We now disagree not just on our political philosophies but on whether proven facts are true. In this world, Hughes’s observation is the last self-evident truth: Facts are a thing of the past. For the foreseeable future, Americans may find it impossible to debate politics clearly because of a lack of agreement on basic matters of fact; that was certainly the case during this year’s election. And no one has taken more advantage of this than Trump and his big-business cronies.
Trump and his talking heads didn’t create this world. It is a result of a decades-long strategy devised by a number of public affairs practitioners who recognized that lies were the most potent weapon in the fight against progress. Trump emulated some of these disinformation techniques, gleaned from big business, during his campaign.
Sixty-three years ago, as the scientific community neared consensus that tobacco products were dangerous, titans of the tobacco industry came together to meet with John Hill at the Plaza Hotel in New York. This was a rare gathering, as these executives were fighting one another for market share in an immensely competitive business. Hill, the founder of PR conglomerate Hill & Knowlton, recommended that they form a public relations operation, thinly veiled as a scientific institute, to argue that their products were safe. Together, the tobacco executives and Hill created the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, a sham organization designed to spread corporate propaganda to mislead the media, policymakers and the public at large.
Their goal was not to convince the majority of Americans that cigarettes did not cause cancer. Instead, they sought to muddy the waters and create a second truth. One truth would emanate from the bulk of the scientific community; the other, from a cadre of people primarily in the employment of the tobacco industry. The organization launched with an ad titled “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers,” which ran in 400 newspapers reaching nearly 43 million readers and stated, “There is no proof that cigarette smoking is one of the causes” of lung cancer.
The ruse continued for almost five decades, until lawsuits against the industry forced the closure of the “research institute” and the public release of its internal documents. Now anyone with an Internet connection can read the full details of the tobacco industry’s expensive efforts to create an alternate set of facts about its products.
Today, 82 percent of Americans believe that smoking is “very harmful.” However, in the 1950s, the industry’s efforts influenced coverage from journalists as revered as Edward R. Murrow. In 1994, the chief executives of the seven largest tobacco companies told Congress under oath that they did not believe their products were addictive; more than 20 years later, they have yet to face penalties for their apparent perjury. Vice President-elect Mike Pence wrote in an op-ed posted on his 2000 congressional campaign website that, “despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.” That year, his campaign received at least $13,000 from PACs affiliated with Big Tobacco.
The tobacco industry’s success in manufacturing its own truth won it decades of increased profits, even as it put the lives of millions of Americans at risk.
This morally objectionable playbook has been used by other industries seeking to avoid necessary regulations. The sugar industry, for instance, has promoted research designed to distract from the health effects of its products. Its Sugar Research Foundation provided funding to Harvard scientists to counter claims that sugar causes heart disease, despite the overwhelming evidence. In defense of their products, sugar lobbyists have also attacked other sweeteners, most recently high-fructose corn syrup. The Washington Post reported on an April 2004 memo from the Sugar Association bragging that it had “fed the media with the science to help fuel the public concern and debate on High Fructose Corn Syrup.” On the other side, those with a financial interest in the use of high-fructose corn syrup waged their own campaign, even hiring sex therapist Dr. Ruth to star in an ad in which she counsels a man in a giant corn costume, telling him that “corn sugar” was a “great name” because he was a sugar made from “good American corn” and should “be proud.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the consultants and strategists behind these campaigns of falsehood sometimes cross over from the corporate world into the domain of politics. In the 1970s, scientists at Exxon (now ExxonMobil) knew that their products were changing the climate, but the company nonetheless funded think tanks and organizations dedicated to denying the existence of global warming, such as the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Donald Trump has appointed Exxon’s chief executive Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state, while Myron Ebell, who heads Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition, directs the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s anti-“global warming alarmism” Center for Energy and the Environment, an outfit straight out of the tobacco lobby’s handbook.
Other veterans of strategic-misinformation gambits have also found spots in Trump’s inner circle. In 2009 and 2010, instead of debating the government’s role in providing health care to its citizens, we were stuck in a conversation about whether Obamacare was in fact a plot to create panels with the goal of killing your elderly relatives and disabled children. The “death panels” lie was invented and evangelized by Betsy McCaughey, who had also been a leading opponent of Hillary Clinton’s health-care reform efforts in the ’90s. No surprise there: McCaughey has strong ties to the tobacco industry. After Sarah Palin coined the term “death panels” on Facebook to refer to McCaughey’s fictitious scare tactic, it was rigorously fact-checked by nonpartisan media from the moment the meme began to spread, yet to this day a significant percentage of the public believes that such panels exist. In August, Trump’s campaign announced that McCaughey would serve as an economic adviser.
We’ve seen this pattern repeated on issue after issue. A well-financed group invents lies and convinces a substantial share of the public that those lies are true. The propaganda purveyors recognize that the media’s instinct to cover “both sides” of an issue, people’s tendency to believe claims that conveniently fit their ideology, and, more recently, social media’s propensity to spread falsehoods all create a fundamental weakness in our civil society. They aren’t confused; they don’t misunderstand science or freely accessible truths. They have financial incentives to obscure those realities, and they do not care what they destroy in the process.
Our democracy is now straining under the weight of these attacks. When lies repeatedly affect the same segments of the population (and no group is immune), those absorbing this toxicity become distrustful of facts from reputable sources while latching onto even the most far-fetched conspiracy theories that conform to their worldviews. This political misinformation is so powerful that people have refused access to medical care because they were frightened by lies they had heard about Obamacare. So when Trump refers to, without basis in fact, “the millions of people who voted illegally,” his supporters believe his word over any actual authority on the subject — and he knows it.