The Misinformation Industry and the Search for Alternatives

Earlier this week, Time magazine published an investigative report on the “Misinformation Industry” whose rising stars — PR and advertising — are increasingly displacing the lobbying business as preferred instruments of influence. The report confirms what most industry insiders have long known: influence works best when it works subliminally and obliquely, behind the scenes and without government regulations. Methods of influence grounded in these truisms will probably continue to draw a greater share of spending by corporations and industry associations.

The authors of the report, affiliated with the Center for Public Integrity, mostly stick to the facts and steer clear of any alarmist conclusions, although they do discuss some of the unsavory tactics employed in PR and advertising. But this research raises larger questions that the authors do not directly address. Specifically:

  • So what? The political establishment, the media and the general public have grown numb to these types of revelations. These days, the discovery of institutional duplicity, systematic disinformation and other dastardly deeds may stir bouts of rage potent enough to earn the authors “likes” and “shares” on Facebook, but so what? In today’s political climate, the mere discovery of unethical conduct or even outright fraud constitutes a yawn-worthy non-event. Investigative journalism that doesn’t point to a path for change seems incomplete to me. Despite its merits, this particular report mainly succeeds in turning the culture of propaganda into a genre of porn.
  • Why blame only the order-takers? No doubt, PR and advertising have helped popularize many dangerous products and toxic ideas, but these industries do their work at the direction of paying clients who set the goals and ethical standards. Indictments of influence-peddling are as old as the craft itself. Authors such as Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Douglas Rushkoff and Vance Packard have written extensively and eloquently about the dangers of mindless consumption of propaganda, but they also extended their critique to the causes systemic misinformation. The most direct cause is the nexus of perverse incentives, enshrined in law and regulations, that keep modern corporations addicted to growth at any cost. Change these incentives (i.e., reform corporate governance), and PR will change without any added pressure.
  • How can average citizens defend themselves against propaganda? Self-defense against propaganda does not require changes in policy or legislation. In fact, propaganda is immune to regulation. But it is also powerless against the force of conscious human choice — the choice not to believe a claim, not to buy a product or sign  petition, not to join a political party or commit to a pre-formulated ideology. When people choose not to consume without question, they not only cut off the lifeblood of propaganda, they also reclaim their souls.

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  3. Satire Rises When Sincerity Fails: Explaining the Popularity of Political Comedy 3/17/2014
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