Covid-19 Climate Science Vaccination Misinformation PR and Astro Turfing

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In recent months there has been an increase in confusion, misrepresentation and misunderstanding in news and social media round Covid-19 using same techniques as in tobacco, climate science denialism and anti-vaccination movements that seem to benefit US radical right libertarians’ preferred ideology and politics.

 

The following articles from The Fifth Estate in Australia and DeSmog Blog in Canada explain the communication techniques well.

 

Separating truth from lies in the causes of the pandemic

 

David Thorpe | 28 April 2020

 

OPINION: What’s caused this devastating pandemic that’s so far cost at least 207,000 lives (and it’s hardly begun) and wrecked the global economy? If, like me, you’ve been on the receiving end of a blizzard of bizarre messages claiming to reveal the truth behind the pandemic you might be forgiven for feeling confused, so here’s your handy guide to what isn’t the cause and what is.

 

Misinformation wars

 

Right from the start misinformation was rife: there was no virus; the disease was like flu and wouldn’t cause significant harm; emails offered baseless cures and treatments; and conspiracy theories spread like wildfire about its origin.

 

It turns out that many who circulated such misinformation have a history of casting doubt on climate science or seeking to debate issues that were already laid to rest within the scientific community, according to DeSmog.org:

 

“The decades that fossil fuel companies spent funding organisations that sought to undermine the conclusions of credible climate scientists and building up doubt about science itself ultimately created a network of professional science deniers who are now deploying some of the same skills they honed on climate against the public health crisis at the centre of our attention today.”

 

Some of this misinformation was/is channelled by presidents Trump and Bolsanaro. Others by think tanks, experts (some self-proclaimed), academics, and professional right-wing activists who are also climate change denialists.

 

After taking apart all of these arguments, DeSmog asserts: “COVID denial should forever discredit climate science deniers”.’

 

From DeSmog direct:

 

The Reason COVID-19 and Climate Seem So Similar: Disinformation

 

Repost By Guest • Monday, April 20, 2020  of Amy Westervelt, Drilled News. Originally published by Drilled News.

 

For a long time, the story went that the tobacco industry cooked up disinformation and then spread it to the fossil fuel guys, the chemical industry, pharma, you name it. But one thing that became incredibly clear when we began digging into PR firms and specific publicists was that this version of history was not quite right; if disinformation strategies were cooked up by any particular industry it was the public relations industry, which put these strategies to work on behalf of fossil fuels, tobacco, chemical manufacturers and more, often all at the same time.

 

The very first publicist, Ivy Ledbetter Lee, worked on behalf of both Standard Oil and, shortly after, American Tobacco, for example. Daniel Edelman developed astroturf campaigns for both RJ Reynolds tobacco company and the American Petroleum Institute, as did John Hill, who went so far as to have tobacco folks join the API. He also worked with Monsanto, juggling all three clients at the same time. E. Bruce Harrison worked for the chemical guys first, then managed front groups for tobacco and fossil fuels at the same time. You get the drift.

 

These industries all surely learned from each other at various points in time, but that was mostly because they were working with the same publicists. The history is less that tobacco or oil embraced disinformation first and then passed it on and more that a handful of PR firms and consultants created the disinformation industry, and then put it to work on behalf of whatever industry needed it at any given time.

 

Today, those same strategies are at work on behalf of those who worry that the response to COVID-19 will undermine capitalism, which is why climate folks keep noting how familiar the whole anti-science component of the rightwing response to the pandemic feels. It’s familiar because the exact same strategies are being deployed, in some cases by the same people. Here are a few key examples:

 

Disinformation Strategy #1: He who controls the language controls the narrative.

Disinformation Strategy #2: Leverage science illiteracy to create doubt.

Disinformation strategy #3: Astroturfing.

 

Our hope, of course, is that when people learn to recognize these strategies and know what’s behind them, they might become less effective. Disempowering the disinformation industry is a necessary part of any climate solution.’

 

For more articles and blogs about climate change, Covid-19, populist politics, critical thinking, marketing & communications and science literacy click through.

Political Parties Hollowed Out and Identity Issues

Australian politics as with Trump’s America and U.K.’s Brexit has become hollowed out with declining membership, less organic policy development, more reliance upon both external policy development by trans national think tanks and promotion or opposition by media or PR.

An enforced focus upon immigration, population growth and refugees, or white nationalist issues, may risk bi-partisan support and ignore the immigrant heritage of Australia versus aggressive demands for a WASP white Anglo Saxon protestant and Irish Catholic culture to rule.

Brexit, Trump and Australian politics have obsessed about immigration.

Populist Politics and White Nationalism (Image copyright Pexels).

This is especially so among the less diverse above median age vote in regions, while Australia’s elites in business, government, politics and media also reflect the same mono culture or lack of diversity.

Further, positives and benefits of immigration are seldom cited and especially the leveraging of temporary resident churn over; whether students, backpackers or temporary workers who are net financial contributors supporting the tax base, vs. ageing and increasing proportion of pensioners or retirees in the permanent population.

From The Lowy Institute:

Hollowed out, but not unhinged

Judith Brett

The scenario put forth in Sam Roggeveen’s “Our very own Brexit” runs counter to the major parties’ economic realities.

Sam Roggeveen has written a lively essay on the current state of Australian federal politics, centred on the hypothetical scenario that one of the two major parties takes an anti-immigration policy to an election, overturning Australia’s post-war bipartisan commitment to immigration to gain political advantage. Such an election would be a referendum on continuing population growth, and bring to a halt our cultural diversification and our integration into Asia, which is now the largest source of permanent new settlers.

It sounds unlikely, but as Roggeveen argues, both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were unlikely, rogue events that have overturned political assumptions. His scenario is not a prediction, he stresses, but a plausible, worst-case scenario arising from the current state of our political parties.

Our two major parties have become “hollowed out”, Roggeveen argues, untethered from their traditional social bases in class-based interests. Party membership and party loyalty have declined, leaving a more volatile and skittish electorate potentially vulnerable to the anti-immigration siren song of a party desperate to gain electoral advantage.

There are two parts to this argument. The first is that the parties have become hollowed out; the second that it is plausible that one of the major parties break the bipartisan support for the migration program.

First, the evidence is clear for the decline in rusted-on party loyalty.

However, Roggeveen does not, to my mind, have a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the reasons for this decline and writes as if it is mainly the result of a deficient political class.

In the early 20th century, when our current party system took shape, it made social and economic sense to have two parties based on two class blocks. Working and middle class, employee and employer, labour and capital – these spoke both to people’s everyday experience and sense of themselves and to competing economic interests. This is no longer the case. More than a hundred years later, Australia’s society and its economy are much more complex.

In developing their policies, parties have to broker compromises among various competing interests, and this undertaking is much harder today. To take a stark example: the problem Labor has in developing policies responsive both to its traditional union base and to the middle-class social democrats who flocked to the party with Gough Whitlam. Compared with the early 20th century, lines of class division have blurred, and new lines of difference have been politicised: gender, race, ethnicity, attitude to nature, and, after the fading of sectarianism, religion again. If the parties are failing, it is in part because the task of uniting disparate constituencies is harder…..

……Second, I do not find it plausible that one of the major parties would break the bipartisan consensus on immigration.

A minor party might succeed with an anti-immigration policy, but neither major party could afford the electoral risk. The 2016 Census reported that 49% of the Australian population was either foreign-born or had at least one foreign-born parent. Not all of these people will be on the electoral roll, but all who are citizens will be, and once on the roll, they will have to vote.

Because of compulsory voting, Australian parties do not need highly emotional and divisive policies to get out the vote, and to support them carries considerable risks. Both Brexit and the election of Trump occurred in polities with voluntary voting, where it makes electoral sense to risk courting an alienated minority. There is no doubt there is a nativist faction in Australia that would support a stop to immigration, but Australian elections are won and lost in the middle, which is occupied by increasing numbers of foreign-born voters and their children.

Also holding the major parties to their consensus on immigration is its contribution to the economy. Australia’s recent sluggish economic growth would be even slower were it not for migration. The housing and retail sectors in particular would be sharply affected by its halt. Our two major political parties may be untethered from their historical social bases, but they are not unhinged from contemporary economic reality.’

 

For more articles about populist politics, demographics, immigration and white nationalism click through.

 

Fighting Fake News in Finland via Schools

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We have witnessed years now of conventional and now digital media being manipulated to confuse, misinform and mislead the public of all ages round science of climate change or global warming, politics and campaigns, immigrants and population growth, vaccinations, natural disasters, religion and minorities etc.

Like some states in Australia used to teach critical thinking to high school students in the 1970s, since been ’embedded’ and/or disappeared, Finland has taken the lead in developing skills at primary school age dealing with Russia especially, and global warming denialism.

From The Guardian:

‘How Finland starts its fight against fake news in primary schools

Country on frontline of information war teaches everyone from school pupils to politicians how to spot slippery information

You can start when children are very young, said Kari Kivinen. In fact, you should: “Fairytales work well. Take the wily fox who always cheats the other animals with his sly words. That’s not a bad metaphor for a certain kind of politician, is it?”

With democracies around the world threatened by the seemingly unstoppable onslaught of false information, Finland – recently rated Europe’s most resistant nation to fake news – takes the fight seriously enough to teach it in primary school.

In secondary schools, such as the state-run college in Helsinki where Kivinen is head teacher, multi-platform information literacy and strong critical thinking have become a core, cross-subject component of a national curriculum that was introduced in 2016.

In maths lessons, Kivinen’s pupils learn how easy it is to lie with statistics. In art, they see how an image’s meaning can be manipulated. In history, they analyse notable propaganda campaigns, while Finnish language teachers work with them on the many ways in which words can be used to confuse, mislead and deceive.

“The goal is active, responsible citizens and voters,” Kivinen said. “Thinking critically, factchecking, interpreting and evaluating all the information you receive, wherever it appears, is crucial. We’ve made it a core part of what we teach, across all subjects.”

The curriculum is part of a unique, broad strategy devised by the Finnish government after 2014, when the country was first targeted with fake news stories by its Russian neighbour, and the government realised it had moved into the post-fact age.

Successful enough for Finland to top, by some margin, an annual index measuring resistance to fake news in 35 European countries, the programme aims to ensure that everyone, from pupil to politician, can detect – and do their bit to fight – false information.

“This affects all of us,” said Jussi Toivanen, chief communications officer for the prime minister’s office. “It targets the whole of Finnish society. It aims to erode our values and norms, the trust in our institutions that hold society together.”

Finland, which declared independence from Russia in 1917, is on the frontline of an online information war that has accelerated markedly since Moscow annexed Crimea and backed rebels in eastern Ukraine five years ago, Toivanen said.

Most campaigns, amplified by sympathetic far-right, nation-first and “alternative” Finnish news sites and social media accounts, focus on attacking the EU, highlighting immigration issues and trying to influence debate over Finland’s full Nato membership.

Resistance is seen almost as a civil defence question, a key component in Finland’s comprehensive security policy. Toivanen said: “We are a small country, without many resources, and we rely on everyone contributing to the collective defence of society.”

The programme, piloted by a 30-member, high-level committee representing 20 different bodies from government ministries to welfare organisations and the police, intelligence and security services, has trained thousands of civil servants, journalists, teachers and librarians over the past three years.

“It’s a broad-based, coordinated effort to raise awareness,” said Saara Jantunen, a senior researcher from the defence ministry who has been seconded to the prime minister’s office. “Like virus protection on your computer: the government’s responsible for a certain amount, of course, but ultimately it’s up to the individual to install the software.”…

…..He wants his pupils to ask questions such as: who produced this information, and why? Where was it published? What does it really say? Who is it aimed at? What is it based on? Is there evidence for it, or is this just someone’s opinion? Is it verifiable elsewhere?

On the evidence of half a dozen pupils gathered in a classroom before lunchtime, it is an approach that is paying off. “You must always factcheck. The number one rule: no Wikipedia, and always three or four different and reliable sources,” said Mathilda, 18. “We learn that basically in every subject.”….

…..Part of that continuing education is also provided by NGOs. Besides operating an effective factchecking service, Faktabaari (Fact Bar), launched for the 2014 European elections and run by a volunteer staff of journalists and researchers, produces popular voter literacy kits for schools and the wider public.

“Essentially, we aim to give people their own tools,” said its founder, Mikko Salo, a member of the EU’s independent high-level expert group on fake news. “It’s about trying to vaccinate against problems, rather than telling people what’s right and wrong. That can easily lead to polarisation.”

In the run-up to Finland’s parliamentary elections last April, the government went so far as to produce an advertising campaign alerting voters to the possibility of fake news, with the slogan “Finland has the best elections in the world. Think about why”.

Similarly, Mediametka has been developing and working with media literacy tools since the more innocent days of the early 1950s, when its founders were motivated mainly by fear of the irreparable damage that comic books might do to the minds of Finnish children.

These days, the NGO, part-funded by the culture ministry, organises ed-tech hackathons with inventive Finnish startups in a bid to develop “meaningful materials” for schools and youth groups, said its executive director, Meri Seistola.

“We work with pictures, videos, text, digital content; get our students to produce their own; ask them to identify all the various kinds of misleading news,” said Seistola: from propaganda to clickbait, satire to conspiracy theory, pseudoscience to partisan reporting; from stories describing events that simply never happened to unintentional errors of fact.

Finland has something of a head start on information literacy, ranking consistently at or near the top of international indices for press freedom, transparency, education and social justice. Its school pupils have the EU’s highest PISA score for reading.

“The level of trust in national institutions, in the media, in society as a whole, does tend to be higher in the Nordic countries than in many others,” said Faktabaari’s Salo. “But that means we really need even greater vigilance now, to prepare ourselves for the next phase. Because we have more to lose.”’

 

For more articles and blogs about younger generations, critical thinking, climate change and curriculum click through.

 

Immigration Immigrants and Public Misconceptions

Harvard University study recently found that people in Western countries, including America, have succumbed to many restrictionist myths…… About 3 percent of the world’s population lived outside its birth country in 1900. And 3 percent does so now. By any objective metric, the modern age has experienced no historic flood of immigration.

Immigration has been front and centre of (mostly) conservative politics in the USA, UK, Australia and Europe presented as a problem requiring a ‘solution’, helped along by the influence and ideology of white nationalists,  However, most people do not understand the dynamics, facts nor benefits of ‘immigration’ and ‘immigrants’ when white nationalists influenced by eugenics are doing the informing, based upon beliefs not facts nor optimal analysis.

From The Week:

The lie of the immigrant welfare queen

By Shikha Dalmia 28 January 2020

Harvard University study recently found that people in Western countries, including America, have succumbed to many restrictionist myths. The right-wing campaign against immigration, in other words, has worked.

But that doesn’t mean that immigration advocates should despair. The study’s findings suggest that to the extent that they can make the case that immigrants don’t need handouts to succeed, they have a shot at turning public opinion around.

The study, conducted by Political Economy Professor Alberto Alesina and and Economics Professor Stefanie Stantcheva, administered online questionnaires to 24,000 respondents in six countries — U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, and Sweden — with the explicit aim of studying legal, not illegal, immigration. That is something that everyone, except for the most hardline restrictionists, allegedly favors, especially in America.

But on literally every count — the levels of immigration, the composition and basic characteristics of immigrants — negative stereotypes abound.

About 3 percent of the world’s population lived outside its birth country in 1900. And 3 percent does so now. By any objective metric, the modern age has experienced no historic flood of immigration. But restrictionists have been beating the drum of “mass immigration” so long that people have come to believe it as true. In every country, the study found, people vastly overestimate the number of immigrants present. For example, in America, legal immigrants constitute about 10 percent of the population. But what is the average perception? Thirty-six percent — or a whopping 22 percent above the total combined share of immigration — legal and illegal, which is about 4 percent of the population. Every group — educated, uneducated; rich, poor; liberal, conservative — has fallen for this myth.

What’s more, people also seem to have a warped idea of where immigrants come from and who they are. Americans in particular tend to overestimate the share of North African and Middle Eastern immigrants, particularly Muslim. Indeed, Muslims are 10 percent of all immigrants (or less than 2 percent of the total U.S. population) but the study’s respondents commonly believed they were 23 percent. At the same time, the respondents underestimated the share of Christian immigrants, systematically exaggerating the cultural distance between themselves and immigrants.

Such misperceptions extend beyond the cultural characteristics of immigrants to economic ones as well…

… But where restrictionists have succeeded most spectacularly is in depicting immigrants as welfare queens. The Harvard researchers presented respondents with a scenario in which two individuals, one with a foreign-sounding name like Mohammad or Jose and another with a standard native name like Jack, are identical in every respect — age, qualifications, jobs, and families — each with three young children — except that Jack is a native and Mohammad or Jose is an immigrant who legally moved to America five years ago. The respondents were asked whether they believed Mohammad or the person with the immigrant-sounding name would pay more, the same, or less in taxes than Jack and whether he would receive more, the same, or less in government help. In America, over 25 percent of respondents said the person with the immigrant-sounding name would pay less in taxes than he collected in welfare compared to Jack — even though immigrants are barred from collecting most means tested federal benefits for five years. This reveals that about a quarter of the American public is outright biased against foreigners just because they are foreigners and not because they are illegal or poor or for any other objective reason….

….So what’s the good news? It’s that despite decades of anti-immigration messaging, there are some restrictionist lines that the public is not falling for, especially in America.

Americans, the study found, believe strongly that immigrants should be considered “truly American” as soon as they become citizens and that they should be able to get citizenship quickly. Moreover, once immigrants do become citizens, most Americans believe, the government should care for them equally. This means that restrictionists who want to scrap birthright citizenship or force immigrants to wait longer are out-of-step with mainstream American sentiment. By contrast, European respondents were much less inclined both to let immigrants become citizens quickly or consider them truly part of the country when they obtained citizenship. “Overall, the U.S. is most supportive of immigration,” the study notes.

Most encouragingly, in every country, the respondents attributed the economic success of immigrants to immigrants themselves and not any social advantage. Conversely, they were less inclined to attribute the success of natives to natives themselves, meaning people don’t always believe the worst of immigrants and the best of natives. They especially softened after hearing a story about an immigrant who held two jobs to support a family while also going to school.

But the best news is that once respondents were told about the correct share of the immigrant population, they were less inclined to think of the current level of immigration as a problem. That means that if immigration advocates can cut through the cloud of restrictionist misinformation and correct the record on immigration levels, it may be possible to get public buy-in for more generous immigration policies — although no doubt they will have to buttress the stats with real-life examples of immigrants getting ahead. The notion that natives, even working class ones, resent the success of immigrants is overblown. In fact, so long as immigrants are seen as succeeding through their own grit, natives may have no real objection to them.

What is most likely to sour the public on immigration are the grandiose universal freebies that Sen. Warren and other contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination want to shower on everyone. Immigrants should be wary of Democrats bearing gifts.

 

For more articles and posts about demography, immigration, population growth and white nationalism click through.

 

Population Growth or Decline?

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Since the 1970s, and earlier with Malthus and eugenics movement, we have been presented with the threat of catastrophic population growth due to fertility rates in the less developed world, then due to ‘immigration‘ from the less developed world when in fact we are facing population decline from mid century; contrary to UN Population Division data which inflates future headline growth?

This ‘misunderstanding’ has been highlighted by science journalist Fred Pearce in ‘The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet’s Surprising Future’; Hans Rosling in ‘Don’t panic the truth about population’; Prof. Wolfgang Lutz of Vienna’s IIASA and Sanjeev Sanyal demographer at Deutsche Bank.

Most belive the world is experiencing high population growth but research debunks this and finds we will be facing population decline.

Global Population Growth or Decline? (Image copyright Pexels.com)

‘Book review: ‘Empty Planet‘ explores the world’s next biggest population threat

Humanity is facing an imminent catastrophe, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson assert in their new book

The central assertion Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson make in Empty Planet is one that readers of the daily news or regular government reports will find deeply counter intuitive. According to all that received wisdom, there is a worldwide population crisis, with humans reproducing at ever-increasing rates, rapidly eating up all the world’s resources and driving the engines of runaway climate change.

Stripped of modern trappings such as greenhouse gases and industrial meat farming, this is fairly close to the old vision of 18th-century scholar and theorist Thomas Malthus. He declared back in 1798 that in conditions of economic and cultural stability, the human population would continue to increase, even to the point where it chokes resources and overburdens the Earth itself.

Such a view has been the standard for centuries, and some of its proponents have made quite tidy sums writing books about the doom it foretells, most notably Paul Ehrlich. His 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb warned of imminent, widespread famines as the result of human overpopulation.

Bricker and Ibbitson say such books and the thinking behind them are “completely and utterly wrong”. They agree with Malthus, Ehrlich and company that humanity is indeed facing an imminent population catastrophe – but the problem won’t be overpopulation. “The great defining event of the 21st century – one of the great defining events in human history – will occur in three decades, give or take, when the global population begins to decline,” they write. “Once that decline begins, it will never end.”

The authors know they’re working against not only popular perception, but also raw numbers. They point out that the United Nations predicts the human population to hit 11 billion in the 21st century, up from the nearly eight billion on Earth today, an increase from five billion since 1950.

But Bricker and Ibbitson say that population growth rates have declined slightly in the 21st century, particularly in what they refer to as the richest places on the planet. Japan, Korea, Spain, Italy, much of Europe – all such places are facing long-term reproduction rates that won’t come close to sustaining their current population levels. And they claim this same levelling and then downward trend will be seen in places such as China, Brazil, Indonesia and even such fertility hot zones as India and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The main reason Bricker and Ibbitson cite for their certainty about all this is that the floor of the world’s basic prosperity is steadily rising. Two things happen as a result: an increasing number of women in developing countries are gaining more education and more control over reproduction, and an increasing number of couples are therefore either postponing having children of their own or having far fewer children than their ancestors did.

Empty Planet makes the case that this change is not only inevitable but already well under way, and that it will be permanent: humanity will simply go into terminal decline, no asteroid or other global catastrophe required. As mentioned, readers have heard such alarming claims before – Ehrlich, for instance, was certain the human population would reach its breaking point in the 1970s.’

 

For more articles and blogs on population decline, population growth and immigration click through.