempts to deceive people.

As Dzieza points out, on Facebook’s news feed, stories look pretty much the same no matter what publication/website they’re coming from and can fool inattentive readers into thinking they’re real. And users often share and reshare items from their friends, without clicking through or even reading the item, let alone thinking about it or recognizing the (often inept) satire. What’s the point of these sites? Money. “Panicked, they share, spreading the rumor farther and sending more readers to the story, generating ad revenue for the site,” says Dzieza.

Not Healthy

The six hundred billion dollar pharmaceutical industry and medical systems are a spin problem on their own. Big Pharma is all about money, rather than providing doctors and patients with good remedies for illnesses, let alone good scientific information about those remedies. Big Pharma wields enormous influence over the prescription drug and medical device markets around the world. In fact, in the U.S., the industry contributes heavily to the annual budget of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is charged with regulating the drugs and devices made by those same companies. According to the group Drug Watch, sponsored by a U.S. law firm, from 1998 to 2013, these companies spent over two billion dollars on lobbying expenses – more than any other industry and forty-two percent more than the second highest paying industry: insurance. And since 1990, individuals, lobbyists, and political action committees affiliated with the industry have doled out one hundred and fifty million dollars in campaign contributions.

Pharmaceutical companies have been found to concentrate on the drugs that make the most profit, rather than those most needed. They have been found to run bad trials on their drugs, distorting and exaggerating their benefits and hiding or downplaying their dangers. Medical journals and governments are often complicit in this, as are many doctors, hospitals, and some patient groups. Physicians and medical journals regularly take money, samples, and favors from pharmaceutical companies. In fact, doctors and nurses are often educated by, or with the help of, the drug companies. Many doctors, scientists, research organizations, medical journals, teaching hospitals, and university medical schools have conflicts of interest related to Big Pharma.

“The adrenaline rush that accompanies fear is addictive and it crowds out reason. That’s why it is used to sell newspapers, wars, prescription drugs, pesticide spraying, weapons in outer space and political candidates. Tell people they are in danger and they will do what you want them to.”
According to Drug Watch, private charities and foundations account for a mere five percent of the estimated one hundred billion dollars spent on biomedical research in the U.S. each year; pharmaceutical and medical device companies contribute approximately sixty percent.

It goes on and on. Big Pharma, like other industries, often hires former government workers and uses their connections to gain political clout. Companies will pay physicians to attach their names to positive articles about a particular drug with the goal of seeing it published in a reputable medical journal; often the article is penned by a company-paid copywriter to promote a new product rather than provide any proper research or commentary. Richard Smith, a former editor of the British Medical Journal, says, “All journals are bought – or at least cleverly used – by the pharmaceutical industry.”

Add to all of this the over-scheduled routine of even the most conscientious doctor that doesn’t allow him or her to dig into the credibility of the information they read, and you have a confusing and even dangerous situation for patients. That is at the root of what some believe is a dangerous epidemic of over-prescribing of medications in place of recommending lifestyle changes or an awareness of environmental dangers to our health. But there is no denying it’s a profitable situation for the drug companies.

Not Necessarily Smart

Given my forty-plus years of history advocating for educational alternatives, and the four books I’ve written on the subject, I would be remiss not to challenge you here about how your ideas about education may be influenced by spin.

Simply put, education is an industry. There are many vested interests fighting to keep the status quo, even though most people realize the current system isn’t working very well. Those interests include curriculum writers and publishers (textbook publishing is a fourteen billion dollar industry in the U.S.), test creators (the testing industry’s revenue in the U.S. is over fifteen billion dollars annually and growing), educational consultants, teacher training and professional development, school construction and maintenance, staff compensation and pension plans, and more.

Modern cognitive science shows that people learn best when they are active, motivated, engaged, and in control of their own learning agenda, but that’s not what most of our schools look like. However, current education systems use the model of some people at the top feeding their agenda to other people farther down the totem pole. Intentionally or not, they reflect a paternalistic, hierarchical worldview, which undervalues children in the same way it takes the earth’s resources for granted.

Getting rid of this factory model of public education challenges not just our assumptions about how children learn, but a variety of agendas related to who manages the affairs of our communities, the corporate profits involved in the education industry, and how that is spun to citizens.

Aside from this relatively visible set of vested interests that make it difficult to recreate the way we educate ourselves, there is a more subtle corporate influence in our schools. Due to insufficient public funding and rising costs, schools are allowing corporations to become ever more active in pursuing their valuable financial goal of educating young consumers about their brands.

Helping marketers cash in on schools’ need to raise money is, itself, becoming big business. When was the last time you were asked to buy chocolates, or collect cash register tapes or cereal box tops to help finance a school project or trip? There are companies organizing those fundraising drives. There are also companies that help corporations maximize their in-school presence through the use of marketing techniques like product sampling, sponsored curriculum and lesson plans, as well as sponsored school/class activities and contests, all geared to those little captive consumers-to-be.

Sponsored educational materials are a favorite way for many companies to get their messages into classrooms. Actually public relations materials designed to look like classroom activities, they range from the overtly commercial, like designing a fast food restaurant, teaching kids to count using a certain brand of candy, or using a company’s brand of pizza to study science, to so-called environmental curriculum materials produced by the big polluters. And you bet the information is spun! When the Consumers Union collected and evaluated samples of these so-called educational materials in the U.S. a few years back, it found that eighty percent contained biased or incomplete information, and promoted a viewpoint that favored consumption of the sponsors’ products.

How to Unwind Spin

All of this can be tricky to unwind. Here are just a few things that we can do and think about in order to detect if we are being subjected to spin or not.

  • Follow the money. Find out who has a vested interest in the message and the messenger: who funds it, who is on the board of directors (and what conflicts of interests might they have), who will profit from the information or perspective being promoted.

  • Be wary of celebrities and what they’re promoting. They are being paid to recommend a certain brand of perfume or food, unless otherwise stated.

  • Learn to recognize advertorials. Check out the motivation of bloggers that promote products in their posts. They could be legitimate reviews, or they could be written in exchange for money or product, in which case there should be a disclaimer to that effect. Likewise, magazines that publish advertising in close proximity to an article related to that product or business are likely selling that “editorial” article to the advertiser.

  • Practice spotting some of the techniques of spin. These include half-truths, faulty logic, saying that the issues are too complex (or deliberately dumbing them down), diversionary tactics (governments are good at doing this, and it includes mudslinging), repetition, fear-mongering, card-stacking or selectively omitting certain facts, using euphemisms and weasel words, millionaires pretending to be just plain folks, creating false proof, cherry-picking facts to support one position, cover-ups, and deliberate lies. Identifying and looking for these spin tactics in the media, by governments, and on the Internet can be a fun family activity and very helpful to children’s media literacy education.

  • Examine how questions are asked in public opinion polls. Are they leading questions or somehow designed to present misleading responses?

  • Root out the “sock puppets” and bots. Can you spot the multiple fake identities posting similar and repetitive rants on website comment sections? Fake or purchased social media account followers also fall into this category.

  • Be cautious when putting your trust in “experts,” whether they’re physicians, lawyers, teachers, or people whose opinion is being touted in the media. If what they’re saying doesn’t ring true, ask for another opinion or research their advice.

  • Read product labels. That way, you can try to avoid greenwashing by seeking products that are certified to meet legitimate environmental standards by an independent third party.

  • Beware of early “breaking news” on social media sites. Follow a hashtag or a variety of other people/media outlets for a while to get an accurate picture of an event. Don’t spread rumors from social networks and question/inform others when you have detected them.

  • Examine your news consumption habits. Don’t make snap decisions based on skimming headlines and bullets. Click on links, rather than just reading headlines, which are written to be controversial. Dig deeper. Check and other verification sites listed below.

  • Get your information from a variety of sources. Social networks allow us to create an “echo chamber,” where everyone we interact with comes from the same perspective and worldview as we do, and reflects it back at us.

  • Learn basic media literacy and research skills. The very tools that can entrap us in the webs of the spinners can also be used to find the truth or at least debunk the non-truth.

  • Get involved – in your local community, in organizations that deal with topics in which you’re interested, in local public radio, in elections, in coversations about the issues.

Unwinding the spin is an ongoing exercise in self-reliant and critical thinking that can help us make better choices for ourselves, our families, and our planet. I think you’ll find it’s worth the time.

Learn More

The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media: Decoding Spin and Lies in Mainstream News by Norman Solomon (Common Courage Press, 2002)

Journalism and PR: Unpacking ‘Spin’, Stereotypes, and Media Myths by Jim Macnamara (Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2014)

Propaganda and the Public Mind by David Barsamian and Noam Chomsky (South End Press, 2001)

Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda by Noam Chomsky (Seven Stories Press, 2002)

Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lie, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton (Common Courage Press, 2002)

Trust Us We’re Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber (Tarcher, 2002)

PR! A Social History of Spin by Stuart Ewen (Basic Books, 1996)

Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel by Jean Kilbourne (Free Press, 2000)

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway (Bloomsbury, 2010)

The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media That Love Them by Amy Goodman (Hyperion, 2005)

Bad Pharma: How Medicine is Broken, and How We Can Fix It by Ben Goldacre (Fourth Estate Ltd, 2013)

Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine’s editor, the author of 13 books, and a journalist with over forty years of experience. This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine in 2014 and updated in 2019 and 2020.


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