The Disinformation Playbook

How Business Interests Deceive, Misinform, and Buy Influence at the Expense of Public Health and Safety

Science helps keep us safe and healthy. The public safeguards that keep our drinking water clean and our children's toys safe rely on independent science and a transparent policymaking process. And we all rely on scientific information to make informed choices about everything from what we eat to what consumer products we buy for our families.

But the results of independent science don’t always shine a favorable light on corporate products and practices. In response, some corporations manipulate science and scientists to distort the truth about the dangers of their products, using a set of tactics made famous decades ago by the tobacco industry. We call these tactics the Disinformation Playbook.

To be clear: most companies don’t engage in disinformation. The deceptive practices that make up the Playbook are used by a small minority of companies—and yet, as we show, they are found across a broad range of industries, from fossil fuels to professional sports.

Here are five of the most widely used “plays” and some of the many cases where they have been used to block regulations or minimize corporate liability, often with frightening effectiveness—and disastrous repercussions on public health and safety.

Stop the Playbook!

There are many things we can do to keep the Disinformation Playbook from sidelining science and disabling democracy. It’s a team effort: scientists, science supporters, public officials, journalists, and companies themselves all have a role to play. Find out more on our Stopping the Playbook page.

1

The Fake

Conduct counterfeit science and try to pass it off as legitimate research

Companies underwrite a good deal of scientific research, and society often benefits from it. But bonafide scientific research demands a high degree of scientific integrity to ensure that results derive from the evidence, and not from a desire to meet a predetermined, non-scientific objective. People who have a financial stake in research outcomes should not publish in scientific journals without full and clear disclosure of conflicts of interest—especially when the results involve the safety or effectiveness of a company’s products.

To understand how “the Fake” works, read the examples, including the one about how Georgia-Pacific knowingly planted counterfeit science studies in legitimate science journals to try to undermine understanding of the lethal health risks posed by its former asbestos-containing product.

To evade these standards, some companies choose to manufacture counterfeit science—planting ghostwritten articles in legitimate scientific journals, selectively publishing positive results while underreporting negative results, or commissioning scientific studies with flawed methodologies biased toward predetermined results. These methods undermine the scientific process—and as our case studies show, they can have serious public health and safety consequences.

2

The Blitz

Harass scientists who speak out with results or views inconvenient for industry
The Blitz

Companies and industry trade associations sometimes try to bury scientific information by harassing or intimidating scientists whose research threatens their bottom line. This coercion can take several different forms: our case studies show how corporations have threatened to defund scientists’ research, interfere with their promotion or tenure, transfer them to other positions, or tarnish their reputations.

For a good example of “the Blitz,” read the case study to see how the National Football League tried to intimidate scientists studying the evidence of a link between the game and traumatic brain injuries.

Some corporations have also sought to muzzle scientists by including gag orders in research or employment contracts, or through litigation and open records requests to tie up their time and resources, making universities less likely to support important, policy-relevant research.

Each of these tactics has the same goal: to silence scientists and stifle independent science. This behavior violates the spirit of scientific inquiry, which is open to all ideas and findings and inclusive of fellow experts looking to learn more about our world. Any efforts to make scientists feel threatened, or to discourage them from publishing or even continuing their research, are direct attacks on our country’s scientific enterprise, compromising its ability to effectively serve the public.

3

The Diversion

Manufacture uncertainty about science where little or none exists
The Diversion

As evidence emerges about a product’s adverse effects, companies will sometimes try to undermine the science by falsely spreading doubt about the harm, deceiving the public and undermining the efforts of regulatory bodies to protect the public. A now-infamous memorandum from a tobacco executive in 1969 captured this strategy well: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”

A classic case of “the Diversion” can be seen in an internal memo by a consortium of fossil fuel companies including Exxon and Chevron, that surfaced in a court case in 2014. According to the memo, the companies would achieve “victory” when  “average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science” and when “those promoting the Kyoto treaty [to curb global warming emissions]… appear to be out of touch with reality.”

Our case studies show how corporations have deployed trade associations and front groups with innocuous-sounding names to undermine science, influence public opinion, and gain access to policy makers while maintaining the illusion of independence.

Working to manufacture doubt and create the appearance of uncertainty where little exists is a blatant abuse of the way independent science operates to develop knowledge and inform the public about threats to their health and well-being.

4

The Screen

Buy credibility through alliances with academia or professional societies

Many companies forge strong financial connections with university research departments with the legitimate goal of advancing public knowledge. Corporations sometimes sponsor academic chairmanships, sponsor students, or fund research. Arrangements like these can help companies improve their image by affiliating with a prestigious academic institution or professional society.

In a prime example of “the Screen” a new, Coca-Cola-funded research institute used studies funded by the company to argue that there was “strong evidence” that weight gain could be prevented, not by reducing calorie consumption, “but maintaining an active lifestyle and eating more calories.”

Transparency and scientific independence are crucial in such relationships. As a group, industry-funded studies are more likely to produce results favorable to industry. This doesn’t mean that corporate funding of scientific research will necessarily lead to biased results, but it underlines the need for full disclosure so that the objectivity of scientific literature can be adequately assessed.

As our case studies show, companies have sometimes exploited their academic alliances to influence research and spread misinformation that serves corporate interests while undermining science.

5

The Fix

Manipulate government officials or processes to inappropriately influence policy
The Fix

Like public interest organizations, many companies or industry trade associations lobby the government to help enact legislation favorable to their interests. Some companies, however, go so far as to undermine the way federal agencies use science to develop policy, pushing for changes that make it harder for agencies to fulfill their science-based missions, or using political connections to gain access to top-level agency officials. Such actions compromise the government’s ability to protect the public.

Although the full story has yet to surface, a likely recent example of “the Fix” can be seen in the recent decision by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to overrule his own scientific advisors to allow continued use of the Dow Chemical company’s pesticide Chlorpyrifos.

Unfortunately, a “revolving door” between industry and government presents a huge opportunity for people with industry ties and clear financial conflicts of interest to hold key decisionmaking positions. Such officials can help develop policies that benefit a former or prospective employer, policies that may live on long after their departure.

While it’s certainly reasonable for industry to participate as a stakeholder in policy decisions, transparency and public vigilance are needed to keep companies from using their deep pockets and powerful networks to promote policies that undermine scientific evidence and threaten public health and safety.