The documentary Merchants of Doubt highlights the extensive efforts that large companies use to intentionally create confusion about what is real. Their methods are complex and pervasive as firms try to create a shadow story about their client’s product in order to prevent regulation or to shift opinion about potential harm. This type of misdirection has been used by pesticides, asbestos, coal, oil, alcohol, tobacco, flame retardant materials and climate change.
Through the use of seemingly neutral frontmen or think tanks, organizations create an illusion of independence which gives credence to the opposing view of so-called “experts.” By sowing seeds of doubt, it’s enough to make people question even the most solid science because “other scientists” are questioning it, too.
The problem is that these efforts are specifically designed to create confusion or misdirection rather than to establish a legitimately valid premise. The firms go so far as to mirror identical layouts of brochures – one from the scientific source and one falsely discrediting it – but using the same typeface, pictures, colors, etc. If you had them side-by-side you’d be hard to tell whether the IPPC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – peer-reviewed scientists) or NIPPC (Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change – an anti-climate change advocacy group) was the official version.
Throughout the film, segments of sleight-of-hand magic were interspersed and the producers drew parallels to the work of the public opinion firm. The work of both is “all about distraction, confusion, gridlock and misdirection. You tell a little lie to disguise the big lie and redirect the focus, then you don’t see anything else.”
The problem comes in when you don’t realize someone is performing a trick. If you watch a magician, and something unbelievable looks real, you still know that it is just an illusion. With deceptive campaigns, it is made to look real but you don’t consider that it isn’t and therefore accept it at face value.
We’d all be better off if we realize that communication magicians are pervasive.