Catalyst Winter 2018

Inside the Disinformation Playbook

Most companies play fair. But when they don’t, we can help you identify their most-used tactics for undermining science, misleading the public, and putting our health at risk.

By Bryan Wadsworth

Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris is a powerful guy. Not only does he run one of the world’s biggest corporations, but he was also chosen by President Trump in December 2016 to lead the White House’s American Manufacturing Council, a group the president said would find “ways to bring industry back to America.”

Dow Chemical wrote Trump’s inauguration committee a $1 million check and when, on February 24, 2017, the president signed an executive order “to lower regulatory burdens” at federal agencies, Liveris was on hand to receive Trump’s congratulations for the “fantastic job” he and the council were doing. Liveris had said he welcomed the opportunity to help “make it easier to do business in this country. Not a ‘red tape’ country but a ‘red carpet’ country for American businesses.” But the truth is, Dow and Liveris had more specific goals in mind.

Dow spent more than $5 million lobbying the government in the first quarter of 2017, and one of its major priorities was to protect the profitability of its pesticide chlorpyrifos. Widely used on corn, soybeans, and fruit trees, chlorpyrifos has been shown, even in extremely small doses, to hinder the development of children’s brains. EPA scientists and the American Academy of Pediatrics have called for it to be banned.

We now know that three days before Trump’s inauguration, Dow asked the EPA to reject a ban on chlorpyrifos. On March 1, the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, told agriculture industry representatives that it was “a new day . . . for a commonsense approach to environmental protection.” Pruitt’s schedule, released only after a Freedom of Information Act request, shows a meeting with Liveris on March 9. The EPA says the meeting was canceled, but before the month was out, Pruitt would overrule his agency’s own scientists and announce that the EPA would not seek to ban chlorpyrifos.

Led by Andrew Liveris, Dow Chemical spent millions to persuade the EPA to reject the advice of its own scientists, who wanted to ban a Dow pesticide.
Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Stringer

There’s no evidence to date that Dow or Liveris acted illegally. But the case smacks of an all-too-common strategy the Union of Concerned Scientists has dubbed “The Fix”: using money and/or high-level connections to inappropriately influence policy affecting people’s health and safety—policy that should be based on science.

The Fix is just one of the strategies identified in the new “Disinformation Playbook”, a UCS project that seeks to expose the most prevalent tactics powerful companies and trade groups use to distort “inconvenient” science and mislead the public. Our hope is that, by exposing these underhanded tactics and helping people understand them better, we can make it harder for companies to get away with them. Because, when the tactics in the Disinformation Playbook succeed in sidelining science, people are likely to get hurt.

Here are the other major tactics we’ve identified.

The Fake

When scientific studies don’t give corporations the data they want, they sometimes manufacture studies that do. These studies may be ghostwritten by company employees rather than independent scientists; they might highlight positive results while ignoring negative results, or be based on flawed methodology.

Georgia-Pacific, in defending itself against lawsuits related to the health problems caused by a product containing asbestos it sold in the 1960s and 1970s, produced 13 studies between 2005 and 2013 that all used some form of counterfeit science to sow doubt about the dangers of asbestos. For example, researchers observed lab animals inhaling asbestos fibers for a mere five days instead of the ideal duration of two years. The company also replicated a tobacco industry practice by giving its head of toxicology a role in its legal department, trying to hide all of the work he supervised behind a veil of “attorney-client privilege”—until a court ruled that such privilege does not apply if Georgia-Pacific was attempting to commit fraud.

The Diversion

A trade association representing the oil industry created front groups that posed as grassroots organizations objecting to climate and clean energy policies.
Photo: pxhere

Instead of undertaking counterfeit science, corporations sometimes choose to undermine legitimate science about their products. They do this by creating uncertainty where little exists, often by getting trade associations and front groups to do the dirty work for them.

The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), a key oil industry trade association, employed this tactic when it secretly created 15 fake groups intended to look like grassroots consumer movements, with innocuous names such as California Drivers Alliance and Washington Consumers for Sound Fuel Policy. WSPA had these faux groups sponsor radio ads and billboards opposing climate and clean energy policies, and in 2015, the California Drivers Alliance undertook a highly dishonest campaign that succeeded in defeating a measure that would have cut California’s oil use in half.

WSPA wasn’t even the first fossil fuel trade association to use this strategy: back in 1998, the American Petroleum Institute formulated a similar plan to prevent the United States from adopting much-needed limits on global warming emissions by manufacturing doubt about climate science—a plan the oil industry has followed to the present day.

The Blitz

Dr. Tyrone Hayes found that Syngenta’s herbicide atrazine turned male frogs into females. For years, Syngenta harassed Hayes and tried to discredit his research.
Photo: Annie Tritt/Mother Jones

Sometimes, corporations make the unfortunate decision to attack not only the science about their products, but the scientists who conducted the research as well.

Syngenta, maker of atrazine (the second most widely used herbicide in the United States), went to disturbing lengths to silence one of its own scientists. Dr. Tyrone Hayes was hired in 1997 to study atrazine’s effects on amphibians; instead of finding nothing, which he expected, Hayes discovered that atrazine turned genetically male frogs into functional females. When the company failed to act on his findings, Hayes left in 2000 and replicated his results independently.

Syngenta considered numerous activities to try to discredit Hayes, including investigating his wife. It sent someone Hayes nicknamed “the Axe Man” to mock him at public appearances, filed an ethics complaint with his academic employer, and placed Internet search ads questioning his professionalism. Though subsequent research has implicated atrazine in health problems, Syngenta’s tactics have taken their toll on Hayes: “Asking me if I feel vindicated,” he said, “is like asking someone who’s been in jail for 10 years for something he didn’t do whether he feels vindicated when he gets out.”

The Screen

Attendees at a pediatrics conference carry tote bags from Coca-Cola, a conference sponsor. Corporate donations can influence the direction of institutions’ research.
Photo: Alan Greene/DrGreene.com

Some corporations try to disguise their disinformation behind the respectability of a university. By encouraging research institutions to accept large donations attached to restrictive contracts, corporations can influence the direction the institution’s research takes.

In 2015, Coca-Cola funded an institute at the University of Colorado called the Global Energy Balance Network with the purported mission of investigating how to end obesity. Coca-Cola was allowed to draft the organization’s mission statement, design its website, and select its executives—several of whom had previously done paid consulting work for Coca-Cola. With sales of soda declining and the pressure to ban sugary drinks rising, the Global Energy Balance Network used studies funded by Coca-Cola to confuse the public with claims that reducing calories is less important in preventing weight gain than exercise combined with increasing calories. When Coca-Cola’s behind-the-scenes role in the organization and all its conflicts of interest were exposed, the company pulled the plug.

Defending Against the Playbook

Industries return to these same plays over and over because they have been shown to work. That, however, is where UCS comes in, says Genna Reed, science and policy analyst with the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. “Exposing these playbook tactics is one of the best ways to thwart these behaviors that undermine science and threaten our health and safety. There are plenty of examples of individuals and communities exposing counterfeit science, defending scientists, and shining a spotlight on undue corporate influence. And we want to see even more of them.” See the box for one example—and how you can get involved.


How You Can Stand up to Powerful Interests

Underdogs take heart—we’ve got their playbook

Professor Jim Holstun exposed conflicts of interest between the fossil fuel industry and a pro-fracking institute started on his university’s campus. The institute shut down later that year.
Brendan Bannon for The New York Times

If the odds of beating the Disinformation Playbook and its corporate practitioners seem long, consider a recent example in which pressure applied by individuals working together won the day: in 2012, when the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo’s new Shale Resources and Society Institute issued a report on fracking written by researchers previously funded by the oil and gas industry, English professor Jim Holstun joined with other faculty members to draw attention to the conflict of interest. “This report reflects the interests of the gas companies, not scholarship,” he said. “We look bad.” A petition his group circulated eventually drew 10,500 signatures and, combined with support from some SUNY trustees and media coverage of the controversy, forced the university to shut down the institute later that year.

All of us can play a role to help keep science working in the public interest:

  • Share the Disinformation Playbook. The more people know the plays, the less effective they become.
  • Become a Science Champion. Go to www.ScienceChampions.org and we’ll help you inform your local media or elected officials about attacks on science when they occur.
  • Set the record straight. Challenge disinformation in the media by posting comments or writing letters to the editor. See where the “experts” spreading disinformation get their funding at OpenSecrets.org.
  • Watch where your money goes. Make conscious consumer choices (e.g., investments, retail purchases) to avoid supporting companies that advance disinformation campaigns.

And if you’re a scientist:

  • Be a watchdog. Join the UCS Science Network and we’ll give you tools and training to work with communities affected by disinformation.
  • Blow the whistle. Federal employees are protected by agency policies, and UCS offers ways for you to share information securely and to connect with experienced lawyers.
  • Play a visible role. Nominate yourself or a colleague to serve on a federal scientific advisory committee.