China’s state media have been using the pandemic and U.S. protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd to rally its citizens at home, as Beijing’s relationships around the world grow tenser. Photo Composite: Crystal Tai/WSJ
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In a new era of tinfoil-hat diplomacy, official sources are legitimizing conspiracy theories from the internet.
he coronavirus that became a global pandemic first surfaced late last year in Wuhan, China. But according to one common narrative making its way around Chinese messaging apps, an American soldier was patient zero. “Chinese netizens and experts” are urging the United States to release health information about a U.S. delegate who attended the Military World Games in Wuhan, asserted a February 22 story from Global Times. The publication, an offshoot of the Chinese Communist Party organ People’s Daily, insinuated that a U.S. military cyclist might have brought the disease from Fort Detrick in Maryland. Chatter about American origins of the disease had begun a month earlier, in the wilds of China’s chat services and on tiny YouTube channels. That alone wouldn’t have amounted to much; conspiracies are as common on social media as ants at a picnic, and the small accounts speculating about “bioweapons” and “the USA virus” got little early traction.
But this time, Chinese state media picked up the story from internet chatter and turned it into an international phenomenon involving not only official media channels but influential diplomats as well. State channels with massive Facebook followings backed away from prior acknowledgments that the virus had originated in Wuhan, recasting the idea as merely a theory—just one of many unknowns. Zhao Lijian, the spokesman and deputy director general of the Information Department of China’s Foreign Ministry, speculated to his half-million followers on Twitter that the United States was secretly concealing early 2020 COVID-19 deaths in annual flu counts. In an unusually overt act of tinfoil-hat diplomacy, he shared an article from the notorious anti-American crackpot site GlobalResearch. The headline reads, “COVID-19: Further Evidence that the Virus Originated in the U.S.”
While spreading conspiracy theories—stories involving claims that shadowy, powerful interests have secretly engineered events to their own advantage—is a time-honored ploy by which states try to discredit their rivals, the first global pandemic of the social-media era shows just how efficiently wild theories can travel. And as Zhao’s Twitter account shows, state-sponsored propaganda has become deeply entangled with anonymous conspiracy mongering. Authority figures are now legitimizing tropes from the recesses of the internet—and ensuring mass popular awareness of those ideas.
State-sponsored media have long played a role in geopolitical power games. Since World War II, the TV, radio, and print media channels of many governments have created what some experts call “white propaganda”: messaging for which official sources claim authorship. (In gray and black propaganda, the origins are partially or entirely concealed.) In the present day, white propaganda has expanded to include the social-network presences of official channels, as well as the individual accounts of bureaucrats and top politicians. Sometimes, the messages these outlets carry are meant for a regime’s own citizens; other times, the outside world.
Messaging from state media also goes by another, friendlier name: public diplomacy. While academics debate the line between propaganda and public diplomacy, in an interconnected world, having the ability to shape narratives is an imperative. The long-term goal is to make people think favorably of the country and its rulers. In other words, it’s a branding exercise. But in the shorter term, state media channels are also used for more direct advocacy campaigns, convincingly conveying an official point of view on specific issues to those outside its borders. In more heated times, this may extend to smearing an adversary’s government, institutions, or policies. But the narrative manipulation around COVID-19 on China’s official state channels has escalated far beyond spin to outright conspiracy.
From the beginning, the Chinese Communist Party has been struggling to manage both domestic and outside perception of its handling of the outbreak of the disease now known as COVID-19. The coronavirus’s rapid spread within China, and its high death toll, triggered a domestic crisis of confidence in President Xi Jinping’s leadership. Although dissent is often quickly censored, Chinese social-media forums were flooded with comments about Xi being “gutless” for not going to Wuhan, among other criticisms. The situation didn’t play any better internationally: The revelation that the Chinese government knew of the outbreak for two full weeks before taking steps to contain it outraged people worldwide and prompted accusations of a cover-up.
As the crisis has begun to recede within China, with Wuhan exiting lockdown and new infections dropping to a trickle, the Communist Party’s public-diplomacy efforts have gone into overdrive: At the Stanford Internet Observatory, where I work, we gathered months of China’s English-language state-media Facebook posts, identifying key themes that were pushed repeatedly: stories of survival rather than deaths, glowing coverage of the “construction miracle” of new hospitals (whose sudden appearance was framed as the result of patriotic engineering ingenuity, rather than as proof of the need to bolster an overwhelmed medical system), and claims that China had bought the world time through its aggressive containment procedures. One remarkable China Daily article from February 20 boasted, “Were it not for the unique institutional advantages of the Chinese system, the world might be battling a devastating pandemic.” The item also slammed international criticism as the result of “ingrained bias against the country.” Other stories presented a rosy revisionist history. State media coverage of the death of the whistleblower optometrist, Li Wenliang, mourned him as a hero, and entirely neglected to mention his detention by police after he discussed the emerging virus in a chat group of close friends. As the writer Louisa Lim put it in Foreign Policy, “China is trying to rewrite the present.”
The Chinese Communist Party has prioritized “persuasion and information management” for years. It has amassed an extensive white-propaganda apparatus since 2000, building and buying TV, radio, and print media, optimizing localized content and messaging in a wide range of languages. Since 2015, it has invested in building a massive English-language presence for its media properties on the very same social networks it has banned within its own border. The English-language Facebook pages for the state-owned newspaper China Daily and the official Xinhua News Agency have more than 75 million followers each; and the China Global Television Network has a following of 99 million; by contrast, CNN has 32 million and Fox News has 18 million. Part of this growth has come from running paid ads on social-media platforms that China’s own citizens are blocked from using. My team has studied hundreds of state-media ads from Facebook’s recently launched political-ads archive. They are targeted at English speakers worldwide. Throughout 2019, the ads frequently involved friendly images of pandas and kittens, highlighted Chinese art and culture, and amplified feel-good political stories.
In February 2020, they took a different turn. The ads began boosting state media coverage of the coronavirus, with dozens of ads praising Xi for his leadership and emphasizing China’s ability to contain the disease. They incorporated hashtags such as #UnityIsStrength and #CombatCoronavirus, predictions of a quick economic recovery, and stories in which world leaders in Italy, Serbia, and elsewhere express gratitude to China. By March 2020, angry ads appeared in the mix, promoting outraged coverage of President Donald Trump’s use of the term Chinese virus.
Of course, Facebook pages for broadcast media aren’t the Communist Party’s only messaging tool. For years, it has also run peer-to-peer persuasion strategies involving influencers, trolls, bots, and commenter armies. The comment legions—called Wumao, or the 50 Cent Army—have been a shadowy presence on China’s internet and message-board ecosystem for more than a decade. The party has also tried using Twitter bots and Facebook sock puppets, including those uncovered during the 2019 Hong Kong protests. Politico and other investigative journalism teams have reported that similar shenanigans are happening in the coronavirus conversation as well, though attribution remains a challenge; connecting hypernationalist activity back to direct orders from the party is difficult.
That managing the narrative is a top priority for the Communist Party is abundantly clear. Among the nine members of China’s task force for managing the COVID-19 response are the party’s policy czar for ideology and propaganda and the director of its Central Propaganda Department.
Political conspiracy theories appear even in the analog propaganda of decades past. Mark Fenster, the author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, describes them as a “populist theory of power” serving an important communication function: helping unite the audience (“the people”) against an imagined secretive, powerful elite. So when state media in China, for example, create or spread these theories, the elite puppet master is the United States, a geopolitical rival. By exposing the villainy of its adversary, the Chinese Communist Party presents itself as a defender of its people.
The “bioweapon” trope is particularly useful, because it can be readily applied to any disease outbreak. During the Cold War, the KGB’s information-operations department was a notorious practitioner of conspiracy as statecraft. Perhaps its greatest hit was the widely believed claim that a secret U.S. government lab created AIDS. A Soviet telegram explaining the operation may sound familiar to those following COVID-19 news today:
The goal of these measures is to create a favorable opinion for us abroad that this disease is the result of secret experiments with a new type of biological weapon by the secret services of the USA and the Pentagon that spun out of control.
That narrative was initially placed in a pro-Soviet Indian newspaper by way of a whistleblower-style anonymous “letter to the editor” in 1983. It spread through newspapers in 80 countries over a period of four years; the Soviets occasionally revived it with relevant twists for whatever local media environment was of strategic interest. But in the era of Facebook and WeChat, these stories become a high-speed information virus themselves, and the murky source of the initial claim disappears as messages spread across chat groups.
State media outlets rarely transmit conspiracies in the form of bold, direct claims. They usually do it through a combination of insinuations: We’re just asking questions, really. This sometimes happens via interviews with conspiracy-theorist guests who claim they’ve been silenced by their own government, or publishing provocative headlines. Russia has elevated this to an art form, with the English-language RT and Sputnik networks regularly featuring those purportedly censored by the American media.
While easy to mock, tinfoil-hat diplomacy serves a purpose for China. Domestically, it’s allowed the Communist Party to distance itself from its own failings by reframing a poorly managed crisis as something that was inflicted on the Chinese people by outsiders. And Chinese state media are far from the only state source “just asking questions” during this pandemic. RT is hosting American kooks who allege on social media that the virus is part of a mass-vaccination campaign masterminded by Bill Gates, while Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is referencing claims that the virus was “specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians.” Americans aren’t above this kind of rumor mongering. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas darkly noted the existence of a Wuhan “biosafety level-four super laboratory” in comments on Twitter and to the media, speculating that COVID-19 is a Chinese bioweapon. But neither mainstream American media nor U.S. government-sponsored entities such as Voice of America are pushing conspiracies as a public-diplomacy strategy. U.S. leaders are, however, demanding increased attention to the information war: Senators Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, and Cory Gardner are calling for a task force to counter Chinese propaganda, and to provide U.S. embassies with guidance on how to counter false narratives locally.
The tension from the information war between the United States and China on the origin of COVID-19 has resulted in increased political brinkmanship; Trump’s administration has requested that the United Nations Security Council include a statement verifying that the virus originated in China in a COVID-19 resolution. Diplomats have been summoned. U.S. reporters have lost press credentials in China. This is not an ideal state of relations at any time, let alone during a pandemic that requires international cooperation.
But letting these narratives spread unchallenged is also not an option. Social-media companies should be paying far closer attention to the stories they’re allowing state-media propagandists to pay to boost. Allowing misleading narratives to take hold during a pandemic can cause immeasurable harm, and risks turning the major tech platforms into accomplices in the deliberate spread of lies. We must keep the focus on finding cures, not fighting over conspiracies.
Xi Jinping has backed out of the spotlight as the country faces its worst crisis in years, reflecting the political risks he faces if efforts to contain the virus fail.
WUHAN, China — President Xi Jinping strode onstage before an adoring audience in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing less than three weeks ago, trumpeting his successes in steering China through a tumultuous year and promising “landmark” progress in 2020.
“Every single Chinese person, every member of the Chinese nation, should feel proud to live in this great era,” he declared to applause on the day before the Lunar New Year holiday. “Our progress will not be halted by any storms and tempests.”
Mr. Xi made no mention of a dangerous new coronavirus that had already taken tenacious hold in the country. As he spoke, the government was locking down Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, in a frantic attempt to stop the virus spreading from its epicenter.
The coronavirus epidemic, which has killed more than 800 people in China as of Sunday and sickened tens of thousands, comes as Mr. Xi has struggled with a host of other challenges: a slowing economy, huge protests in Hong Kong, an election in Taiwan that rebuffed Beijing and a protracted trade war with the United States.
Wuhan Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Spread of the Outbreak
The virus has sickened tens of thousands of people in China and a number of other countries.
Now, Mr. Xi faces an accelerating health crisis that is also a political one: a profound test of the authoritarian system he has built around himself over the past seven years. As the Chinese government struggles to contain the virus amid rising public discontent with its performance, the changes that Mr. Xi has ushered in could make it difficult for him to escape blame.
“It’s a big shock to the legitimacy of the ruling party. I think it could be only second to the June 4 incident of 1989. It’s that big,” said Rong Jian, a writer about politics in Beijing, referring to the armed crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters that year.
“There’s no doubt about his control over power,” he added, “but the manner of control and its consequences have hurt his legitimacy and reputation.”
Mr. Xi himself has recognized what is at stake, calling the outbreak “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance.”
Yet as China’s battle with the coronavirus intensified, Mr. Xi put the country’s No. 2 leader, Li Keqiang, in charge of a leadership group handling the emergency, effectively turning him into the public face of the government’s response. It was Mr. Li who traveled to Wuhan to visit doctors.
Mr. Xi, by contrast, receded from public view for several days. That was not without precedent, though it stood out in this crisis, after previous Chinese leaders had used times of disaster to try to show a more common touch. State television and newspapers almost always lead with fawning coverage of Mr. Xi’s every move.
That retreat from the spotlight, some analysts said, signaled an effort by Mr. Xi to insulate himself from a campaign that may falter and draw public ire. Yet Mr. Xi has consolidated power, sidelining or eliminating rivals, so there are few people left to blame when something goes wrong.
“Politically, I think he is discovering that having total dictatorial power has a downside, which is that when things go wrong or have a high risk of going wrong, then you also have to bear all the responsibility,” said Victor Shih, an associate professor at the University of California San Diego who studies Chinese politics.
Much of the country’s population has been told to stay at home, factories remain closed and airlines have cut service. Experts warn that the coronavirus could slam the economy if not swiftly contained.
The government is also having trouble controlling the narrative. Mr. Xi now faces unusually sharp public discontent that even China’s rigorous censorship apparatus has been unable to stifle entirely.
The death of an ophthalmologist in Wuhan, Dr. Li Wenliang, who was censured for warning his medical school classmates of the spread of a dangerous new disease in December, has unleashed a torrent of pent-up public grief and rage over the government’s handling of the crisis. Chinese academics have launched at least two petitions in the wake of Dr. Li’s death, each calling for freedom of speech.
State media still portray Mr. Xi as ultimately in control, and there’s no sign that he faces a serious challenge from within the party leadership. The crisis, though, has already tainted China’s image as an emerging superpower — efficient, stable and strong — that could eventually rival the United States.
How much the crisis might erode Mr. Xi’s political standing remains to be seen, but it could weaken his position in the longer run as he prepares to take a likely third term as Communist Party general secretary in 2022.
In 2018, Mr. Xi won approval to remove the constitutional limits on his term as the country’s president, making his plan for another five-year term seem all but certain.
If Mr. Xi comes out of this crisis politically insecure, the consequences are unpredictable. He may become more open to compromise within the party elite. Or he may double down on the imperious ways that have made him China’s most powerful leader in generations.
“Xi’s grip on power is not light,” said Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“While the ham-fisted response to this crisis undoubtedly adds a further blemish to Xi’s tenure in office,” Mr. Blanchette added, “the logistics of organizing a leadership challenge against him remain formidable.”
In recent days, despite a dearth of public appearances, state media have portrayed Mr. Xi as a tireless commander in chief. This week they began calling the government’s fight against the virus the “people’s war,” a phrase used in the official readout of Mr. Xi’s telephone call with President Trump on Friday.
There are increasing signs that the propaganda this time is proving less than persuasive.
The Lunar New Year reception in Beijing where Mr. Xi spoke became a source of popular anger, a symbol of a government slow to respond to the suffering in Wuhan. Mr. Xi and other leaders appear to have been caught off guard by the ferocity of the epidemic.
Senior officials would almost certainly have been informed of the emerging crisis by the time national health authorities told the World Health Organization on Dec. 31, but neither Mr. Xi nor other officials in Beijing informed the public.
Mr. Xi’s first acknowledgment of the epidemic came on Jan. 20, when brief instructions were issued under his name. His first public appearance after the lockdown of Wuhan on Jan. 23 came two days later, when he presided over a meeting of the Communist Party’s top body, the Politburo Standing Committee, which was shown at length on Chinese television. “We’re sure to be able to win in this battle,” he proclaimed.
Back then, the death toll was 106. As it rose, Mr. Xi allowed other officials to take on more visible roles. Mr. Xi’s only appearances have been meeting foreign visitors in the Great Hall of the People or presiding over Communist Party meetings.
On Jan. 28, Mr. Xi met with the executive director of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and told Dr. Tedros that he “personally directed” the government’s response. Later reports in state media omitted the phrase, saying instead that Mr. Xi’s government was “collectively directing” the response.
Since nothing about how Mr. Xi is portrayed in state media happens by accident, the tweak suggested a deliberate effort to emphasize shared responsibility.
Mr. Xi did not appear on official broadcasts again for a week — until a highly scripted meeting on Wednesday with the authoritarian leader of Cambodia, Hun Sen.
There is little evidence that Mr. Xi has given up power behind the scenes. Mr. Li, the premier in formal charge of the leadership group for the crisis, and other officials have said that they take their orders from Mr. Xi. The group is filled with officials who work closely under Mr. Xi, and its directives emphasize his authority.
“The way the epidemic is being handled now from the top just doesn’t fit with the argument that there’s been a clear shift toward more collective, consultative leadership,” said Holly Snape, a British Academy Fellow at the University of Glasgow who studies Chinese politics.
The scale of discontent and the potential challenges for Mr. Xi could be measured by repeated references online to the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Many of them came under the guise of viewer reviews of the popular television mini-series of the same name, which is still available for streaming inside China.
“In any era, any country, it’s the same. Cover everything up,” one reviewer wrote.
The Soviet Union of 1986, however, was a different country than China in 2020.
The Soviet state was foundering when Chernobyl happened, said Sergey Radchenko, a professor of international relations at Cardiff University in Wales who has written extensively on Soviet and Chinese politics.
“The Chinese authorities, by contrast, are demonstrating an ability to cope, a willingness to take unprecedented measures — logistical feats that may actually increase the regime’s legitimacy,” he added.
Mr. Radchenko compared Mr. Xi’s actions to those of previous leaders in moments of crisis: Mao Zedong after the Cultural Revolution or Deng Xiaoping after the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
“He’s doing what Mao and Deng would have done in similar circumstances: stepping back into the shadows while remaining firmly in charge.”
Communist Party members using the Study the Great Nation app during a weekly meeting in Beijing in February. Tens of millions of Chinese are now using the app, often under pressure from the government.
CHANGSHA, China — Inside a fishing gear store on a busy city street, the owner sits behind a counter, furiously tapping a smartphone to improve his score on an app that has nothing to do with rods, reels and bait.
The owner, Jiang Shuiqiu, a 35-year-old army veteran, has a different obsession: earning points on Study the Great Nation, a new app devoted to promoting President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party — a kind of high-tech equivalent of Mao’s Little Red Book. Mr. Jiang spends several hours daily on the app, checking news about Mr. Xi and brushing up on socialist theories.
Tens of millions of Chinese workers, students and civil servants are now using Study the Great Nation, often under pressure from the government. It is part of a sweeping effort by Mr. Xi to strengthen ideological control in the digital age and reassert the party’s primacy, as Mao once did, as the center of Chinese life.
While many people have embraced the app as a form of patriotism, others see it as a burden imposed by overzealous officials and another sign of a growing personality cult around Mr. Xi, perhaps China’s most powerful leader since Mao’s time.
“He is using new media to fortify loyalty toward him,” said Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing. He likened Study the Great Nation to the little booklet of Mao quotations that was widely circulated during the chaotic and violent Cultural Revolution.
Since its debut this year, Study the Great Nation has become the most downloaded app on Apple’s digital storefront in China, with the state news media saying it has more than 100 million registered users — a reach that would be the envy of any new app’s creators.
But those numbers are driven largely by the party, which ordered thousands of officials across China to ensure that the app penetrates the daily routines of as many citizens as possible, whether they like it or not.
Schools are shaming students with low app scores. Government offices are holding study sessions and forcing workers who fall behind to write reports criticizing themselves. Private companies, hoping to curry favor with party officials, are ranking employees based on their use of the app and awarding top performers the title of “star learner.”
Many employers now require workers to submit daily screenshots documenting how many points they have earned.
Propaganda is ubiquitous in China, but experts say Study the Great Nation is different because the government is forcing people to use it and punishing those who cheat or fall behind.
The app allows users to Watching a video about his recent visit to France, for example, earns one point. Getting a perfect score on a quiz about his economic policies earns 10.
The app comes as Mr. Xi, who rose to power in 2012, is leading a broader crackdown on free speech in China, imprisoning scores of activists, lawyers and intellectuals, and imposing new restrictions on the news media. Mr. Xi has spoken frequently about what he calls the need to guard against online threats. He has warned that the party could lose its grip on power if it does not master digital media.
“There is no national security without internet security,” Mr. Xi said in a speech this year. “If we cannot succeed on the internet, we will not be able to maintain power in the long run.”
David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, said the app was a way for Mr. Xi to ensure that Chinese families are invested in the life of the party at a time when many dismiss propaganda as stilted and irrelevant.
“Loyalty to the party,” Mr. Bandurski said, “means loyalty to Xi Jinping.”
Study the Great Nation in some ways harkens back to the Mao era, when the chairman’s portrait hung in living rooms and families studied his words feverishly. While Mr. Xi cannot yet match Mao’s grandeur, he has borrowed from Mao’s playbook in his quest to be seen as a singular, transformative force.
The app features a television series called “Xi Time” and Mr. Xi’s quotations on topics like building a strong military and achieving a “Chinese dream” of prosperity and strength. The app recommends stories about Mr. Xi on its home screen and sends push notifications highlighting “golden sentences” from his latest speeches. Even the Chinese name for the app is a play on Mr. Xi’s name.
The app, which also offers lighter fare about traditional Chinese culture, history and geography, presents a censored version of current events. Topics such as China’s mass detention of Muslims are not included.
.. Not everyone is as enthusiastic. In interviews, students and workers complained that superiors publicly chastised them for low scores. Others said bosses threatened to deduct pay or withhold bonuses if they did not use the app more frequently. They did not want to provide their names for fear of punishment, but some have complained online.
Critics say Mr. Xi is intruding into the private lives of Chinese citizens in a way the party has typically avoided since the Mao era. The app makes the party’s messages difficult to ignore, awarding points only when an article has been read completely and a video has been watched for at least three minutes.
“You cannot divert attention away from it,” said Haiqing Yu, a professor who studies Chinese media at RMIT University in Australia. “It’s a kind of digital surveillance. It brings the digital dictatorship to a new level.”
The app, which was developed by the party’s Propaganda Department and the technology giant Alibaba, is available on the Apple app store as well as Android app stores in China. The Propaganda Department keeps user data.
It is unclear how closely the government tracks users of Study the Great Nation, but the app requires people to provide a mobile number to register and a national identification number to access videoconference and chat features.
Given the pressures to use the app, a cheating industry involving at least a dozen products has flourished. A man who listed his contact information in an online advertisement for cheating software said in an interview that many of his more than 1,000 customers saw the app as a burden imposed by bosses. He declined to provide his name for fear of retribution.
The government has moved swiftly to prosecute cheating and limit criticism of the app. The police in the southeastern province of Jiangxi last month detained a man who sold cheating software for about $13. The police said the man was running an illegal business.
The state-run news media teems with glowing reviews of the app, including stories about diligent hospital workers and kindergarten teachers who open Study the Great Nation as soon as they awaken, even before they drink water or go to the bathroom.
The app has inspired videos by prison guards, raps by children and adulatory song-and-dance routines by power plant workers. Some party members have suggested the app can be used as a dating tool to screen potential mates (“If you see a guy on the subway using the app,” says one cartoon, “you should marry him”).
In Changsha, which coincidentally is an hour’s drive from Mao’s childhood home, the local news media has lauded Mr. Jiang, the owner of the fishing gear store, for his high scores. He and his wife sometimes answer questions on the app together at dinner, alongside their 9-year-old son.
Mr. Jiang said his military training had inspired him to devote himself fully to Study the Great Nation. By using the app, he said, he has grown even more patriotic.
“President Xi has a dream of great renaissance,” he said. “When young people are strong, the nation is strong.”
Just before Christmas 1953, the bosses of America’s leading tobacco companies met John Hill, the founder and chief executive of one of America’s leading public relations firms, Hill & Knowlton. Despite the impressive surroundings — the Plaza Hotel, overlooking Central Park in New York — the mood was one of crisis.
Scientists were publishing solid evidence of a link between smoking and cancer. From the viewpoint of Big Tobacco, more worrying was that the world’s most read publication, The Reader’s Digest, had already reported on this evidence in a 1952 article, “Cancer by the Carton”. The journalist Alistair Cooke, writing in 1954, predicted that the publication of the next big scientific study into smoking and cancer might finish off the industry.
.. So successful was Big Tobacco in postponing that day of reckoning that their tactics have been widely imitated ever since. They have also inspired a thriving corner of academia exploring how the trick was achieved.
.. In 1995, Robert Proctor, a historian at Stanford University who has studied the tobacco case closely, coined the word “agnotology”. This is the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced ..
.. In the UK’s EU referendum, the Leave side pushed the false claim that the UK sent £350m a week to the EU. It is hard to think of a previous example in modern western politics of a campaign leading with a transparent untruth, maintaining it when refuted by independent experts, and going on to triumph anyway.
.. The instinctive reaction from those of us who still care about the truth — journalists, academics and many ordinary citizens — has been to double down on the facts.
.. The link between cigarettes and cancer was supported by the world’s leading medical scientists and, in 1964, the US surgeon general himself. The story was covered by well-trained journalists committed to the values of objectivity. Yet the tobacco lobbyists ran rings round them.
- First, the industry appeared to engage, promising high-quality research into the issue. The public were assured that the best people were on the case.
- .. The second stage was to complicate the question and sow doubt: lung cancer might have any number of causes, after all. And wasn’t lung cancer, not cigarettes, what really mattered?
- .. Stage three was to undermine serious research and expertise. Autopsy reports would be dismissed as anecdotal, epidemiological work as merely statistical, and animal studies as irrelevant.
- Finally came normalisation: the industry would point out that the tobacco-cancer story was stale news. Couldn’t journalists find something new and interesting to say?
.. “It’s as if the president’s team were using the tobacco industry’s playbook,” says Jon Christensen
.. One infamous internal memo from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, typed up in the summer of 1969, sets out the thinking very clearly: “Doubt is our product.” Why? Because doubt “is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.” Big Tobacco’s mantra: keep the controversy alive.
Doubt is usually not hard to produce, and facts alone aren’t enough to dispel it.
.. a simple untruth can beat off a complicated set of facts simply by being easier to understand and remember.
.. When doubt prevails, people will often end up believing whatever sticks in the mind
.. The account mentioned petrol cans and paint but later explained that petrol and paint hadn’t been present at the scene after all. The experimental subjects, tested on their comprehension, recalled that paint wasn’t actually there. But when asked to explain facts about the fire (“why so much smoke?”), they would mention the paint. Lacking an alternative explanation, they fell back on a claim they had already acknowledged was wrong
.. This should warn us not to let lie-and-rebuttal take over the news cycle. Several studies have shown that repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick.
.. The myth, after all, was the thing that kept being repeated. In trying to dispel the falsehood, the endless rebuttals simply make the enchantment stronger.
.. This sort of fact-checking article is invaluable to a fellow journalist who needs the issues set out and hyperlinked. But for an ordinary voter, the likely message would be: “You can’t trust politicians but we do seem to send a lot of money to the EU.”
.. he wished the bus had displayed a more defensible figure, such as £240m. But Lilico now acknowledges that the false claim was the more effective one. “In cynical campaigning terms, the use of the £350m figure was perfect,” he says. “It created a trap that Remain campaigners kept insisting on jumping into again and again and again.”
.. The false claim was vastly more powerful than a true one would have been, not because it was bigger, but because everybody kept talking about it.
.. The researchers began with data from 1.2 million internet users but ended up examining only 50,000. Why? Because only 4 per cent of the sample read enough serious news to be worth including in such a study. (The hurdle was 10 articles and two opinion pieces over three months.)
.. known as the “50 cent army”, after the amount contributors were alleged to be paid per post
.. “Almost none of the Chinese government’s 50c party posts engage in debate or argument of any kind . . . they seem to avoid controversial issues entirely . . . the strategic objective of the regime is to distract and redirect public attention.”
.. simply pick a fight with Megyn Kelly, The New York Times or even Arnold Schwarzenegger. Isn’t that more eye-catching than a discussion of healthcare reform?
.. “The tobacco industry was the leading funder of research into genetics, viruses, immunology, air pollution,” says Proctor. Almost anything, in short, except tobacco.
.. Proctor considers its main purpose was to produce interesting new speculative science.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease may be rare, but it was exciting news. Smoking-related diseases such as lung cancer and heart disease aren’t news at all.
.. Proctor describes it as “the opposite of terrorism: trivialism”. Terrorism provokes a huge media reaction; smoking does not. Yet, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, smoking kills 480,000 Americans a year. This is more than 50 deaths an hour. Terrorists have rarely managed to kill that many Americans in an entire year. But the terrorists succeed in grabbing the headlines; the trivialists succeed in avoiding them.
.. the truth can feel threatening, and threatening people tends to backfire.
.. But parents who were already wary of vaccines were actually less likely to say they’d vaccinate their children after being exposed to the facts — despite apparently believing those facts.
.. “People accept the corrective information but then resist in other ways,” says Reifler. A person who feels anxious about vaccination will subconsciously push back by summoning to mind all the other reasons why they feel vaccination is a bad idea. The fear of autism might recede, but all the other fears are stronger than before.
.. Reifler’s research suggests that you’ll accept the narrow fact that Turkey is not about to join the EU. But you’ll also summon to mind all sorts of other anxieties: immigration, loss of control, the proximity of Turkey to Syria’s war and to Isis, terrorism and so on. The original lie has been disproved, yet its seductive magic lingers.
.. Practical reasoning is often less about figuring out what’s true, and more about staying in the right tribe.
.. The Dartmouth students tended to overlook Dartmouth fouls but were quick to pick up on the sins of the Princeton players. The Princeton students had the opposite inclination. They concluded that, despite being shown the same footage, the Dartmouth and Princeton students didn’t really see the same events. Each student had his own perception, closely shaped by his tribal loyalties. The title of the research paper was “They Saw a Game”.
.. Some students were told it was a protest by gay-rights protesters outside an army recruitment office against the military’s (then) policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Others were told that it was an anti-abortion protest in front of an abortion clinic.
.. Liberal students were relaxed about the behaviour of people they thought were gay-rights protesters but worried about what the pro-life protesters were doing; conservative students took the opposite view.
.. When we reach the conclusion that we want to reach, we’re engaging in “motivated reasoning”. Motivated reasoning was a powerful ally of the tobacco industry.
.. If you’re addicted to a product, and many scientists tell you it’s deadly, but the tobacco lobby tells you that more research is needed, what would you like to believe?
.. the industry often got a sympathetic hearing in the press because many journalists were smokers. These journalists desperately wanted to believe their habit was benign, making them ideal messengers for the industry.
.. “Groups with opposing values often become more polarised, not less, when exposed to scientifically sound information.”
.. scientific literacy can actually widen the gap between different political tribes on issues such as climate change — that is, well-informed liberals and well-informed conservatives are further apart in their views than liberals and conservatives who know little about the science
.. the role not of scientific literacy but of scientific curiosity.
.. “politically motivated reasoning . . . appears to be negated by science curiosity”. Scientifically literate people, remember, were more likely to be polarised in their answers to politically charged scientific questions. But scientifically curious people were not.
.. Curiosity brought people together in a way that mere facts did not. The researchers muse that curious people have an extra reason to seek out the facts: “To experience the pleasure of contemplating surprising insights into how the world works.”
.. Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning but it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing.
.. What we need is a Carl Sagan or David Attenborough of social science
.. One candidate would have been Swedish doctor and statistician Hans Rosling, who died in February