Corporate repression

Although far less researched, private actors play important roles in repression (Earl 2004). So, too, is the case with false information within the repressive repertoire. Corporations have also used false information to create quiescence, attack critics, and misdirect attention. For instance, despite consensus on anthropogenic climate change among scientists, the fossil fuel industry has funded disinformation campaigns to limit the effectiveness of climate advocacy, increase public doubt about climate change, downplay the benefits of sustainable technologies, and overstate the risks of ‘green’ energy sources (e.g. Livesey 2002). Chemical companies attempt to reduce activism by challenging independent studies and producing and distributing misleading scientific information (e.g. Olsson 2011). The food and beverage industry has run misinformation campaigns to downplay the risks of high sugar consumption, targeting Black families, Hispanic youth, and people who are poor, and run false information campaigns about ‘healthy’ foods that contain deceptively high amounts of sugar to limit activism demanding change (e.g. Bailin et al. 2014).

Astroturf countermovements are designed to make it appear as though there is organic, civic opposition to movements when there may be none. The misrepresentation of the source is misleading, and these campaigns often also include false and/or misrepresented substantive information. As Walker (2014) notes, astroturf campaigns camouflage corporate interests as grassroots activism. Smokers’ rights, for instance, was more boardroom strategy than grassroots concern (Derry and Waikar 2008), yet it has been key to limiting anti-smoking activism, undermining tobacco control policies, and deflecting responsibility for health effects (Wander and Malone 2006).

Countermovements

Countermovements can use disinformation to attack opponents. For instance, a prominent white supremacist spread disinformation about Black Lives Matter (BLM) in hopes that the government would classify BLM as a terrorist organisation (Lewis and Marwick 2017). False information can make movements defend the accuracy of their own claims and materials because of doubt sowed by countermovements and governments (Tufekci 2017). For instance, Project Veritas, an alt-right group, has a track record of attacking movements through misleading editing of videos and through fabricated ‘sting’ operations (Benkler et al. 2018). The Center for Medical Progress’s leader lost a $2 million lawsuit as the result of misleading videos aimed at reducing abortion access (Tavernise 2019), but not before the videos led to legislative action and rallied opponents of abortion access.

Larger complexes of opposition groups, including corporations, countermovements, and others, may collaborate in the supply and distribution of false information. For instance, where climate denial is concerned, Brown (2017) argues that the ‘climate disinformation campaign can be understood as a movement of corporations, organizations, and individuals that have systematically attacked mainstream climate change science using tactics that are radically inconsistent with responsible scientific skepticism’ (128). These actors operate independently of one another but are able to connect through the internet to develop a ‘denial machine’ (Brown 2017, 129) or through think tanks, which ‘were key organizational components. . . [that] developed and promulgated scientific misinformation via a wide range of distribution channels, including mass media appearances, Web sites, publication of books, and providing testimony in congressional hearings’ (Brulle 2019, 2).

Polarised (mis)perceptions create difficulty in studying movement-countermovement false information though. In abortion politics, rhetoric is so contested that the labelling of opponents is disputed. Groups that claim the label ‘pro-life’ refer to opponents as ‘pro-abortion’. But their opponents disagree with that label, using terms like ‘reproductive rights’ or ‘abortion rights’ instead. Abortion rights activists disagree that their opponents are pro-life, preferring the term ‘anti-choice’.

Divergent frames and rhetoric may lead actors to see misinformation as among opponents’ tactics, but disinformation exists too. For example, Bryant et al. (2014) examined the websites of crisis pregnancy centres in states with abortion access waiting periods, finding that about 80 percent of websites included at least one piece of false information about abortions. Such false information serves to further rally support for countermovements and threatens to reduce resources and support for their opponents.

 
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