Decoding the disinformation machine

by Oct 13, 2020

Shelton Stat of the Week

In 2016, 63% of Americans believed climate change was caused by human activity. Today, 55% believe it. (Eco Pulse®, Wave 12, May 2020)

The Saturday before President Donald Trump got Covid-19, I bought a desk at one of those warehouse furniture stores – one of the ones with the annoying jingle that gets stuck in your head despite your best efforts to the contrary. Buying the desk was my last bit of acceptance that working from home was officially a long-haul thing and the old farm table I’d been using wasn’t really ergonomically designed for working on a laptop all day long.

While the sales guy was writing up my ticket he complained about his mask, which was actually around his neck, and said, “Thankfully, this will all be over in November.” As someone who spends the bulk of her time trying to understand what’s going on in people’s heads in order to best craft sustainability stories that they’ll be open to hearing, I took the bait.

“What’s magical about November?” I said.

“The election,” he replied.

So I said, “You think a US election is going to change a global pandemic?”

With absolute confidence, he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Yep.”

Now, let’s put judgment aside, and let’s also put aside musings around how his view might have changed once he heard Trump had Covid. What I’m interested in is that a person of seemingly reasonable intelligence totally bought the idea that the pandemic was some kind of political play – a ploy by the Democrats to get Trump out of office, perhaps. How were the messages and stories constructed and served up to him that caused him to believe that? And what can we in the sustainability realm learn from that? How can we decode that approach so we can take a similar angle in convincing people to take action on climate change and plastic waste?

Now, I posed this question to my firm’s leadership team, and I think they were concerned I’d gone to the dark side. Their POV was that the messages that guy received were all lies and conspiracy theories and we can’t adopt anything from that for sustainability communications. I wholeheartedly agree – I am NOT looking for how we can lie our way into getting people to take action on solving our massive environmental and social challenges. But what’s happening in the Disinformation Machine is clearly effective, and I wonder what we can learn from it that we can use.

I’m putting this out there because I’m genuinely interested in thoughts on this one. Here are the two I have thus far:

  1. We need to make our messaging personal. To me, one thing the Disinformation Machine does so well is to couch stories/theories in very personal terms, making whatever the thing is – the left, the right, the pandemic, health care, climate legislation – a personal affront that must be dealt with. In the sustainability arena we need to do a better job of personalizing the impacts of climate change and plastic waste – what does it mean to YOU and YOUR family? How will climate change, deforestation and plastics in the ocean hurt your family, and how will the solutions benefit your family? For corporate storytelling, we should also personalize it – how will a company’s specific actions on climate make YOUR life infinitely better? Ultimately, we all need to remember that “saving the planet” isn’t about saving the planet. It’s about saving people. The more we connect our messaging to what’s in it for people, the more effective we’ll be.
  2. We need to stop weaponizing the word “science.” For years, environmentalists have pointed to “the science” to make their point about the existence of and perils of climate change. Indeed, the science is clear. But I’m afraid that line of messaging has come off as, “we are smart enough to understand the science and you disbelievers are not.” That, of course, puts people on opposite sides and draws an even bigger chasm to cross in getting everybody working together to solve the problem. (It’s potentially also very threatening and insulting to people of deep religious faith, evoking old arguments of evolution vs. creation.) President Trump turned the weaponizing of the word up a notch when pressed by California legislators about the role of climate change in exacerbating wildfires, saying, “Science doesn’t know.” In effect, he flipped the argument to say, “you science people are the dumb ones…the rest of us know what’s really going on here.” Bottom line, trying to convince people that climate change is real because science says so, even though that’s true, is not an effective messaging strategy.

In our May polling, we asked, “How much trust, in general, do you have in the following,” and listed 16 different information sources. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Congress was in next to last place very slightly ahead of strangers. Scientists, though, were the third most trusted source, just behind friends and family. So my recommendation is that you let a scientist deliver your message, but don’t use phrases like, “the science says,” or “we believe in science.” I get it that that’s a tall order. I get completely exasperated and gobsmacked by people who refuse to believe what science keeps telling us. I’m just here to tell you it’s not a winning messaging strategy. We can and should find other words.

Those are my two initial insights into decoding the Disinformation Machine. I’d love your input. I think this could make a great “how to” guide one day if we can figure out how to apply the lessons with integrity.

News of the Week

Brands Face a New Online Threat: Disinformation AttacksThe Wall Street Journal

For years, cybersecurity has focused on technical problems, but social-media campaigns spreading bad information about companies is an emerging issue. For instance, an unscrupulous company could use Twitter bots to spread rumors that a competitor is sharing data with China. A short seller could spread lies about a company’s business practices in a conspiracy-minded online community to drive down the stock price. Both examples could cause harm, and both illustrate a new threat poised to hit businesses, cybersecurity experts say. Read more…


Science and Scientists Held in High Esteem Across Global Public GroupsPew Research Center

An international survey, fielded in public groups across Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, and in the United States, Canada, Brazil and Russia finds broad agreement about the value of scientific research. A median of 82% consider government investment in scientific research worthwhile, and majorities across places view it as important to be a leader in scientific achievements. Still, an appreciation for practical experience, more so than expertise, in general, runs deep. Additionally, public views about climate, environment and energy issues are strongly linked with political ideology. Read more…


Engaging Middle America In Recycling Solutions

Before COVID-19, 41% of Americans wanted to be seen as someone who buys green products, and many could cite an example of a brand they’d purchased (or not purchased) because of the environmental record of the manufacturer. Now, in the middle of the pandemic, the numbers have dropped dramatically. The big question is, what does this mean for engaging Americans in their number one green activity: recycling? Another question is, what does it mean for companies’ sustainability brand?

Our latest report answers these questions by digging into current consumer attitudes, how they impact consumer behavior, and how organizations should respond to ensure recycling – and other green behaviors – keep happening.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

1 Comment

  1. Felipe Gonzales

    The disinformation machine is incredibly effective and powerful, it preys on fear and builds a reality that’s comfortable and simple to understand.

    It boils down complex challenges like climate change, inequality, and more into simple stories that can be processed with little effort. In these cases, they’re lies and fabrications by the media or funded by activist (according to the Trump Administration).

    That’s a much easier truth to swallow than the reality that were on a destructive unsustainable path or in the midst of mass extinctions that we don’t quite understand and may require modifying our behavior to overcome.

    The disinformation machine provides you an alternate reality, an escape from the truth, and a villain that’s easy to understand (humans).

    Thanks for sharing your story.

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