Distort, discredit, dismiss
The manipulation playbook of anti-science actors, part 2
“Information has become a new type of product we exchange for entertainment, services, profit or power”
As the digital age progresses, it has become increasingly important to identify deceptive techniques in our interconnected global discourse.
Our information ecosystem is awash with junk information that can misinform or manipulate us. An array of influencers, quacks, gurus, trolls, political commentators, charlatans, contrarians, pundits, foreign actors and other media manipulators are the primary creators of junk information in service of financial, social, political, or ideological gains.
In a previous article, I introduced six common tactics used by media manipulators to distort fact-based discourse and undermine public trust in science. Fittingly termed the “merchants of doubt”, the overarching goal of these tactics is to sabotage discourse by creating doubt about facts, science, or scientists.
Since then, I have low-key kept an eye out for other common tactics.
It did not take long. Seems like in our chaotic online age, media manipulators are always hard at work to distort facts, discredit scientific authority, or dismiss the scientific process. (Maybe I should also just spend less time online…)
To save your energy and to keep it catchy, I will refer to the next set as the “merchants of ambiguity”. Their overarching goal is to create the perception that scientific issues are either unresolved or that alternative interpretations are just as plausible. Isn’t everything just murky, right? Can we ever really know anything?
These tactics are quite insidious, some old as time, others more contemporary, and serve to further erode the foundations of objective, “weight-of-evidence”-based understanding of our world. Ambiguity breeds inaction and confusion. This does not mean that no ambiguity ever exists on scientific issues, our world is not black and white. But ambiguity, just like doubt, can be manufactured, often without our knowledge.
The problem we always face with successful media manipulations and manipulators is that they are very persuasive and not always easy to recognize. Once we are taken in by a charlatan, when false beliefs have entrenched themselves, it becomes very difficult to escape their grasp. I believe we should trust the scientific process, it is the best methods we humans ever came up to debunk popular myths, to detangle facts from fiction. I also believe that by nurturing a commitment to intellectual integrity and remaining vigilant, we can defy some of following anti-science manipulations and guard our agency.
So in that spirit, we will delve into these six new tactics, exploring their cognitive foundations and outlining how they work to manipulate us with some case examples.
The civility Crusaders
An effective way to shut down discussion/debate is to reframe or portray legitimate criticism as an “attack”, or by taking issue with its tone.
Politeness norms exist in all cultures due to the innate desire to maintain face, or self-esteem, during social interactions (Brown & Levinson, 1987 or Locher & Watts, 2005). Face-threatening acts, like scientific criticism or disagreement, can be seen as politeness breaches and evoke negative emotions, such as anger or embarrassment, in the offended and observers. (Culpeper, 2011) On social media platforms, these negative emotions may also spread from the offended to others, causing negative assessments of the situation (Kramer et al., PNAS, 2014).
Media manipulators exploit this inclination by attacking an opponent’s tone instead of the substance of their argument. They might also articulate how they feel offended or attacked by advanced criticism. This not only diverts the audience’s focus to the suggested rudeness but also puts the target in a difficult position where they must defend their stance without appearing hostile or face further accusations of incivility. Bystanders who are sensitive to violations of politeness norms may be more likely to dismiss the target’s argument due to their negative emotions evoked by the perceived breach of civility.
Additionally, the negative perception of the target’s tone might lead bystanders to assume that the target’s arguments are also invalid. This has to do with a set of cognitive biases called the Halo and Horn’s Effect (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977, Noor et al., 2023) suggesting that people tend to generalize their evaluation of an individual’s character based on specific traits.
As a result, the media manipulators effectively undermined their opponent’s credibility by exploiting the audience’s cognitive biases and emotional reactions to politeness violations, real or insinuated.
This brings us to an extreme version of this tactic called DARVO, where the manipulator assumes a victimized position and casts the critic as an offender to minimize and distract from wrongdoing (Harsey & Freyd, 2020).
If this sounds complicated, let’s have a look at these manipulative techniques in action shall we?
Case example 1: Discredit & dismiss critics with an appeal to civility
Eric Weinstein is a failed academic and managing director at Thiel Capital who found a second lucrative career as a verbose conspiracy theory entrepreneur. Among his common tropes are that the government is covering up the truth about UFOs, that academia and the mainstream media are part of a ‘distributed idea suppression complex’, and that he, his wife, and his brother all got cheated out of their rightful Nobel prizes. As the last bit suggests, he also suffers from delusions of grandeur and believes that he and his brother personally should have been involved by Fauci, NIH, and even the president, to have a seat a the table when it comes to the Covid response. Now how does one academically-minded (and self-branded) intellectual get away with so much bullshit?
Well, there are multiple answers to it, but one that stands out is the reliance of big influencers like Eric Weinstein (but also every other contrarian with a platform out there) on arbitrary rules of civility when having their public discussions. If other influencers attack their opponents and scapegoats (let’s say Fauci), they will happily pile on while suggesting criticism has been artificially suppressed. All voices need to be heard, right? Why can’t we discuss?! Yet when they get challenged on their factual errors, false claims, misrepresentations, or credentials, they seem to lose their appetite for dialogue very quickly.
These types of conversations happen a lot on social media and allow manipulators to get away with their fictions and falsehoods. Portraying any debunking or valid criticism as ‘bad faith’, ‘impolite’, or an ‘attack’ manipulates bystanders to take sides, pay attention to tone, and lose focus or interest in the argument at hand.
Talking about attacks, isn’t every criticism of me basically an assault much worse than whatever wrongdoing I might have committed? — every social media influencer
Case example 2: DARVO your way out of accountability
One of the worst most influential ideas in the pandemic was to “just let the virus roam free”, also known as the Great Barrington Declaration (or the “let them die working the machines” declaration, because it was favored by rightwing billionaires who opposed lockdowns of their factories and avoid profit losses).
I mean, I get the appeal of the GBD. Lockdowns were tough, the pandemic sucked and many things did not go as well as we hoped. We all understand that. However, the idea that not doing anything, not even masks or distancing as GBD advocates suggested, would have been actually better is demonstrably false. For example, studies showed that lockdown measures saved millions of lives in 11 EU countries alone (Berry CR., et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 2021). Cost-benefits of different NPIs, including lockdown measures, are not always easy to quantify, but the idea that outcomes would not have gotten much worse following the GBD policy is not based on any evidence and is vehemently contradicted by the consensus of domain experts (Lewis Dyanis, Nature News & Views, 2022).
However, despite expert consensus, this odd ‘public health’ *cough* proposal somehow *wink wink* found its way into public discourse and policy through the work of contrarian doctors-turned-influencers and other media manipulators (Zenone M. et al., PLOS Global Public Health, 2022), with continued devastating consequences for some states in the US when paired with vaccine misinformation (Hotez, FASEB, 2023).
But we are not really here to litigate that, but to look at the contrarian doctors who advocated for this policy (and profited from it). How did and do they handle valid scientific criticism for their supposedly scientific ideas, actions, and political advocacy?
Huh? That does not sound like there was a lot of legitimate criticism coming their way. They claim to have been bullied, canceled, silenced, or even victimized for just wanting to have a polite discussion. How unfair! Where is the civility, where is the scientific debate?
Before we give in to our outrage though, just one thing: If they have been silenced and censored, how did we all hear about them? And why did some states adopt their policies? As Science-Based Medicine noted, for supposedly “silenced doctors”, their voices seemed surprisingly loud.
They have been on many large podcasts. They have given many TV interviews. They have been interviewed by and written many editorials in large newspapers. They’ve been profiled by The New York Times and Medpage Today. They have a large presence on social media. They have made a truly remarkable number of YouTube videos (Dr. Jay Bahattacharya, Dr. Sunetra Gupta, Dr. Marin Kulldorff), some of which have been seen by millions of people. They have testified before Congress and in courts regarding COVID-19 policy. Some have gained new funding sources or found new employment in right-wing think tanks. They’ve met with and influenced powerful politicians, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. They held a “medical experts roundtable” at President Trump’s White House. Dr. Gupta met with and influenced UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Journalists rightly say they’ve become “famous voices” this pandemic. — Jonathan Howard for Science-Based Medicine
Or as astute Twitter commentary puts these contrarian doctor’s conundrum:
So if these contrarian doctors have indeed not been silenced, then why exactly are they now putting themselves into the role of the victim? I’m gonna have to again quote Dr. Jonathan Howard who has written quite a lot on this topic:
Ironically, all these melodramatic accusations of “silencing” are themselves likely to have a chilling effect on scientific discourse. I can understand why some people are reluctant to criticize the authors of the GDB. When well-funded, powerful professors with massive media exposure liken their critics to censors for the sin of posting their own words, this may frighten and silence anyone who dares to disagree with them in the future. When words like “dangerous” and “fringe” are said to be so “toxic” they stifle “coronavirus debate“, critics may feel the need to walk on eggshells to avoid offending the delicate sensibilities of those they disagree with. When potential criticisms of the premises of the GBD are labeled “propaganda attacks”, critics may decide it’s safer to say nothing. I’ve even seen contrarian doctors with large platforms pre-emptively lament that their hot takes will get them “cancelled” as a means of staving off criticism. After all, who wants to be accused of “censoring”, “harassing”, or “cancelling” someone else? It’s a cute trick.
Even though it’s a trick, it can be effective. A journalist who merely considered writing about doctors she felt had minimized the virus quashed her own article in part because an internet mob accused her of organising a “harassment campaign.” To her detractors, critical reporting equals harassment, and sacrosanct doctors are immune from criticism no matter how many facts they’ve mangled or how many times they declared the pandemic over. In the end, only this journalist was silenced by a “noxious harassment campaign“.
And there we have it. Ultimately, using the pretense of civility to shape our perception of their supposed victimhood, media manipulators first and foremost deflect valid criticism from their wrongdoing, all while delegitimizing their critics in public discourse.
Pretty impolite, if you ask me. But let’s move on.
The Uncertainty Inflaters
“Science tries to reduce uncertainty as much as possible, but not more than is warranted.”
Our human brains shy away from uncertainty and ambiguity, and we have evolved many heuristics that allow us to make quick decisions, albeit not always accurate ones (Gigerenzer & Gaissmaier, 2011). For example, we tend to generalize from single data points to the bigger picture or attribute complex phenomena to single causes to conceptualize them better (Gilovich et al., 2002)
The existence and declaration of uncertainties is however a common, normal, and welcome part in scientific studies and even emerging scientific theories. The complete elimination of all uncertainty poses both practical and philosophical challenges and is not necessary to reach a consensus and actionable certainty on an issue.
In a sense, the whole scientific enterprise can be understood as a method that reduces our ignorance through the narrowing of remaining uncertainties and defining their bounds.
However, the declaration of remaining uncertainty makes science an easy target for attack by media manipulators. Take uncertainty inflaters, who hyper-focus on a single element of (usually real!) uncertainty and purposefully inflate its scope, meaning, or relevance beyond its bounds. By abusing our tendency to generalize and oversimplify, their goal is usually to discredit the entire body of evidence supporting a scientific theory. After all: If that one aspect is so uncertain, isn’t the whole thing just unreliable?
For example, climate change deniers might latch onto small discrepancies in climate models or uncertainties in specific predictions to argue that the entire field of climate science is unreliable (Oreskes & Conway, 2010). They may contend that since the models are not perfect, they cannot be trusted to provide accurate information about the future climate. However, this argument ignores the fact that all scientific models are simplifications of reality and are inherently subject to some degree of uncertainty. The existence of uncertainties or discrepancies does not negate the overall robustness of the models or the vast body of evidence supporting the reality of climate change (IPCC, 2021).
Uncertainty inflaters also exploit our tendency to generalize by cherry-picking isolated studies or oversimplifying findings that superficially explain phenomena but seem to contradict the scientific consensus (Diethelm & McKee, 2009). Generalizations inflate the relevance of cherry-picked data while oversimplifications from them downplay the relevance of all other factors and the overall weight of evidence. This tactic can be particularly effective in confusing the public and undermining trust in science, as it creates ambiguity and the illusion of scientific disagreement (Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Vaughan, 2013).
Science progresses through the evaluation of evidence and it is essential to consider the entire scope of available data rather than focusing on isolated instances that appear to support a particular agenda. That is also why a scientific consensus can not be discarded by some minor, irrelevant, or decontextualized uncertainties.
A case study: Covid origins and the Huanan market
Sorry, I am going to have to bother you again with some technical examples from the lableak myth community.
Ever since the pandemic started, the Huanan market has been implicated as a place of interest in how the pandemic might have started, for example in the 2021 WHO report. Due to Chinese obstruction, it has been difficult for independent scientists from the WHO and elsewhere to conclusively establish when and where the first human-to-human transmission chains started. That was, until around mid-2022, when an international team of renowned scientists sleuthed, recovered, simulated, and analyzed a compelling amount of patient, epidemiological, geographic, environmental, phylogenetic, and forensic data collected by many sources, including the WHO. They found that all lines of evidence pointed toward a zoonotic spillover scenario from animals at the Huanan market, and the introduction of two separate viral lineages into humans in November/December (Worobey et al., Science, 2022 & Pekar et al, Science, 2022).
These two studies also made a specific set of predictions that have since come true. First, the geographic clustering predicted that both lineage A and lineage B had their epicenter at the market (which was later confirmed in environmental swabs by Liu et al from the Chinese CDC). Second, that the market must have housed SC2-susceptible animals in specific stalls in the western part of the market. (which was later confirmed by metagenomics data, basically a genetic fingerprint of them being there).
Now while the authors stress that the leftover genetic data co-localizing with virus-positive environmental swabs can not prove that the animals were infected, it does prove that all requirements for zoonotic spillover to happen came together at the right place and time, despite years of denial by Chinese authorities. Additionally, all other data (e.g how case numbers developed, how the virus spread geographically, the phylogeny of two confirmed lineages etc) are consistent with and support a multiple zoonotic spillover scenario, while being inconsistent with alternative explanations such as a superspreading event.
Adding all of these findings to the already detailed body of evidence for a natural origin would become an effective death knell for most, if not all, plausible lab leak speculations in the scientific community.
This is of course something that people with entrenched worldviews and political agendas would never accept. To keep the conspiracy myth alive, uncertainty inflaters have since been trying hard (and often succeeding) to manipulate many in the media and public to mostly dismiss these zoonotic origin studies and findings. (Important to stress that in the scientific literature, no valid challenge has yet emerged).
Here is a snapshot of the work of recent uncertainty inflaters when it comes to gaslighting about the significance the raccoon dog DNA:
This is of course nothing new. At every step of the way on the origins topic, uncertainty inflaters would focus on remaining uncertainties for individual studies, pontificate over already acknowledged limitations, even make up issues and pretend they have to power to discredit conclusions that were based on the preponderance of the whole body of evidence. The idea that data has to be perfect or else it is worthless is not scientific. Unfortunately, it works like a charm. When enough ambiguity is created about individual findings while highlighting the alternative theory, audiences would revert to whatever they want to believe, despite the weight of evidence being entirely one-sided.
Here have a quick look at the weight of evidence:
It is important to ask whether people who play up uncertainties on narrow issues have a measured understanding of the body of evidence, or whether they want to distract from it.
The latter are not doing science as much as providing content for media manipulators. Uncertainty allows popular beliefs to stay alive, but as I have written ad nauseum, there are many more factors that empower the lableak myth that go beyond science.
One of them is abusing our fear of biotechnology, or in general, our innate suspicion against the new, the unfamiliar, or the supposedly unnatural. These biases provide ample opportunity for media manipulators to exploit as well. Let’s have a look.
The back-to-nature zealots
“But sunlight is not merely disinfectant, it is an active healer.”
People are susceptible to appeals to nature due to innate human tendencies that value various aspects of the natural world, ranging from the experiential to the utilitarian, aesthetic, symbolic, humanistic, moralistic, and even theistic dimensions (Kellert, 1993). These tendencies often manifest themselves as intuitions about purity, perceived health benefits, and even as a belief in the inherent goodness of nature. They also shape our emotional connections and ethical responsibilities toward nature, as well as our understanding of its practical and symbolic significance, making us more receptive to appeals that advocate for natural products beyond their rational apprehension (Rozin et al., 2004 & Rozin et al., 2012).
Whenever possible, media manipulators try to exploit our naturalistic tendencies by emphasizing, framing, or suggesting that natural solutions are superior to modern, evidence-based approaches.
Such appeals to nature can be emotionally charged and personal, driving our decision-making (Lerner et al., 2015). By manipulating feelings like nostalgia and a desire for simplicity or beauty associated with the natural world, individuals may be led to reject scientific innovations and evidence-based practices, creating uncertainty about scientific consensus.
Even more effective might be a negative approach that relies on invoking a sense of “unnaturalness” in us about certain ideas, products, or behaviors. Unnatural framings such as “Frankenfoods”, “chimeras”, “human experimentation”, “playing god” etc. generate resistance to scientific advancements like genetically modified organisms, gender-affirmative care, or vaccines (Scott et al, 2016 & Philipp-Muller et al, 2022).
Alright, I know you get it and would never fall for such simple appeals to nature. But what if they come with a pseudo-scientific paint job?
Case example: Mother evolution knows best?
What is better than using the veneer of science to sell people fictions that conform to their biases?
Heather Heying, a former biology teacher turned podcast host, has gained a significant following after leaving their teaching career to lecture the masses about evolutionary science. Her approach combines anti-establishment conspiracy theories with peculiar alternative medicine perspectives, often relying on naturalistic fallacies. Her book, “A Hunter Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century” offers the ‘groundbreaking’ *cough* idea that because we are evolved and evolution adapts to circumstances, any artificial change in our ‘natural’ circumstances by modern society is by definition maladaptive and bad. Is it that simple though? Well, given this broad scope, her self-help book offers pseudo-scientific advice on a wide range of topics: from culture, GMOs, and mental health, all the way to parenting, alleged toxins to avoid, and claims that sunscreen may cause more harm than good. (Conspiruality podcast just released an episode about the anti-sunscreen conspiratorial movement, if you are interested in these things)
It is fair to say that the whole of evidence-based medicine is not viewed without suspicion by Heather:
“Combine a tendency to engage only proximate questions, with a bias toward reductionism, and you end up with medicine that has blinders on. The view is narrow. Even the great victories of Western medicine — surgery, antibiotics, and vaccines — have been over-extrapolated, applied in many cases where they shouldn’t be. When all you have is a knife, a pill, and a shot, the whole world looks as though it would benefit from being cut and medicated.” — A Hunter Gatherer’s guide to the 21st Century
Her evolutionary perspective is quite a handful nobody should waste their precious time on. To get an eloquent takedown of the “don’t-play-God”, “mind-the-unforeseen-consequences”, “stick-to-the-traditional” worldview she promotes, please read Stuart Richie’s review of her book for the Guardian. He hit the nail on the head.
The problem with her pseudo-scientific appeals to nature or tradition is of course when boilerplate advice to go outside, exercise, and eat a balanced diet get sold to people as a naturalistic cure-all for maladies far beyond their efficacy, especially in the context of alternatives like vaccines.
“There was a lot that you could do to keep yourself healthy as this novel coronavirus scoured the Earth. Eat high quality fat and protein. Restrict your consumption of sugar. Drink the nectar of the gods (honey stirred into hot water, before adding the freshly squeezed juice of a lemon). Enjoy onions in abundance. Use a neti pot for nasal irrigation. Supplement with D and C and Zinc and Magnesium if your levels are low, especially during the Winter” — Heather Heying
Everything but getting the vaccine, huh?
I am sure you will be shocked to learn that Heather Heying is not actually a renowned evolutionary biologist, which you would never guess when listening to her podcast or reading her writing. She has not done or published any research in like 15 years, and back then it was some low-impact papers about frog egg-size biology. Not exactly a skillset that would endow one to be proficiently capable to assess the weight of evidence for the health benefits and detriments of various diets, sleeping patterns, novel vaccines, odd drugs, sunscreens, or fluoridated water (and on and on it goes, most recently her misgivings about unnatural gender-affirming care). Mix this in with her relentless promotion of the ineffective use of Ivermectin against Covid, and she has cultivated a receptive audience to fill up not only with vaccine skepticism, but an assortment of other ill-advised ideas and tools to approach our complex world. What a disaster.
I do wonder: What exactly drives certain audiences that would not usually fall for these blatant naturalistic fallacies to pay attention to her dated “back to nature & tradition” zealotry?
Well, let’s look at our next manipulation technique.
The faux-persecuted Truthtellers
“This will sound like hyperbole to some, but our crime was independence of thought.” — Heather Heying
Contrarian doctors, cranks, pseudoscientific hacks, and other media manipulators are in the business of creating a false perception about their epic struggle against the “establishment” or “elites”, because it is a marketing trick that sells just very well.
Often called the underdog effect, this psychological and narrative trope of the maverick outsider against the “evil empire” appeals to our innate sense of fairness, empathy, and desire for excitement.
Rooting for the underdog often stems from the perception that the situation is unjust, and by supporting the disadvantaged party, we can contribute to restoring balance. Additionally, the unpredictability and drama surrounding an underdog’s potential victory create a thrilling experience that captivates us and this just plays really well in the attention economy. It keeps us in our seats and thereby fills their pockets.
We may even personally identify with underdogs, seeing ourselves in their stories of perseverance and resilience. The underdog effect reminds us of the power of overcoming adversity, inspiring and motivating us to believe in the possibility of triumph against all odds (Vandello et al, 2017). Positive feelings that get subverted cynically to serve a manipulator’s agenda.
Yet no matter how cliché and tired — think Cinderella, rugs-to-riches or the American dream — the underdog effect is culturally powerful and salient in our minds that every sports team, every crypto Ponzi asshole, every political party, and every contrarian influencer wants to cast themselves in that position against some omnipresent or potent adversary, system or the establishment. Ah, and of course, is it really surprising that it has also become a branding trick for companies to increase their sales (Paharia et al., 2010) ?
A very clichéd version of the “underdog” theme when it comes to science is the Galileo Fallacy. A type of false analogy that assumes that since an individual, like Galileo, was once persecuted for their ideas and later vindicated, any persecuted idea or skepticism against established scientific institutions must also be correct. By evoking the idea that great thinkers were once ridiculed or suppressed by the establishment, media manipulators attempt to frame their skepticism as a brave and righteous pursuit of truth. (It is really that ridiculous, and serves as a double whammie for the “loud” silenced doctors we talked about earlier)
One of the biggest issues I have with this constant faux-persecuted truthteller shtick is the targeting of epistemically vulnerable communities.
Conspiratorial audiences are very susceptible to alternative theories that are in contradiction to the “mainstream” explanation of a topic. After all, one of the core features of a conspiracy theory is the belief that it concerns a topic of public interest but not public knowledge (Douglas & Sutton, 2023). There are many social, epistemic, and existential motivations that bring conspiratorial audiences on the side of the underdog, from narcissism and overconfidence (Cichocka et al., 2022 & Pennycook et al., 2022) to a desire to be seen as an original freethinker who distinguishes himself from the ‘sheeple’ (Imhoff & Lamberty, 2017 & van Prooijen, 2019). Believers often feel a hostile outgroup (“the elites”) is conspiring against a perceiver’s ingroup (Imhoff & Lamberty, 2018)
Here is a handy summary of the tendencies and motivations:
By presenting themselves as underdogs (i.e persecuted truthtellers fighting against the odds), media manipulators try to activate our conspiratorial tendencies to undermine the “official” explanations provided by mainstream institutions and erode the audience’s trust in these sources (Fiske & Dupree, 2014).
In doing so, they increase the audience’s susceptibility to alternative, frequently unverified, sources of information that support the manipulators’ objectives. It is pretty nasty.
Case example: “Everything they told us was wrong”
I mean, here it is really hard to choose from because it seems like every single influencer, media manipulator and commentator out there believes that they are fighting the good fight against the “establishment”.
Given the abundance and lack of sophistication, I am tempted to pull up the first BS, or in this case, CS, that comes my way.
Turns out that the cat excrement account, while prominently right-wing and anti-science, has found a successful formula to manipulate our media ecosystem. Just for the record: Scientifically, they were not right on any single issue listed here; there was no lab leak best anybody can tell, natural immunity requires you to get infected unprotected which is way worse, masks have efficacy but social dynamics and compliance matters, lockdowns we talked about before, vaccines are safe and effective, boosters are recommended for most people, nobody faked Covid numbers but given excess deaths it seems reasonable that we undercounted dramatically, not sure about what deadly hospital protocols are but I will go with no, ivermectin does not work against Covid, Fauci is maybe imperfect but certainly not evil and neither is the WHO, and also who exactly gripped world power? Did we sleep through it?
And if you want to see the same turd talking points repeated in maybe more sophisticated language, I invite you to take a look at any substack article, let’s say from our dear Heather Heyes and Bret Weinstein who pretend that they have been persecuted because they told the truth, of course. My eyeballs can unfortunately not roll further without falling out. They were not rotting in a dark prison somewhere, they made a fortune by fearmongering about public health interventions and walked away Scott free except for some harsh words of criticism from doctors.
In any case, talking about this faux-persecution complex, I bet there is something else that is manipulative and worth to learn about as well.
The counterfeit freedom fighters
Freedom is a fundamental human value. People experience an aversive emotional reaction, known as psychological reactance, when they perceive their freedom to be threatened. This emotional response motivates them to restore their sense of autonomy by opposing the perceived threat and to resist the social influence of others.
Reactance is usually not caused by mandates, laws or social requirements even if we do not fully agree with them. We only seem to be energized to strive for a restoration of our freedom when our values or self-construal (how we see ourselves in relation to others) are affected (Steindl et al., 2015).
Media manipulators exploit this psychological phenomenon by framing scientific recommendations or regulations as an infringement on personal freedom.
Scientific findings do not happen in a vacuum, but are often relevant for political coordination or restrictions. Science might show that a certain amount of heavy metal should not be exceeded in industrial sludge as to not poison the ground water, or that wildlife hunting leads to biodiversity loss, or that carbon-emitting industries need to be reigned in to stop climate change, or that masks and vaccines are necessary interventions to reduce viral spread. By portraying these evidence-based practices as oppressive or controlling, manipulators elicit a reactance response in their audience, leading them to resist or reject the scientific guidelines in an effort to reassert their autonomy.
Only when we cued participants to focus their undivided attention on the restrictive nature of the policy did we find evidence supporting a prediction based on psychological reactance: Only then did participants display reactance and respond negatively to the policies. — Laurin et al., 2013
Additionally, reactance can be evoked vicariously when perceiving somebodies freedom being restricted (Sittenthaler et al., 2015), and even aroused without our conscious awareness through subtle cues (Wellman & Geers, 2009, Chartrand et al., 2007). Media manipulators cos-playing as oppressed or persecuted truthtellers can elicit reactance in their audience to “resist” as well.
Case example: The freedom state?
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, an all-around blustering wannabe blowhard with a taste for power but lacking the spine for true leadership, has recently cast himself as a fighter for freedom against a medical and scientific establishment. Leaning into the same anti-establishment shtick of the cranks, contrarian doctors and other influencers he previously platformed, he now aims to tap into the reactance that Covid contrarians have cultivated to mobilize voters.
Just this week, he announced a set of laws under the false framing of “medical freedom”, a media stunt that would see the ban of vaccine or mask requirements that companies or health care providers upheld to create safer work places for their employees and patients. He also enshrined a right to mislead, sorry “freedom of speech”, for physicians without being held responsible by the appropriate medial boards. I am sure that will go well.
So far, however, it has been working brilliantly for him. Framing evidence-based public health interventions as infringement of personal liberties is an old and tried tactic going back centuries, after all. It does not even have to be genuine.
The current medical freedom framing is of course especially pernicious given that DeSantis has also introduced one of the strictest abortion bans in the country just a month ago, on top of prohibitions for gender-affirming care. Freedom for me but not for thee, I guess.
This is the same supposed freedom fighter who condones book removals from public schools and passed a law forbidding educators to talk about sexual orientation. Again, freedom is not the primary issue her, manipulating and mobilizing voters is.
The Whataboutism Warriors
Human beings have a strong inherent inclination towards fairness and consistency. This drive, often known as the ‘fairness bias,’ is rooted in our cognitive framework and greatly influences our decision-making process (Fehr & Schmidt, 1999). We also have the social expectation that raised points in any discussion should be answered (Portner, P., 2004).
Whataboutism’s power lies in its appeal to fairness and consistency. While often wrongfully discarded as fallacious, not every whataboutism is inappropriate or irrelevant, as they can be an effective tool to expose hypocrisy or to correct a skewed focus (Bowell, 2023 & Andersen et al, 2011). The legitimacy of a whataboutism is thereby dependent on the context, which makes it a grey zone that can be exploited.
Rhetorically gifted media manipulators aim to overwhelm the audience by gish-galloping with rapid-fire “what about…” arguments, highlighting supposed controversies, past errors, or unproven theories, to sow doubt about the scientific consensus. For example, they may emphasize rare vaccine side effects, minor disagreements among climate scientists, or trivial errors in research. Each “what about” argument may not hold up under scrutiny, but the sheer volume creates an illusion of controversy (Lewandowsky et al., 2012).
Audiences generally are disturbed by perceived inconsistencies and feel it unfair if not all points are addressed. This creates an asymmetry where (usually the scientist) is brought in a situation of having to debunk or address questions that go beyond the scope
The manipulator adds fuel to this by implying hypocrisy or bias when counter-arguments aren’t provided for each point, diverting the discussion from the central issue. Each whataboutism thereby serves as a red-herring, a distraction with irrelevant information.
Another way to sabotage discourse with whataboutisms is by introducing false dilemmas, which exploits our tendency to reduce problems to a dichotomy while ignoring alternative or in between solutions (Brisson, 2018)
Case study: What about China?
Whataboutism is so ubiquitous and casual in the discourse that pinpointing to individual anti-science actors or media manipulators is barely illustrative. So it might be more instructive to just look at a specific, popular and usually fallacious whataboutism and see how it can be used as a weapon against science in the context of climate change.
And what better to infuse the western mind with ambiguity that an autocratic, often misunderstood, foreign geopolitical and economic adversary who is not known for transparency. I am talking of course about “China”, which is often a placeholder for the Chinese government or nation, which is in itself misleading because China is not a monolith by any parameter. However, exploiting our anxieties about China has been a fruitful approach of media manipulators to sabotage discourse on climate discussions. Here are some of the variations:
Promoting False Dilemmas:
Climate change deniers often say “Why should we cut our emissions when China is the world’s largest emitter?” or “What’s the point of our small country reducing emissions when China emits so much more?” to deflect from the need for their own countries to reduce emissions. This ignores the per capita responsibility and historical emissions, and creates a false dilemma between acting on climate change and holding other countries accountable.
Undermining International Cooperation:
In debates about international climate agreements, one might argue, “Why should we commit to these agreements when China is not meeting its targets?” or “China says it’s going green, but what about its Belt and Road Initiative that’s funding fossil fuel projects in other countries?” This not only distracts from the importance of all nations fulfilling their own commitments but could also undermine the spirit of international cooperation needed to combat climate change effectively.
Diverting Attention to Irrelevant Issues:
When discussing the transition to renewable energy sources, some might counter, “What about China’s continued use of coal power plants?” or “Our country’s emission standards are already much stricter than China’s. Why should we make ours even tougher?” This tactic distracts from the urgent need for all countries to transition to renewable energy sources to mitigate climate change, and ignores China’s substantial investments into renewable energy.
Highlighting Unfair Advantages:
Another common whataboutism from media manipulators: “Why should we invest in expensive renewable technologies when China is exploiting cheap coal?” or “We’re shutting down our industries to reduce emissions, but what about China’s industries that are still booming?” This diverts the discussion from the necessity of transitioning to renewable energy globally to prevent further climate change and makes it a matter of economic competition.
In summary, media manipulators utilize a barrage of whataboutisms, some with merit but decontextualized, others easily debunked, others again a pure red herring to dominate public discourse.
Collectively, these whataboutisms create artificial ambiguity whether climate action is possible, appropriate, effective and just.
Whataboutism is listed as one of the key tactics in Discourses of climate delay, and a core feature of climate disinformation operations.
Now whataboutisms about China also play heavily into the artificial origins of Covid controversy, but we will leave that for another article.
But after observing the geopolitical impact of these anti-science manipulation tactics, I do wonder: Where are we heading?
The attention economy inadvertently changed the role and use of information in society. We build our institutions and democratic society based on two assumptions. First, that information should flow freely between citizens. Second, that citizens deserve and value good information, meaning content that is factual, timely, relevant, contextual and truthful.
However, technological disruption and the attention economy have led to a commodification of information, and with it, has changed how platforms, users, and media manipulators judge the value of information. Today, many actors treat information as a new type of digital product that we exchange for entertainment, services, profit, or power.
Yet information is a very special product because it can shape our perception of reality, thus becoming a tool to persuade, manipulate, or control people. At the moment, there are few regulations to determine what can be said or done in online spaces to sell information products, outsourcing the task of not falling for toxic, addictive, or otherwise harmful information products solely to us consumers.
Our world is not black and white. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. Ambiguity does exist, skepticism against authority is warranted, and science evolves.
So how can we ever make sense of this world and judge whether ambiguity is real or manufactured?
Well, we have to put in the work to see where the weight of evidence falls, or empower, safeguard, and trust the public good scientific institutions that do this work to inform us.
It is no coincidence that the scientific enterprise has found itself under renewed attack in the information age. Science is a myth-buster. Its debunking activity reduces the value of information products that too many media manipulators rely on for their business. Because of this, science has become a nuisance, even an enemy to some industries and many of the most powerful actors in the new attention economy.
If somebody has been getting rich or powerful by selling a popular product, would you expect them to take it off the shelve when scientists come along and explain why it is harmful or does not work?
History, our intuition, and every other practical experience we ever had suggested that when illegitimate gains are threatened by science, profiteers will not change their business model, but rather opt to fight scientists and science instead. This, in my opinion, is what we observe today.
Anti-science activism is not just a thing of the past with tobacco, asbestos, or climate denial. It never went away. Perdue Pharma marketed the opioid oxycontin to doctors as non-addictive, the sugar industry continues to blame obesity on fat, the organic lobby smears GMOs to boost their brand and corrupt judges ban anti-abortion pills as unsafe despite overwhelming evidence for its safety. With doubt and ambiguity as their weapons, no scientific finding, no nugget of truth, no public good is safe from their greed. Childhood vaccines are next on their list, some anti-vaxx extremists now even run for president. Anti-science activism is a necessity for old and new powers in the information age who want to entrench their power over us.
Unwittingly, we have entered a new age of myth and manipulation.
And I am afraid that currently the sole path to avoid falling victim is by cultivating new science and media literacy skills that empower us to distinguish fact from fiction, and trustworthy sources from charlatans.
Attention is a precious good. I post irregularly a few times a year, and only about issues I deem important. To keep up with my writing, you can subscribe for free.
As with my previous article, I think there are some minor risks in explaining the persuasive mechanisms behind these tactics, but I believe the benefit of teaching about them should outweigh the harm.
Ubiquity. These tactics are already widely used, many of them as old as time. My article highlighting why they work is unlikely to dramatically increase their use.
Harm reduction. It is my belief that these tactics mostly work to manipulate when there is a lack of awareness. Creating awareness thus should reduce harm, especially around medical discussions.
Combating side effects. These tactics create noise pollution, and noise pollution comes with many societal diseases we yet have to wrap our heads around, like epistemic paralysis, nihilism, and conspiratorial thinking. If enough people come around to see the bigger picture, systemic changes to our shared info spheres are more realistic.
Restore agency. Manipulation robs us of a fundamental human right, the freedom and agency to make our own decisions. There is no democracy when citizens have no agency.
As always, my hope and goals are to educate and equip citizens with conceptual tools and new perspectives to make sense of the world we inhabit.
This article took a lot of time and effort to conceptualize, research, and produce, actually almost irresponsibly so given that I do not monetize my scicomm and certainly do not plan to start with it now.
I see this work as a public good that I send out into the void of the internet in hopes others will get inspired to act.
You are also invited to deepen this work or just derive satisfaction from understanding our chaotic modern world a bit better.
So feel free to use, share or build on top of this work, I just ask you to properly attribute (Creative Commons CC-BY-NC 4.0).
Markolin P., “Denounce, deny, deceive”, May 15th, 2023. Free direct access link:
Here is some handy resources to get you started:
PS: People asked me ‘Why the fedoras in the pictures?’ quite a few times after my last article. To be honest, I just found it funny. But since then, a better symbolic explanation came to my mind, about how many media manipulators need to wear many different hats to be truly successful at their craft. I think that is fitting, so let’s just pretend this was my plan all along :)