A Brief History of Astroturfing
To examine the history of astroturfing — a targeted misinformation campaign
common in many industries — we have to begin far from the disappearing
Bangladeshi coastline... Our story lands in a cool corporate headquarters
in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
My interest is personal. About a dozen years ago, I picked up a weekly
newspaper in Nova Scotia for the very first time, and found my name emblazoned
on the cover. The newspaper's publisher had written a long editorial refuting
a column that I had written about the dangers of secondhand smoke.
On the surface, casual readers no doubt thought the publisher had handed
me my ass on a platter. He quoted scientific studies left and right to
show that I was just blowing smoke, and didn't know what I had been talking
about. Secondhand smoke wasn't dangerous, he opined, just annoying.
But I had done my research, so I was able to fire back — with both barrels
— in The Coast,
Halifax's alternative paper, a week later.
In just a few paragraphs, I was able to demonstrate that the comprehensive
study that he had quoted extensively had, in fact, been written and paid
for by big tobacco companies, and every so-called fact he had quoted was
demonstrably false. The publisher of a small newspaper had been duped,
by the latest and greatest form of false advertising: Astroturfing.
Here's what I wrote to show how the confusion was propagated, and how
the tobacco companies were managing to get the media to proclaim what they
Consider this tangled web. Lung specialist Gary Huber works at the University
of Texas, but his research is fully-funded by a law firm that merely
funnels money from the tobacco industry. One day, Huber writes an article
for a small consumer magazine stating that the research and epidemiological
studies on secondhand smoke are poorly-conceived and flawed. Writer Michael
Furmento, unaware of Huber’s tobacco company connections, writes an article
that quotes Huber — and five other researchers whose work is funded by
big tobacco — extensively in an article for Investor’s Business Daily.
Joshua Sullum, a prominent pro-business journalist with The Wall
Street Journal really likes what he’s reading, and writes a series
of articles that are based on Fumento and Huber’s original articles.
The folks at a major tobacco company — RJR Reynolds — also like what
they’re reading, and so they gleefully reprint one of Sullum’s opinion
pieces in a nationwide full-page ad with the banner: If We
Said It, You Might Not Have Believe It.
Phillip Morris goes even further, reprinting Sullum’s article in most
major national newspapers in the US for six days.
With such incredible expenditures, no wonder the waters are muddied,
and columnists at small Halifax, Nova Scotia weeklies are hoodwinked.
[His] column last week asserts that one truly comprehensive
study on the direct level of exposure to “passive” smoke by nonsmokers
has determined that, on average, nonsmokers who are exposed to sidestream
smoke — because their partners indulge — are inhaling the equivalent
of one cigarette per week.
Even I can admit that hardly sounds significant.
But see how clever it is, for the assertion contains just a whiff of
truth. If you only consider nicotine, which is barely present in sidestream
cigarette smoke — that figure is accurate. But while nicotine is addictive,
it doesn’t cause cancer.
University of California researcher Katherine Hammond discovered that
the many other components in cigarette smoke, which do cause cancer,
are present in much greater concentrations.
Using the [publisher's] example, a nonsmoker exposed to their partner’s
pack-a-day habit will inhale six cigarettes’ worth of deadly benzene
each week; 17 cigarettes’ worth of 4ABP, a known human carcinogen, and
75 cigarettes’ worth of N-Nitrosodimenthylamine, a potent animal carcinogen.
Passive smoking doesn’t seem all that passive any more, and it’s certainly
Astroturfing began just like that, when smoking companies set up dummy
research institutes and foundations to help people "learn the truth." But
what they were really doing was trying to confuse people, and delay the
implementation of tough smoking laws. And it worked. Their money bought
a 10 or 12 year reprieve from legislation, giving them more than enough
time to hook another generation. They are laughing all the way to the bank.
But the story doesn't end there. The oil companies, Exxon in particular,
also liked what they were seeing.
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