Misinformation and disinformation are everywhere, it seems. The former is information that is inaccurate or flat-out wrong on established facts, such as claims that vaccines or face masks don’t work as preventative measures against respiratory viruses like COVID-19. The latter, disinformation, is an intentional programmatic campaign to confuse or obscure the facts for political or financial advantage. For example, it is well established that the tobacco industry carried out a campaign of disinformation for years to keep selling products they knew to be deadly, to stave off public health and safety protections. Similarly, while fossil fuel companies knew for decades that their products and marketing strategies were impacting the earth’s climate, they set out to obfuscate that information to perpetuate business growth and profits, and prevent governmental action to mitigate climate change.
It can be tempting to want to confront the messenger and correct the message. While there is a way to do this, if we truly want to combat disinformation, we need to look at the people and corporations funding and fueling it. We need to dig deeper. These disinformation campaign strategies are not the products of a corporate board room or individual companies. They were developed as a political strategy long ago, and adopted as a means to an end, pushing back against those campaigning for civil rights, labor rights, social justice, environmental justice, and the public interest rather than corporate interest.
Let’s play Political Jeopardy!
And choose the category of “Disinformation Campaigns,” for all the marbles.
Answer: On this day 50 years ago, at the request of the US Chamber of Commerce, a Virginia tobacco lobbyist and future Supreme Court Justice wrote a memorandum that was shared with the Chamber’s 100,000 members. That memorandum was a blueprint for “the survival of business and the free enterprise system” in the face of the civil rights, consumer safety, labor, and environmental gains made in the 1960s.
Question: Who was Lewis F. Powell, Jr.?
Correct! In his manifesto, entitled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” Powell urged corporate leaders to collectively bend government, the courts, the media, and academia to the will of corporations.
Answer: There was genuine fear among businessmen that capitalism needed to be defended from these public figures.
Question: Who were “the likes of Ralph Nader, Rachel Carson, and liberal academics?”
Yes! As Donald Cohen put it in his book Dismantling Democracy, Powell stoked this fear and called for a concerted campaign for business leaders to take greater control of academia, media, public messages, and government by any means necessary to defend “free enterprise.”
Answer: Powell viewed these institutions as the “most dynamic source” of the attack on business and free enterprise, especially due to “imbalance”.
Question: What is academia?
Correct! Powell held particular suspicion and ire for university faculties that were ”unbalanced.” He called for finding and funding free market scholars and supporting them on the public speaking circuit and in media. Powell encouraged business leaders to advocate for “diverse views” and concepts like “balance, fairness and truth” as he noted this messaging would be “difficult to resist, if properly presented…”
According to the Powell memo:
“Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”
As Jane Mayer pointed out in her book Dark Money [p.87], Powell called for “an aggressive expansion of corporate legal and political power and, specifically, greater spending by corporate interests to influence political outcomes.” In Powell’s words, “… [P]olitical power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously (sic) cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination… [in] support of the enterprise system. Nor should there be reluctance to penalize those who oppose it.”
These efforts gave rise to “think tanks” like The Heritage Foundation, established in 1973, that sell predetermined ideology to the public and politicians, in direct opposition to the scientific goals of open, transparent, and scholarly research. They worked to denigrate established scholarly organizations like The Brookings Institution as “equally biased but on the liberal side (Mayer, p.81).”
The Cato Institute was also established shortly after a speech by Charles Koch modeled on the Powell Memo, followed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, State Policy Network, and in 2003, the first of Koch’s bi-annual donor summits. These summits, alongside the tri-annual Council for National Policy meetings, have served as critical umbrella groups and foundational infrastructure for the business community to take heed of Powell’s clarion call.
Origins of the playbook
These are the leading organizations that pioneered what my colleagues and I call the “Disinformation Playbook,” tactics used again and again to halt government public health protections, confuse the public, and dominate the public narrative. They have pushed anti-science disinformation campaigns across the policy landscape on issues ranging from climate science and public health and safety, to the current battle over voting rights and political representation. Again and again, we have seen the same actors damaging the integrity of science and the role of scientists in policymaking, whether it is fossil fuel lobbyists promoting public confusion over climate science, ALEC’s “industry-friendly” model legislation, or Heritage Action’s “toolkit” for promoting the myth of voter fraud and enacting voting rights restrictions.
According to Mayer in Dark Money [p.74-76]. “… it was Powell’s memo that electrified the Right, prompting a new breed of wealthy ultraconservatives to weaponize their philanthropic giving in order to fight a multifront war of influence over American political thought.” It inspired “ philanthropists” like Richard Scaife, Joseph Coors, and Charles Koch to pour money into building up the capacity and infrastructure as Powell directed.
The Powell Memo is one of the most influential policy documents in US history and yet, hardly anyone knows about it.
What has this to do with science? Echoing the words of my colleague Dr. Michael Latner, “Where democracy is strong, science is elevated and respected, because both share fundamental principles: respect for evidence, a commitment to openness and transparency, and not just tolerance but a hunger for opposing views.”
Yes, our legislators have played a crucial role in enabling and even disseminating disinformation, including on climate change, the pandemic, and racial justice. But remember that behind each of them is a highly coordinated, fully integrated, and insanely well-funded network of financial interests. While we cannot outspend them, we CAN out-organize them. And it starts with exposing these players and taking action to protect our democratic institutions.
Thanks for playing Political Jeopardy! If you’re wondering what you can do about disinformation, visit our resource page for real information.
My colleagues Lindsey Berger and Michael Latner contributed to this post.