Wendy Priesnitz - writer, editor, changemaker
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Is Corporate Spin* Harming Us?

Words Have Power

I have always been known as one who asks questions and challenges what is presented to me as reality. As a child, that got me into trouble but, as an adult, it has been useful, both in daily life and as a writer and journalist. My journey toward actually tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty has taken longer. Complexity can be quite uncomfortable, especially during these complicated times.

At any rate, I learned at an early age to ask, “Says who?” when being told how to live my life and what to think and believe. At some point in my early 20s, I began to realize that there were often powerful influences behind much of what was presented as fact by those with power; most of it was benign but some of it was quite sinister. History demonstrates that propaganda, distortion, and appeal to emotions are the tools used by governments and corporations to get us to willingly do what they want. If we don't go along willingly, the manipulation becomes stronger. But as the manipulation becomes increasingly sophisticated, recognizing who is trying to influence us and why becomes difficult.

Most of us were coerced (either by law or parental/societal expectation) to attend schools as children and young adults. There, we mostly learned to memorize and regurgitate information rather than to analyze what we were told or to question authority. Doris Lessing put it this way in her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook:

“Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself, educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.”

I've often quoted social critic and author Ivan Illich, who put the problem succinctly: “School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.” In our society right now, businesses use various techniques in their advertising to influence us to spend our money with them. Sadly, governments, with the help of media, often do something similar, spinning and manipulating issues in order to shape our reality and our lives. We are told that we can trust 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, and, of course, the education provided to us and our children. But sometimes we shouldn't trust those things because those offering and regulating them don't always have our best interests in mind.

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.” Money has enormous clout (along with the pursuit of power); it is at the root of virtually all misinformation, which is why we should follow its trail.

If that was important 50 years ago, it's crucial today because so many people get their information from mainstream media, which has morphed into corporate media. The various outlets are owned by or are in the pocket of large corporations, where profits are the main focus. They unquestioningly report about issues related to those corporations and provide analysis by so-called “experts” from those corporations, but they seldom disclose a conflict of interest. Instead, those “experts” are often presented as representing organizations created by PR companies as front groups for industries with names that sound like they're grassroots groups. That practice is called “astroturfing.”

Governments and politicians are not immune to this influence either, with their own conflicts of interest relative to big business. Politicians, for instance, may sit on boards of corporate-favouring think tanks or even, after their tenure in politics, directly on corporate boards. And they're often caught up in scandals of financial influence in spite of common sense and conflict of interest rules.

These close ties to government contribute directly to the companies' bottom lines rather than protecting citizens from any harm their pursuit of profit may cause. In spite of being sued by people who have been harmed by its chemical products, and battling regulators and farmers worldwide, Monsanto (taken over by Bayer in 2018) has managed to maintain friends in government and the media. It has nobly portrayed its genetically-engineered seeds and toxic agricultural chemicals like glyphosate as crucial to feeding the world. Many people still believe its products are safe, in spite of a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Likewise, vaccine and drug manufacturer Pfizer has a rap sheet miles long, including the biggest fine in U.S. history as part of a $2.3 billion plea deal for mis-promoting medicines and paying kickbacks to compliant doctors. Nevertheless, it has, as we know, become a household word, government darling, and media star out to save the world from Covid-19.

The obfuscation and deception is so multi-layered that verifying scientific information by bypassing the corporate media and consulting scientific journals also involves navigating through murky financial relationships. Authors whose studies are published in medical journals often have conflicts of interest, receiving research funding from pharmaceutical companies, serving as consultants to drug and biotech companies, investing in their stocks, and delivering talks to other doctors about various drugs. As Dr. Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), told a reporter in 2004, “This is all about bypassing science. Medicine is becoming a sort of Cloud Cuckoo Land, where doctors don’t know what papers they can trust in the journals, and the public doesn’t know what to believe.” In 2009, Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, wrote, “It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.”

There are also scientists who claim to speak for science, but ignore, belittle, cherrypick, or outright dismiss valid published research that makes corporations and their PR companies uncomfortable. Sometimes, their articles are published by trusted journals, such as one in the December, 2021 issue of JAMA Oncology, attacking the science that has been done about the harmful effects of radio frequency microwave radiation. That author, who is a professor and self-described “freelance consultant on scientific and medical matters for media outlets, private companies, and charitable organisations,” is well-known for writing articles and social media comments that spin research in favour of corporations.

On another front, a group of international scientists spoke out in 2012 against what they called an orchestrated campaign of harassment against a fellow researcher whose glyphosate research results were not palatable to Monsanto. Recently, we've seen character assassination against the scientists and doctors who have questioned certain aspects of government handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But this is nothing new. For instance, doctors have been used, in the past, to endorse certain brands of cigarettes, presumably because there was some doubt about their health effects. In 1930, American Tobacco used physicians in their ads after sending them cartons of the cigarettes and asking if they thought Lucky Strikes were “less irritating to sensitive and tender throats than other cigarettes,” while noting “a good many people” had already said they were. In 1946, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company introduced what is now a notorious campaign with the slogan “More Doctors Smoke Camels.” That company even created a Medical Relations Division, advertising in medical journals, and paying for research.

It was so successful for so many years that the Big Tobacco model continues to be used in other industries. With the growing interest of consumers in helping reverse environmental trends, many corporations that are socially and environmentally destructive are posing as friends of the environment. That's become known as “greenwashing” and describes marketing tactics like astroturfing (described earlier in this article), celebrity endorsements, event sponsorship, and the use of meaningless, unverifiable, and often deceptive words like “natural,” “green,” “eco-friendly,” and “non-toxic” on labels and packaging.

So, how so we find our way through all the propaganda to find credible information and figure out what is really going on? Most of us find it difficult. Those who do recognize spin and call it out are sometimes rejected as “conspiracy theorists,” which has become shorthand for a crank who believes nonsense. And that sort of blanket rejection of information is not particularly helpful. Given all the provably false or altered information that's dumped on us and is potentially influencing public policy, I'd suggest employing a healthy dose of skepticism about everything you read and hear. And when you need to make a decision based on that information, check into its origin and who it is designed to benefit. We need to recognize that in our current system there is a singular focus on maximizing profit rather than our well-being.

Twenty-five years ago, in addition to writing about school-free learning and how to extricate oneself and one's children from the formal education system, I began writing about how this manipulation works, who does it, how to recognize it, and what to do about it. If you have read this far, and want to read more deeply about this topic, along with tips for recognizing spin, links to a few of those articles are here, here, here, and here.

* Spin is commonly defined as a form of propaganda used in public relations and politics. Spinners knowingly provide a biased interpretation of an event or actively campaign to influence public opinion using a variety of disingenuous, deceptive, and manipulative tactics.

 Wendy Priesnitz

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copyright (c) 2022

Beyond School by Wendy Priesnitz    Natural Life's Green and Healthy Homes by Wendy Priesnitz    It Hasn't Shut Me Up by Wendy Priesnitz    Challenging Assumptions in Education by Wendy Priesnitz    Life Learning by Wendy Priesnitz