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Disinformation, no information

You won’t find any grassroots when a movement is this plastic. Dominic Alves

Environmental policy in Australia and elsewhere would be more stringent if not for the disinformation campaign. ClimateEthics.org, one of Time Magazine’s top ten environmental websites, has recently published a series of entries on the climate change disinformation campaign calling for a distinction between reasonable scientific scepticism and the tactics of the disinformation campaign.

Tactics include “reckless disregard for the truth”, “focusing on unknowns while ignoring knowns”, “specious claims of “bad” science”, and “the creation of front groups” such as the Global Climate Coalition, the Greening Earth Society and in Australia as the Landscape Guardians. These “Astroturf” – that is, not really “grassroots” – organisations have been set up by players in and around the fossil fuel industry to argue against the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.

To the list of tactics, two more can be added. The first is exaggeration about the impact of environmental policy on employment and production in mining and manufacturing. For example, the Minerals Council of Australia claimed that the carbon tax could cut 23,500 forecasted jobs out to 2020 without industry assistance.

Chapman and Lounkaew analysed this claim and point out that around 370,000 people move in to and out of employment on average every month or around 1,540 people per hour. They conclude that 23,500 jobs would be invisible given these movements.

A second extension to the disinformation campaign is the role of the media in pushing agendas. For example, the State of the Climate 2012 report was recently released. It points out that ocean and land temperatures continue to rise. The Conversation provided a detailed summary and the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age published a short summary. However, the News Corporation publications including The Australian, Melbourne’s Herald Sun, and Sydney’s Telegraph, were less accommodating.

The Australian did publish four opinion pieces that in some respect referenced the State of the Climate report. However two of these were sceptical about anthropogenic climate change creating the illusion of scientific doubt over the issue. In fact, 97% of climatologists who are active publishers on climate change believe that human activity is a significant factor in climate change.

The Herald Sun and the Telegraph did not publish any articles on the report. They both have a very large readership and their readers did not get the chance to even learn about the existence of the report. This lack of information is also a form of disinformation.

The disinformation campaign represents a form of power – a discourse used to persuade. Based on the work of John Kenneth Galbraith, Kesting argues that the basic instrument of corporate power is “changing knowledge and belief by means of persuasion” and to build up consensus “against competing interests and values in the larger society”.

Pressman highlights that large firms can mould public opinion through advertising and even “urge the public that environmental damage is imaginary, or benign, or being eliminated” and “influence the political process to their advantage”. In Galbraith’s terms, pollution can be made to seem “palatable or worth the cost”.

Such use of power influences environmental policy. It changes the perceptions of voters and removes public support. In Pressman’s words, the government must “counter the power of large business firms” and this includes countering and dealing with the disinformation campaign.

Join the conversation

32 Comments sorted by

  1. Blair Donaldson
    Blair Donaldson is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Researcher & Skeptic

    Neil, excellent article. It's a pity there is not some requirement to provide balanced reporting in all recognised newspapers. Lying by omission or exaggeration should be exposed, the journalist responsible called to account as should the editor of the publication concerned. Presumably people buy newspapers to be informed, when facts are misrepresented or exaggerated or intentionally omitted, the public suffer a disservice.

    I realise opinion pieces generally come with some slant but even so, the central facts of the topic under discussion should not be misrepresented in an effort to sway public opinion. How can we have an informed public if the public isn't fully informed?

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  2. Tim Scanlon

    Author and Scientist

    What concerns me the most about disinformation campaigns is that they are more and more structured and organised. To quote one such organiser "I want my opinion heard, so I make sure I voice it in every forum I have access to." He was promoting and teaching how to do this in forums, blogs, social media, correspondence with politicians, book reviews, etc, etc. Say it and say it loud, done often enough you are heard.

    Of course, this active disinformation is almost the opposite of what informed and scientific discussion involves. It is much harder to extend knowledge, it has to be explained and understood, after extensive research and time investment. Disinformation isn't limited in this way.

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  3. Matthew Robinson

    logged in via Twitter

    Neil, you are describing precisely the same tactics used by the anti-nuclear movement. None of what you say is surprising or new.

    The anti-nuclear movement have had many years to solidify their tactics. They get elected into positions of power, they masquerade as experts in nuclear technology and radiation, they use the media and feed off public fear.

    And the anti-nuclear movement are operating in a world where nuclear power has proven itself to be safe - far safer than their 'predictions'.

    So I understand your grievances, but I have little sympathy. It's something you and all of us have to live with.

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    1. Neil Perry

      Research Lecturer at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Matthew Robinson

      Thanks for the comments everyone. Just a quick note on Matthew's post which I appreciate. I have no doubt the disinformation campaign cuts both ways and the anti-nuclear lobby may be a good example. (Of course "safer" doesn't mean safe as witnessed by the Fukushima disaster just last year).

      However, in terms of the disinformation campaign, the question comes down to where the economic power is. The fossil fuel industry, from mining to distribution, has economic power. The renewable energy industry and those concerned with the environment have no or limited economic power. The disinformation campaign is controlled by those with power.

      As Misha mentions and you imply, this is very hard to regulate. Thus, even though it is not new to point out that a disinformation campaign exists, we must be diligent in continuing to uncover its many forms.

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    2. Matthew Robinson

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Neil Perry

      Thanks for your response, Neil. With all due respect, you have demonstrated another key aspect of disinformation - point of view.

      From your point of view (based on your response) Fukushima was a nuclear disaster.

      From my point of view Fukushima was a natural disaster that also proved the general safety of nuclear power. It should be noted that this very event actually converted several high-profile environmentalists to a public pro-nuclear stance. You consider the radiation leaks to be the major event here. I consider the successful containment of the vast majority of nuclear fuel to be a triumph of engineering (even though the plant was old and had it's own flaws).

      Further, almost 20,000 people died from the earthquake and tsunami. None of those fatalities were associated with the nuclear event. But the media instead concentrates on the nuclear side. The real fatalities are the forgotten victims of this terrible disaster.

      Point of view.

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    3. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Matthew Robinson

      Gday Matthew, perhaps people developed anti-nuclear views during the Cold War, when there were solid linkages between nuclear power generation and weapons proliferation. Indeed, nuclear power based on uranium fission rather than thorium fission was developed precisely because uranium fission could be weaponised, and used to produce plutonium for hydrogen bombs.

      Those concerns may well be revived if Cold War relic North Korea's proposed missile test proceeds.

      Nuclear power based on thorium has the benefit of not being self-sustaining; in order to continue reacting, throium piles require continual external ignition. This means that thorium reactors won't melt down as did uranium reactors at
      Fukushima and Chernobyl.

      Because there is limited/no military application, practical thorium-based power generation has not been developed; Australia would do well to co-operate with India to complete this work.

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    4. Matthew Robinson

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to David Arthur

      Thanks David. I agree, and I have been following the Thorium MSR and LFTR technology timelines with great interest.

      On the misinformation front (the topic of this thread), much of the FUD around radiation was actively propagated by the US and the USSR (and their respective allies) to serve their Mutually Assured Destruction message. It just shows that misinformation can be as much a tool of legitimate nation states as of militant vested interest groups.

      Of course it must be also noted that knowledge of radiation effect was at it's infancy during the Cold War. It has unfortunately taken the events of WWII, Chernobyl and now Fukushima to provide the bulk of our recent knowledge of radiation.

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    5. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Matthew Robinson

      I'm not sure that Neil's implied description of Fukushima as a "disaster" constitutes disinformation. For Japan, the accident constituted considerable disruption in addition to the effects of the tsunami; reactor meltdown was disastrous from the perspectives of TEPCO's finances, and Japan's economic dependence on its power supply.

      The Fukushima accident was foreseeable, and could have been avoided; it was well-known that reactor integrity was dependent on potentially disruptable cooling water supply, yet modifications to ensure security of cooling water supply were not undertaken.

      I assume the acronym FUD stands for "Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt". My understanding is that the 1950's were replete with FUD for reasons other than risk aversion with respect to atomic warfare.

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  4. Misha Ketchell

    Managing Editor at The Conversation

    This is a fantastic post. The deliberate spreading of disinformation is a form of intellectual dishonesty that is utterly inexcusable. It's a fraud on the public. It's probably impossible to regulate because of the implications for free speech, but it's always worth calling it out for what it is.

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  5. Carole Hubbard

    conservationist

    I'm a climate change skeptic, and judging by the posts I've read so far, I'm in the minority. I think the public get fed a lot of disinformation on many things and this is just another scare campaign by the powers that be to corale the people into yet another tax and the need for more frugality, and legislation imposed to make the world into more of something reminescent of Orwell's 1984.
    What isn't taken into account is the military's development of weather control as "the ultimate weapon". If…

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Carole Hubbard

      Thanks Carol. You suggest that you might be in the minority regarding concerns about climate change; perhaps this is because your views have been formed in the absence of the following observations.

      1. Sun irradiates earth with short-wave energy.
      2. Earth re-radiates long-wave energy.
      3. Greenhouse gases retard transmission of long-wave energy, not short-wave energy.
      4. Greenhouse gases thus regulate earth's temperature. Altering atmospheric greenhouse gas content therefore alters earth's…

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    2. Carole Hubbard

      conservationist

      In reply to David Arthur

      David, you're getting a bit scientific there - all that really needs to be said is that the sun causes heating, which results in more water vapor and clouds, which causes cooling. Or you could say that if CO2 causes heating, then more clouds and then cooling. The science just isn't there to support GW just a lot of computer modeling which may or may not be correct. Note that the weather bureau can't predict the weather more than a week ahead.
      I'm afraid the GW is a con promoted by political interests using dodgy science.

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    3. Carole Hubbard

      conservationist

      In reply to Blair Donaldson

      The global elite use fear to manipulate and control people. "The sky is falling, unless everybody lives a more austere lifestyle we'll all be doomed, people need to pay a new tax to save the world", etc.
      Read my lips Blair, the science just isn't there, its all smoke and mirrors which unfortunatley even a lot of highly educated academics get sucked into.
      There are so many suppressed inventions that would alleviate reliance on fossil fuels which anybody can read about around the internet. If fossil fuels were the cause of GW, why is oil still used to run cars, when there are inventions that would stop it.
      And anyway, think about this -- why is CO2 touted as the cause of GW and all the polluting chemicals not even mentioned? I think that the environment needs to be cleaned up from pollution but that's a totally different issue to CO2 causing non-existant GW.

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    4. Blair Donaldson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Carole Hubbard

      Don't tell me, you are also against vaccinations, think the world is only 6000 years old, that 9/11 was an inside job, think aircraft contrails are actually fiendishly designed viruses that will warp our thinking so we'll become dupes for the illuminati all in timely fashion for a one world government?

      You haven't provided a single shred of evidence for your claims.

      If you had bothered to learn a little about the science underlying concerns about anthropogenic climate change, you would know that CO2 is only one of the gases we are concerned about.

      As I said earlier, get informed. You are making yourself look silly. You don't seem to realise you are playing right into the hands of those who are only interested in business as usual and stuff the planet. Bob Carter and Ian Plimer must laugh when they see the kinds of confused comments you have stated here.

      Do some homework:
      Merchants of Doubt, written by Naomi Oreskes And Erik M Conway
      http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org/

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    5. Carole Hubbard

      conservationist

      In reply to Blair Donaldson

      I bet you're an academic -- they seem to be the most dumbed-down of the lot and indoctrinated into all the new world order, global elite policies.
      I got my information from a BBC that aired 17 years ago called "The Greenhouse Conspiracy" where some top people in the field were interviewed.
      They say that the case for GW rests on 4 pillars, none of which have been proven. See transcript at http://www.angelfire.com/dc/gaudcert/globwarm3.htm
      "The case for the greenhouse theory rests on four pillars…

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    6. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Carole Hubbard

      Carole, the "case for the greenhouse theory" rests on the observations that I have set out for you.

      There have been 17 years of observations since this BBC report on which you made up your mind; it's no longer a "theory" for which a case is to be made, it's an observed reality.

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    7. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Carole Hubbard

      Carole, your argument depends on the assumption that clouds cause cooling that completely balances greenhouse warming. If that was the case, then the world wouldn't warm at all, in which case there'd be no increased evaporation and hence no increased cloud cover.

      You suggest that concern about global warming is encouraged by some global elite for purposes of crowd control; it is more plausible that Denial of global warming is encouraged by a global elite who make lots of money out of producing and selling fossil fuels.

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    8. Carole Hubbard

      conservationist

      In reply to David Arthur

      Sorry David, there are factors that you just aren't taking into account ie the bureaucratic thrust for a totalitarian world government, which is using GW as a trojan horse to introduce treaties that would bring it into effect.
      Come back when you understand a little on how much propaganda goes into making policy.
      Also take a look at "Lord Monckton: Global Warming Exposed Fraud" on youtube.

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    9. Carole Hubbard

      conservationist

      In reply to David Arthur

      David, clouds are one element that goes into making up the weather. There are many other factors including el nino, natural climate variability, sun activity. The whole argument for GW is a red herring, designed to formulate towards a one world government introducing taxes supposedly to save the planet from human activity.
      Checkout video on youtube, Andrew Bolt talks to MIT environmental scientist - entitled "Prof. Richard Lindzen reveals the real reason for the carbon tax "
      And as I said before, until you can grasp the concept that most of the scare tactics that push people to go along with things are propaganda, such as war being necessary to make the world safe for democracy, and reduced carbon tax designed to save the world from human activity etc, you just aren't seeing the whole picture. The public are intimidated into going along with all this stuff. The IPCC is a political body, not a scientific one.

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    10. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Carole Hubbard

      Carole, with all due respect, you've been suckered by the post-Modern "my reality is as valid as your reality" nonsense of the people who just want us all to shut up and continue being happy little vegemites.

      All this bureaucratic stuff you're on about irrelevant to the science.

      I'm fully aware that propaganda goes into policy; the CPRS, as with all emission trading schemes, is an example of financial institutions trying to get nations to sign up to emission trading as the way to address…

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    11. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Carole Hubbard

      Lindzen's not credible on global warming. His argument is that the atmosphere's only warmed up a bit over the last century during which time atmospheric CO2 has increased by about 30%, so global warming can't be much of a problem.

      This neglects several of major factors, a couple of which are as follows

      * for much of that time, air pollution was limiting the amount of sunlight that got to the surface. After legislation to decrease atmospheric lead from leaded petrol and to stop acid rain was…

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    12. Blair Donaldson
      Blair Donaldson is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Researcher & Skeptic

      In reply to Carole Hubbard

      Sadly I'm not an academic but I do have a healthy respect for Occam's Razor and critical thinking. Your simplistic conspiracy theories don't provide any evidence let alone any solutions, they just try and point the finger of blame at non-existent entities that are purely figments of your imagination.

      Given that you seem to base much of your argument on a 17-year-old documentary, it's not surprising your comments are out of touch with our current understanding. With due respect, I don't think you have the faintest idea of the science behind AGW and it's sad you epitomise the kind of fuzzy thinking people like Monckton, Plimer and Lindzen have encouraged over the last few decades. You are living proof that if you tell people nonsense often enough for long enough, they'll believe it.

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    13. Carole Hubbard

      conservationist

      In reply to David Arthur

      Blair, I could say the same to you. With all due respect you have been caught up in the status quo, to support a system that is mired in corruption but you can't see the forest for the trees.
      You're the one who wants everybody to go along with establishment thinking and believe all the scare tactics to get people to go along with whatever austerity measures are deemed necessary, even if we all end up living in a world that is more reminiscent of Orwell's 1984 with big brother pulling the strings and the people giving up all their rights and living under some sort of totalitarian system.
      Forget it, the science isn't there, it is faulty and there are plenty of meteorologists who think GW is a con.

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    14. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Carole Hubbard

      Carole, my concern with the consequences of changing atmospheric greenhouse gas content long precedes any popular concern, and is based in the understanding of molecules and energy and radiation.

      In other words, Carole, I understood that there would be consequences of changing greenhouse gas content from my undergraduate chemistry, in around 1980. My understanding of the consequences of changing atmospheric greenhouse gas content is NOT based on anything to do with Orwell's vision.

      Anyway…

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    15. Blair Donaldson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Carole Hubbard

      Again you failed to provide any evidence to support your claims, you're nothing more than a victim of self-inflicted ignorance. Your magical thinking is no answer to peer-reviewed science.

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    16. Michael J. I. Brown

      ARC Future Fellow and Senior Lecturer at Monash University

      In reply to Carole Hubbard

      Actually, "The Greenhouse Conspiracy" was a broadcast on Channel 4 back in 1990 (not the BBC 17 years ago). Many of the people being interviewed (Michaels, Spencer, Lindzen) are present in the debate today and many of the (debunked) arguments have not changed.

      For example, the urban heat island argument appears in this film and it keeps getting trotted out now. However, this has been studied, taken into account, and the impact on estimates of global temperature is small (http://www.skepticalscience.com/urban-heat-island-effect-intermediate.htm).

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    17. Carole Hubbard

      conservationist

      In reply to Michael J. I. Brown

      No, none of the four pillars of contention mentioned in The Greenhouse Conspiracy have been debunked. When you say "debunk" what is usually meant is a rush to do damage control. There is no global warming apart from normal temperature variation. Nobody can prove there is.
      Don't you just love that word "debunk" as if its the last and final, never-to-be-challenged ever again word on the topic.
      Sorry, global warming is just another con being foisted on the public to manipulate and control policy decisions.

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    18. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Carole Hubbard

      "Four pillars"? You mean the following (ref Gerlich & Tscheuschner, "Falsifcation Of The Atmospheric CO2 Greenhouse Effects Within The Frame Of Physics", v 4.0 2009)

      1. the factual evidence, i.e. the climate records, that supposedly suggest that a global warming has been observed and is exceptional;
      2. the assumption that carbon dioxide is the cause of these changes;
      3. the predictions of climate models that claim that a doubling of CO2 leads to a predictable global warming;
      4. the underlined…

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