Oct 27, 2021 • 1HR 15M

Volts podcast: Amy Westervelt on disinformation and propaganda

It's everywhere, it's on purpose, and it's been around a long time.

David Roberts
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Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)
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In this episode, journalist and researcher Amy Westervelt discusses the history of the public relations industry in the US and the ubiquitous, if largely unacknowledged, role it has played, and still plays, in shaping how Americans think about the environment. Amy has tons of great stories!

Full transcript of Volts podcast featuring Amy Westervelt, October 27, 2021

(PDF version)

David Roberts:

In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about America’s polluted information environment — the ubiquity of disinformation — driven by social media and “fake news.” What is less discussed is that purposefully crafted disinformation designed to shape public opinion to the benefit of the wealthy and powerful is nothing new. In fact, it’s almost as old as the country itself.

Amy Westervelt, a long-time, award-winning environmental journalist, has spent her career uncovering disinformation and exposing the methods of those who generate and spread it.

She’s perhaps best known as the host of Drilled, a “true-crime podcast about climate change” that has spent six seasons (so far) exposing the propaganda generated and spread by the fossil fuel industry. And she’s editor-in-chief of the Drilled News site.

She’s also the founder of Critical Frequency, a woman-run podcast network, as well as the co-host of the climate podcast Hot Take with climate essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar (it’s currently on hiatus; returning next year), the co-host or producer of several other podcasts (including Scene on Radio and Crooked Media’s This Land), and the author of Forget Having It All, a 2018 book on the challenges of motherhood in the US.

Amy Westervelt (Photo: Isabella Reyes-Klein)

Now Westervelt has a new project, launching today: Rigged.

The foundation of the site is a treasure trove of original documents, some dating back more than a century, about the founding and growth of the modern public relations industry and its development of tools of mass persuasion.

Atop that database is a series of pieces charting the landscape, offering a glossary of disinformation techniques, profiles of the (anti-)heroes of the business, and stories on various inglorious chapters in disinformation history, from chemicals to railroads to tobacco to fossil fuels.

It is equal parts fascinating and horrifying — fascinating that the tools of disinformation are so well and publicly documented; horrifying that they are still working so effectively.

Here’s just one fun fact: Edward Bernays, one of the pioneers of early 20th century opinion shaping, coined the term “public relations” because the Germans, he said, had “given the word propaganda a bad name.” You can also thank Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, for men wearing wristwatches, women smoking, and bacon being a standard part of American breakfast. These stories are wild.

I’ve been admiring Westervelt’s work from afar for years, so I was psyched to talk to her about Rigged, the long history of disinformation, the many ways the fossil fuel industry has shaped public opinion, and why the US left seems so incapable of dealing effectively with disinformation to this day.

Amy Westervelt, welcome to Volts.

Amy Westervelt: 

Hi, thanks for having me.

David Roberts:   

Glad you could squeeze me in between your dozens of projects. Let's start with the newest one. Tell me about Rigged: How did you come to be doing this, why are you doing it, and what would you like it to accomplish?

Amy Westervelt: 

A little more than a year ago now I did a season of my other podcast, Drilled, looking at the history of fossil fuel propaganda. When I first started Drilled, I was just going to do one six-part season about the origins of climate denial. Then, in the course of doing that, I started thinking, climate denial is such a dumb tactic; why did it work? It's dumb to just be like, “Nuh-uh.” It's not a genius strategy. Of course, it's telling people what they want to hear, like this problem might not be that bad and maybe we don't need to do anything drastic. But I also felt like there must be more to it. 

So I started to look at what the industry was doing before; it's not like they just started doing PR when global warming was researched. The more I dug into that, the more I realized that they really spent a lot of time and thought to shape how people view the world in general, and especially how people view environmental issues, for a really long time, before anyone was talking about climate change.

That has a lot to do with, once this issue appears, how we actually process and deal with it. But in the course of doing that, I also found all this stuff about what the PR firms and the PR people who were working for Big Oil were doing for all these other industries at the same time, and it seemed important to me for people to understand that this is a longstanding system and set of strategies that really was created to circumvent democracy. 

The modern PR industry comes about when you have journalists criticizing America's captains of industry for the first time, you have the vote expanding beyond just land-owning white men; this is the late 1800s and early 1900s, the dawn of the 20th century. The US government passes its very first regulation on business in 1887. So there are all these reasons that industry across the board is saying, “Oh, wow, we really need a way to get a handle on this thing that's getting away from us.” I call it “creeping democracy.”

A lot of these early PR guys are working for coal and rail and oil and tobacco all at the same time, and then quickly, chemicals joins that list, too. So the reason that we see these strategies replicated in multiple industries is not that an oil executive is studying the moves of a tobacco executive; it's that they're using the same PR firms.

In the case of oil and tobacco, John W. Hill was working for the American Petroleum Institute and all the tobacco companies at the same time, and he encouraged them to talk to each other. He got the tobacco guys to join the API. The oil companies were co-defendants of the tobacco companies during the tobacco litigation, because they helped to create the cigarette filter. That was all brokered by their PR and spokespeople. 

I felt like all this documentation sitting on my desk wasn’t doing anyone any good there. I started to digitize a lot of it, and I thought, DocumentCloud is kind of hard to navigate, so I should put this on a website that guides people through it. Then I thought, there's a significant number of people who, even if they believe we should act on climate, will never listen to a climate podcast, because they have a certain idea in their minds of what that means; so I'm going to do a companion podcast that looks at how disinformation is created and how it became an industry in and of itself in the US, a long time before we started talking about Facebook and Twitter, or climate change and climate denial.

David Roberts:   

When this industry and approach was first coming together, what were some of the early victories that helped put the template in place for what these guys could do for an industry?

Amy Westervelt: 

This is fascinating to me, because they're all these things that people take at face value as just a cultural shift that happened in America. It's really nuts. 

One of my favorite examples of this is Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, who integrated a lot of Freud's theories into his work in the 1920s. He lived to be more than 100, so he was working from the 20s through the 70s. He had a watchmaker come to him who was concerned about the fact that, apparently, it was considered feminine to wear a wristwatch, so men were not wearing wristwatches. Real men had pocket watches.

So Bernays starts to think about who are the manliest of men, and he lands on soldiers. Bernays was a frequent user of commissioning an expert to do a study; whether or not that study was valid or not is very suspect, but at the time, it was considered an expert study. So he commissioned a study to look at how many soldiers were killed while lighting a match to look at their pocket watch. Then he goes to the Army and says, “you could have a 25 percent reduction in the number of men being killed if you just made wristwatches standard issue.” So they did. He got the Army to make wristwatches standard issue, and that effectively broke this taboo about it being feminine to wear a wristwatch.

David Roberts:   

Clever. He did a reverse thing with women in smoking, which I also found fascinatingly devilish.

Amy Westervelt: 

Yes. In the case of smoking, American Tobacco came to him with a similar kind of gender taboo: it was considered uncouth for women to smoke. So he had this idea to call up some of his friends’ young socialite daughters and have them stage a protest, walking up and down Fifth Avenue smoking, and say that it was a women's empowerment thing. Then he called all of the newspapers and told them about the protest, and they all covered it. It was in all the national papers. He called cigarettes “torches of freedom.” 

He also really tapped into Freudian stuff about women and penis envy and etc. He was quite a dude. Within six months or so, this taboo had been totally broken down and the tobacco industry had doubled its customer base. I'm sure most people at the time just thought that it was a women's empowerment thing, but it was all manufactured.

David Roberts:   

Another thing that people think of as a modern phenomenon is attacking the media as biased or fake news, or trying to bully the media into doing a both-sides approach of what ought to be a clear issue. Turns out that goes way back too; that's not an invention of modern Republicans.

Amy Westervelt: 

No, it is not. Bernays did a bit of that. Even Ivy Lee, who was the very first modern publicist who worked for Standard Oil, did that. Then in the 60s and 70s, my favorite, Herb Schmertz, the VP of public affairs for Mobil Oil, really hammered that home. He was famous for bullying journalists and threatening them with pulling ads if they didn't cover Mobil’s point of view on things, which he did actually do with the Wall Street Journal for a significant number of years. He even went one step further and refused to give them access to things like quarterly earnings reports.

David Roberts:   

In one of the interesting stories I read on Rigged, someone successfully bullied a journalist into saying “changes” rather than “reforms.” It's amazing how vulnerable to this journalists are and have been.

Amy Westervelt: 

That was Ivy Lee; he shifted the language around railroad labor requirements. Back in the late 1800s, they were wanting to require trains to have additional staff, because they were very negligent and having massive crashes and killing lots of people. They were told, “you guys are understaffing these trains, they need to be properly staffed.” Ivy Lee shifted the language around from it being a minimum number of staff to additional staff, which is a really key thing when you think about it. 

I was just thinking about that today, with how the oil industry talks about methane. Everything is a methane “leak,” which sounds accidental: oopsie! But you guys are letting it rip constantly, sometimes just because you want to burn off gas. 

David Roberts:   

“We've been having this accident happen consistently every day.”

Amy Westervelt: 

Industries of all kinds spend an enormous amount of time and money choosing the exact right wording. They've been doing that forever. A guy named Earl Newsom, who worked for Standard Oil from the late ‘20s to the late ‘60s or ‘70s — also worked for Campbell's Soup, and GM, and Ford, and all the big American companies — was using Elmo Roper to do early polling, in the ‘20s, and then using that to inform his PR plan. I found all of the invoicing documents in his archives and some of these companies were spending millions of dollars on PR in the late ‘20s, already.

David Roberts:   

It seems like, early in the game, when these things were new and no one had any defense mechanisms, they were wildly successful. That's an incredible payoff for a little bit of investment.

Amy Westervelt: 

The very first press release, which Ivy Lee created and sent out to The New York Times, ended up getting printed word for word, because they were so caught off guard by the fact that the company was disclosing all this information.

David Roberts:   

It's easy to condemn the corporate side of that move, but the response of journalists is a little bit more muddy. You can see why it’s effective on journalists, because they do want to be fair. Objectivity has become a parody of itself, but the impulse is real; I understand why, as journalists, we're subject to this.

Amy Westervelt: 

Totally. It effectively weaponized good intentions.

David Roberts:   

How can we harness a basically good impulse to horrible effect?

Amy Westervelt: 

It was very smart. In the early days, part of what they were organizing against was the muckraking journalism that Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells and Upton Sinclair and all those folks were doing. Part of the strategy was to paint this picture that those journalists are really activists — they're biased, they have an agenda. You don't want to be that type of journalist. Which I still see today, constantly.

David Roberts:   

One of the most useful things on Rigged is this glossary of techniques that have come into use since the late 1800s. It's a bounded set of techniques that they come to again and again and again. I thought we could look at a couple of them through the lens of fossil fuel companies, because that's my personal obsession. 

Some of them I think people understand already, like astroturfing: the making of fake grassroots groups. Most people get making up of fake experts, or starting your own think tank, or buying a friggin’ academic department and having them crank out studies for you. But some of these are less obvious.

One of the things I found amazing is how involved the fossil fuel companies have been in school curriculum, going way, way back.

Amy Westervelt: 

They started that. They did that before any other industry.

Standard Oil put out the very first corporate-sponsored curriculum for schools in 1928. They did these pressed albums that they sent to schools; it was called the Standard School Broadcast. It seemed on the face of it like it had nothing to do with oil. That's the genius thing; they are very good at doing this in a subtle way. This program was music appreciation and history. So on the face of it, seems fine.

I actually went on a little bit of a spending spree buying up old vinyl from the Standard School Broadcast. I have one that's all about the Industrial Revolution. It's classic. They do these radio vignette-style stories in between the music, and there's one where they have this very shrill-voiced woman being the consumer protection person. They give her some name that sounds annoying, like Ms. Snap. It’s setting up this whole thing of, well, do you want to give up your car and live like the aboriginals do? 

This one that I'm referencing in particular came out in the ‘40s. So they've been setting up this idea that anyone who suggests government intervention that would interfere with profits in the name of public safety or the environment or anything like that — that is a backwards thing, it's not sensible.

David Roberts:   

Something the corporates do better than the good guys is, they don't just go in and say “oil is great.” It’s much deeper: corporate capitalism is the nature of the world. It’s propaganda on a deeper level than just their interests. They're trying to convey a worldview.

Amy Westervelt: 

Yes, very much, and when you put that worldview in a classroom or in the mouth of a teacher that young children are taught to trust and believe, that is an insidious form of propaganda that is very hard to shake.

It’s wild. I spent the last several months looking at the school stuff, because we did a series with Earther on school curriculum. What I wanted to focus on was the non-science part. We've gotten to this point where everyone thinks the problem with climate is political will, not lack of understanding of the science — but we haven't really looked at where that problem with political will has come from, and just how far back it goes. These guys were investing in shaping a very specific worldview.

David Roberts:   

And making you feel like, if you object to part of it, you are basically standing up against industrialized modern life.

Amy Westervelt: 

Yeah, that you're backwards, you're a communist, you're not American. It's tied to all of that. It's insane to me how much you see that messaging today. In all the coverage of Manchin and the Build Back Better stuff, I'm seeing this pitting of the environment against the economy, or environmentalists as some sort of special interest group that just cares about trees. That is still so prevalent now.

David Roberts:   

If you get those narratives in people's heads when they're young, they don't think of them as narratives; they just think it's how the world works. It becomes so deeply rooted that any amount of contrary facts just bounce off the narrative. Those narratives are so much stronger than evidence.

Amy Westervelt: 

This is why science denial was such a slam dunk, because it reinforced the narrative that people had already been brainwashed with for decades.

David Roberts:   

Some of the older school tactics are, to our modern eyes, quite crude; presumably now school administrators would not be handing out Shell comic books about how oil is great. But fossil fuels are still at it in schools, so what's the modern version?

Amy Westervelt: 

When we did this series with Earther, Dharna Noor and I worked on it together, and Dharna found a guy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a Montessori school — so not a red state, or a red area — whose kid had come home with a bunch of coloring and activity books from a natural gas company, all about how natural gas is great and it’s your invisible friend. It was suggesting that kids go and talk to their family members about how they use natural gas.

The other persistent thing, which is so effective, is just reminding people how much they use this stuff, how complicit they are. Look at all the ways you use natural gas in your home, all of the things it delivers to you.

David Roberts:   

The more tied up it is with your identity, the more resistant you are to the idea that it's bad, because then you're bad, right? They want to link you to it. I don't feel like the left does this very well.

When people think about fossil fuel influence, their minds go to lobbying and money. But actually — and I feel like these early stories help make this very clear — they've been laying the groundwork in culture for decades. It's fertile soil on which they can plant a lobbying campaign; the ground has been prepared.

Amy Westervelt: 

For a century. That's not hyperbole. It's actually slightly more than a century.

David Roberts:   

Are there things you found out that fossil fuel companies are doing or have done that shocked or surprised you, that you think most people aren't aware of?

Amy Westervelt: 

The thing that blew my mind the most was in the Earl Newsom archive. So he, again, was a publicist for Standard Oil.

I should mention, in respect to him and all of these folks: They make a very clear delineation between what they do and what they would call “press agents” do, which is get media coverage and things like that. When they say public relations, they mean being the intermediary, mediating the relationship between the company or the industry and the general public, but also multiple other publics: legislators, moms, students, whatever.

Earl Newsom in particular saw himself as sort of a consigliere to CEOs. In some of his files, he's weighing in on whether or not they should accept a particular award, what connotation that would have. It’s to a level I don't think the left even understands, never mind knows how to do. 

In his files, I found one box from the Standard Oil archive that was confidential, and there were all these plans in there around free enterprise. This was in 1944, as World War II is coming to an end. This guy is meeting with his big clients, not just Standard Oil, but also GM and Campbell Soup and all of them.

He's like, “We have a big problem coming down the pipeline here, and it's not war. It's not even the fact that the government's not going to be buying stuff from you anymore. Americans have gotten very comfortable with the government running things; the government has done a good job, and Americans are starting to like it a little too much. So we really run the risk here of Americans turning away from the free market approach that we have come to rely upon in this country. This is a huge problem for business. We need to coordinate a campaign that reminds them of why free enterprise is actually the best thing for them. We cannot use the words ‘free enterprise.’ We cannot coordinate this through the US Chamber or the National Association of Manufacturers, because everyone knows they're just shills for business.” 

This is in the 1940s. They're already saying this. “We have to coordinate but it can't look coordinated. We need a full court press here. We need ads that are focused on cool gadgets that we're coming up with in our research and development departments. We need to be talking about the high wages that we're paying. We need to invest in universities.”

This is when they start going really big on investing in universities, because they want educated people to be coming out of universities with a fixed idea about how important free enterprise is to the country. It is comprehensive

David Roberts:   

That post-war era is so interesting to me. When you learn about it in history, you learn about these big structural forces: the war was ending, there was a war surplus, all this economic vitality, and then out of that grew roads and giant corporations — as though it was just an unfolding of history. But right in that post-war era was such a flurry, a concentration of people trying to take hold and direct the US in particular directions. It was propaganda flourishing. 

Amy Westervelt: 

It really was. The thing that made my head explode was that shortly after that, I found stuff in the Bernays archive where he had been giving almost the exact same speech to his clients, at the same time.

Between the two of them, Earl Newsom and Edward Bernays were working for the top 100 companies in the country at that point, and if they were sounding the alarm about this and getting their clients to coordinate, that would have been a pretty effective campaign. 

I grew up with this idea of the war surplus, and we have all this infrastructure that we need to use, and all these people that we need to put to work, and also, Americans are just so grateful that the war is over that they're just in the mood to buy. But really, these guys have been trying to sell us on the idea that convenience and “modernity” are the most important things for forever.

David Roberts:   

Another section of the site profiles some of the people of the propaganda movement. Let's talk about Richard Berman. It’s fascinating how effective he's been and all the things he's invented, but I also just find him fascinating as a person; I have an unhealthy fascination with awful people. What was his signature achievement?

Amy Westervelt: 

He is supposedly the person that the main character in the movie Thank You for Smoking is based on. He worked for Philip Morris for a long time, trying to work the public and legislators during the ‘90s tobacco litigation. They gave him a bunch of money to start a PR firm.

With that, he created this incredible web of front groups: The Center for Consumer Freedom. The Center for Responsible Science.

David Roberts:   

My favorite was, when the Center for Consumer Freedom somehow became well-known as a front group, he changed the name to the most spectacularly generic name. I literally can't remember it, because it’s just a bunch of buzzwords. 

Amy Westervelt: 

The acronym is CORE: the Center for Organizational Research and Education.

David Roberts:   

I love it. That could be anything. 

Amy Westervelt: 

He was an early mover on astroturfing and these front groups, and he also figured out that he could very easily hide the funding behind them. I think the Center for Consumer Freedom is technically a nonprofit, the sort of nonprofit that doesn't have to disclose much, so their main payment outgoing every year is to Rick Berman.

David Roberts:   

If any of these groups come in for any sort of legal or any other kind of trouble, it's equally easy just to scrap them. 

Amy Westervelt: 

He just scraps them and makes a new one. He's got five or six that are all about unions. The thing I find the most entertaining about him is that he was given the nickname Dr. Evil by “60 Minutes” in the early 2000s, and he was so delighted by it that he actually includes it in his requests for funding now, as a proof of how successful he is.

David Roberts:   

He loves being called Dr. Evil. This guy, and these other guys, too: Are they evil, and they know they're evil, and they don't care, and they like being evil? Or do you think on some level, they have a story that they tell themselves about themselves where they're the good guys, fighting on the right side of things? How conscious is the evil?

Amy Westervelt: 

This is what fascinates me about them. What makes these people tick?

A lot of people think it's just money. I think that's true for some, but in my experience, people can only do something just for money for so long before they have to create a narrative for themselves. In Berman's case, and in a lot of these guys’ cases, I think they have completely drunk the Kool-Aid on how important it is to protect capitalism as part and parcel of freedom. I think they just 100 percent believe that if you don't have capitalism, you don't have freedom, and anything that erodes capitalism erodes freedom.

David Roberts:   

But the funny thing is, if you read the theoretical foundations of capitalism — why it's supposed to work and why it's supposed to be so virtuous — part of the theory is transparency. Part of the theory is people knowing what other people are doing, and what things really cost, and everyone having the same information. That’s central to the theory. So it's bizarre what capitalism has become in the heads of some of these guys.

Amy Westervelt: 

Rick Berman fascinates me too because his tactics are so crude. They're so dumb.

David Roberts:   

He's an early version of what we all ran into with Trump: wait a minute, you don't have to be smart. You don't have to really be clever. Your tactics don't have to be subtle. You can just be big dumb, and it works.

Amy Westervelt: 

It totally works. There was this tape that was leaked of Berman to The New York Times in 2014 or 2015, when anti-fracking was starting to grow. He got brought in to give a talk to the Western States Petroleum Association. He said, “You don't have to convince people to like fracking. You don't even have to convince them that it's not bad. You just have to get a tie. All you need is a tie. A tie is a win for you.”

It’s so true. That's the big problem, right? If your client is the status quo, it's much easier to get that. If you're trying to push for change, you actually do need a win. You need to get people to a point where they're willing to act.

David Roberts:   

Yes. Which is not just neutral; it's way beyond neutral. You have to build a lot of energy to do anything good or constructive, and it's so easy just to sap a little bit of that energy.

Amy Westervelt: 

It's so much easier to sell complacency than change.

David Roberts:   

Why is there no Dr. Good? Where are the climate left’s Machiavellian operators who are doing PR and propaganda? 

Amy Westervelt: 

I find this very puzzling. One, I think that the left gets into this trap of thinking that this stuff is dumb and silly and doesn't work. Which is not true. Then there's this whole false sense of nobility: “They go low, we go high.” Well, or are you just bringing a spoon to a knife fight? 

The left, at least on climate, is outspent ten to one on PR and lobbying. So there's way less money, but it's not because it doesn't exist. There are people with money on the left. There's been a choice made not to invest in this for some reason. I've talked to a few of the folks who are experts in the climate psychology realm, and they say, “I know that my counterpart on the right is being hired by every PR firm in the country.” So, I don't know why.

David Roberts:   

I have somewhat of a theory. The intellectual vanguard, the left's talkers and thinkers and spokespeople, are hyper-educated; they go to nice schools; they love words. They love the idea that public life is determined by dialogue and persuasion and who's got the best argument. (I’m talking to myself here.) And doing this PR and lobbying is an acknowledgment that in fact, people are irrational, and public opinion is shaped. It involves admitting a lot of things about the world that are disturbing to people who have been trained in words.

Amy Westervelt: 

I think that's very true. There's this sense that appealing to people's lizard brain is talking down to them, or is beneath me as an educated person. We've seen this in the climate movement; up until maybe the last five years, it was never okay to include any kind of emotion or exaggeration in any kind of climate appeal. But the right isn’t doing that.

You're trying to combat the most primitive poking of the fear button with fucking charts and graphs. It’s not going to work.

David Roberts:   

I used to get into arguments with people: I'd say, so you agree that climate is an existential issue, species on the line, literally nothing could be more important, but … you won't lie? You won’t get mad about it? You won't use emotionally manipulative language — that's too far? Just how seriously are you taking climate change, if your intellectual virtue comes first? It's an argument I have with myself. 

Amy Westervelt: 

That is a big part of it, and that is what scares the shit out of oil companies about the youth climate movement. I got leaked this report maybe two years ago that was internal VP marketing strategy about the emotional authenticity of the youth climate movement and how they have not figured out how to deal with that.

David Roberts:   

In addition to the story the Youth Climate movement is telling, which is about emotion and Earth and protecting youth, there's this other story we could also be telling from the tech community: Look at all these cool gizmos that are being suppressed and denied to you by these lazy incumbents who are politically entrenched. You could be living a cool whizbang life, with your solar panels, your EV, your cool electrical panel that's smart and has fucking 5G, but you're being held back in primitive technology by incumbents.

Amy Westervelt: 

That's a great message. That's exactly what the oil industry messaged in the 50s. We should absolutely do that.

David Roberts:   

Another thing I wanted to ask about is the development of social media. We've all heard these critiques by now: what works on social media is negative emotions, it's outrage, it's anger. That just says to me that social media, even more than traditional media, is practically built for misinformation. It's so fruitful and helpful for these guys. 

Amy Westervelt: 

That's absolutely true. I interviewed this woman a while ago who was talking about how the rapid corporatization of social media companies was driven by industry's fear of the early freeform internet. They thought, “If there's this giant, open public messaging machine where people are just sharing stories and ideas, we don't get to control it.” That is the origin story of the social media industry as we know it. It’s very much about giving that control back to the people who've always had power in this country.

David Roberts:   

We have all these early internet pioneers out in public saying, “We had such big dreams. What happened? It just went the wrong way.” It didn't just go the wrong way, dude. They made it go that way.

Amy Westervelt: 

There's this pendulum all throughout history. The muckrakers said, “I'm going to just tell the truth and we're going to get these guys,” and they very quickly mobilize and come up with PR to stop that. In the 60s, you have the social justice movements rising up, and they very quickly mobilize with new PR techniques to stop that. Then you have the internet — in its very first stages, perhaps the most democratic thing we ever had — no, that's not going to stand, they aren't going to let it.

It's important for people to understand this, so that they know why it's important to fight for genuinely free press. 

David Roberts:   

Is there any positive story to tell about social media? 

Amy Westervelt: 

The complicated problem right now is that social media needs to be regulated. That's the reality. It's not going to happen with self-imposed fact checking processes or whatever the fuck they're using. It’s never going to work. What's happened is that social media has been allowed to behave like media, but without any of the same regulations on it. 

Actually, podcasts fall into this too. I looked into this last year, because I was hearing all of these over-the-top ads from Exxon in podcasts about the amazing potential of carbon capture; they were vastly overstating it, like, “We're going to capture 90 percent of the emissions from factories.”

I was hearing it on the Science Friday podcast, or Invisibilia, all these NPR science podcasts. So I reached out to the folks at NPR to ask them, because NPR has extremely strict standards about what kinds of ads they allow on broadcast. I said, “Why is this so not in line with what you would allow on the radio?” And they said, “Because it doesn't fall under FCC requirements.” I said, “Don't you just have the same guidelines?” And they said, “No, it's not governed by the FCC.” I said, “So just to be clear, your ethics policy is ‘anything that's not illegal goes?’”

That's where we're at, with social media and podcasts and a lot of websites. They're under the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC. There are technically guidelines that you're supposed to follow, but they're not enforced. Even just to file an FTC complaint is a giant pain in the ass, and then it could go nowhere.

There's no reason why, if you're going to basically become a publisher, you shouldn't follow the same rules as an actual publisher.

David Roberts:   

You suggest two solutions to this problem of misinformation, and I have to admit that I have low hopes on both.

One is media literacy, people being trained to recognize these things. With the tide of information and BS that is crashing over every single human head right now, teaching everybody, individually, to be out there in this jungle and survive on their own seems too huge and daunting, like nothing you could ever accomplish. 

The other is regulation of social media. But someone needs to be making the judgments about what's okay and what's not, what's true and what's not. I don't know that I want social media companies making those judgments, but then, is it government? Because right now, if it's a Republican government, Democrats don't care; if it's a Democratic government, Republicans don't care. We’ve lost any brokers or institutions that are widely trusted, and without that you're screwed. 

Amy Westervelt: 

I don't think you're wrong. We haven't even talked about the fact that, sadly, I think a lot of the regular media has been worked by this too. How many stories come straight from a press release? Let's think about that.

David Roberts:   

Even subtler, little narrative things. Kyrsten Sinema is tanking her president and her party's agenda to keep taxes on rich people low, and in every story about her, she's called a moderate — “moderate,” like she's in-between the parties. One of our normal human heuristics is that medium, in between the two extremes, is good.

Amy Westervelt: 

Yes. It's gone on for so long that the media self-censors in this weird way. I was working as a stringer for the Washington Post for a while, and because I live in California, I would get sent to cover wildfires all the time.

For one of the stories, I had talked to the California fire chief, and he gave me this very succinct explanation of exactly how climate change makes wildfire worse. He said, “I've been fighting fires for 30 years in California. This is climate change. What's making this so much worse is that we're not getting the increased humidity and the cold temperatures at night. Nighttime used to be when we would get on top of a fire, and now we're not getting that, so it's just burning at the same intensity 24 hours. That makes the fire worse, but it also burns out our crew.”

He’s not a flaming liberal by any stretch — 30-year firefighter from Redwood City or whatever. 

My editor at the time wanted to remove the mention of climate change, because he said, “This is a disaster story, not a climate story.” This was not that long ago, maybe seven or eight years ago. But because I had the background that I had, I said, “That's a total fossil fuel framing. We don't need to be scared of letting a fire chief mention climate change for fear of it turning into a policy story.”

He very quickly said, “Okay, no, you're right, that makes sense.” But he didn't get a call from a PR guy at Mobil about it; it’s internalized. Everybody has internalized this “liberal media” trope — which is, if you look at who actually owns the media, completely not true.

David Roberts:   

The analogy I sometimes draw is to the filibuster. We've gone from the right filibustering everything, to now, all McConnell has to do is send a memo saying, “We're probably going to filibuster this.” They don't force the confrontation anymore. It's the same with media; all the corporations have to do is say, “We're going to make climate change a partisan thing,” and editors immediately say, “Got it, I will use scrupulously neutral language.”

They don't even have to be browbeat into it anymore. The whole machine is already built.

Amy Westervelt: 

One of the solutions I've seen is more people like yourself, like myself, saying, “I'm out. I want to be able to report this accurately, and it's hard to do that in the confines of the media.”

David Roberts:   

One of the best things about going independent is that I no longer have to muddle through these metaphysical questions. What is journalism? What is and isn’t fair? Now I can just say what seems to me to be the truth — which it seems like more people ought to be able to do.

You've been a climate journalist for quite a while now. What do you think climate journalism is not doing or needs to do more? What is your critique of climate journalism specifically?

Amy Westervelt: 

I wish that people would get beyond science denial being the only thing that the fossil fuel industry pushes. In being so focused on that, I feel like they're missing, and actually perpetuating, all these other frames that also come from the fossil fuel industry. They think if it's not science denial, it's not a talking point. 

The other thing, at the other end of the spectrum, is buying every climate solution hook, line, and sinker, regurgitating what's been told to you. Also the idea that activists have agendas, but CEOs don't. That needs to go. Diversifying source lists.

And I hope this doesn't sound like I'm just being a whiny freelancer, but I thought by this point I would not be having to do Climate 101 for every editor I work with. I'm surprised at how many times I hear from someone saying, “I'm the new editor of this climate vertical, but I don't have any background in climate.”

I wish that the powers-that-be in media would actually start taking climate as seriously as they've been saying they're going to take it for a long time.

David Roberts:   

Part of me wonders if the public is a little bit ahead of the editorial class at this point. Editors still think long stuff is boring, people don't care about wonky science, you’ve got to do the inverted triangles, all these myths and habits of journalism that don't seem applicable and don't seem to reach the intended audience anymore.

Amy Westervelt: 

I think that's true. I wish more people would interrogate where the information they're getting is coming from, journalists included. I went to this podcast conference a few years ago, and there was a speech that was done by Chenjerai Kumanyika and Sandhya Dirks, who are both really great podcasters; Sandhya is a reporter, Chenjerai is a professor at Rutgers.

The subject of the talk was, “Every story is about power.” It was so good! I wanted to make every journalist I know listen to this. They did such a good job of showing how it shows up in even the dumbest stories. They did a story about Dunkin Donuts bringing back a favorite donut, which you wouldn't think was a massive investigation of class structure, but it totally was.

So yes, just thinking about it in that way: who's sending me this information, and for what reason, and who does it benefit? 

David Roberts:   

Like you say, the right spent a long time trying to shape the way science was presented in media, but I think now they're spending more effort trying to shape how the solution sets are presented. I think they've given up the ghost on denialism; they know what's happening, they know we're going to do something about it.

Now they want to take control of how we react, and what our assumptions are about the parameters of a response — what we can and can't do, what's allowed and what's not allowed.

Amy Westervelt: 

The reason it’s so effective now is, that's what they've been doing all along. They started narrowing the parameters of how we're allowed to think about environmental issues 50 years before climate change came on the scene. So they're just going back to that.

David Roberts:   

I used to say this around the Waxman-Markey fight all the time: Here's Democrats saying “We're going to issue these certificates, and then you can trade them, but the total amount of certificates” … already 99 percent of people are tuned out. And what's the right do? “Tax. It's a tax. Boom!” The whole ideological infrastructure is already built. It's there. You only have to invoke it. 

Amy Westervelt: 

You see it in the Manchin stuff now. SEP, 4 percent, blah, blah, blah; all the right has to do is say, “It's expensive, though. Oh, $3 trillion. A lot of money.” That’s it.

David Roberts:   

Yes. “It will raise your costs.” Literally, I can list a dozen studies and models showing very specifically that doing this will reduce consumer energy costs, and it just doesn't matter, because “it will raise your costs” has transcended to a realm where it's true regardless of the details. It’s written in the heavens.

Amy Westervelt: 

That one killed me, because if the Democrats had led with that before the right could even say anything about the price tag, how much better would that have been than “infrastructure, but we're also going to do climate”? Come on.

David Roberts:   

Yes. How about, “We have designed a bill here to reduce your energy costs. If you want to know the details we can get into them. But mostly, that's what's going to happen.”

I'm curious whether you think the fuckery of industry, and PR, and propaganda, and the public's unknowing acceptance of it, are worse in the US? If so, why?

Amy Westervelt: 

Actually, that's been studied. Definitively, yes.

One of the researchers I go back to again and again is a woman named Melissa Aronczyk at Rutgers — she's Canadian. She looked at the difference between how the media and PR industry evolved in the US vs. in Canada and some other places. Her take is that the entire way that Americans understand the environment is shaped by PR, so it becomes impossible to disentangle Americans’ thinking on environmental issues from PR. 

In the early days of the US, Teddy Roosevelt had two advisors on natural resources: John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. They had very different ideas. Pinchot’s whole thing was that natural resources are basically an economic resource to be managed for the benefit of the economy — and he totally won out. He created the whole US Forestry Service. All of the initial thinking on environmental stuff comes from him. He wrote textbooks, too. 

David Roberts:   

“The world is literally composed of resources for us.” I think about that in the same way I think about racism: We've made enough progress that you can't really say that out in the open in public anymore, but if you scratch just a little bit, especially on the right, it's just beneath the surface. I've had people say it to me on Twitter before; whenever I write about species loss, I get at least one right winger responding, “So what? We don't need them.” 

Amy Westervelt: 

Right. If it’s not benefiting us, and we don't need them, it doesn't matter. It's interesting to me in the context of climate, too, because I feel like one of the big missteps of the climate movement for a really long time was to leave people out entirely.

David Roberts:   

But on the other hand, given what you were saying earlier, it could be that a lot of people talked about people, and then some people talked about polar bears, and because the environment archetype in the US imagination is so strongly associated with “that stuff out there” … that’s what people heard. It’s less about what you say than what people are capable of hearing. I think about this in climate narratives. People say we should talk about it in terms of caring for God's creation, or national defense, or economic opportunity; people have been talking about that a lot, for years now, and it just doesn't get picked up.

Amy Westervelt: 

The military one drives me nuts. I know that we've been talking about that for a long time, because I remember getting assigned stories on that 20 years ago.

David Roberts:   

Every editor thinks, oh, this is a novel thing. It's really going to catch people's ear. And it just doesn’t, because they don't have that archetype. They don't have those stories.

Amy Westervelt: 

That frame is so rigid in people's minds. We actually found a presentation that this guy had been giving to various industry groups about why it was important to get involved in school curricula, and one of the things that he really hammered home was, you need to consistently restate this framing of environment vs. economy, and environmentalists as a special interest group that only cares about pristine nature. It’s so present today, still.

David Roberts:   

Yes, and another thing that all the word-drunk liberals think they're better than is repeating themselves over and over and over again, which is the sine qua non of effective PR.

Amy Westervelt: 

And across multiple organizations. This is where I feel like the right really has the left beat: when you look at these networks of interconnected foundations. You’ve got the Bradleys and the Kochs and whatever else; the messaging is so consistent; they are military about it.

David Roberts:   

The capital is so patient. They just set these organizations up and let them run in the background, churning this stuff out. I can list 10 think tanks that are specifically devoted to the wonders of free markets. Is there, on the left, an organization that is devoted exclusively to propounding the benefits of government? No. They all have their own specific little thing that they want government to do, but who's out there defending democratic self-governance through the mechanisms of government? Nobody is telling that story.

Amy Westervelt: 

It makes me think of this push as World War II is ending to make sure that Americans embraced free enterprise. Where's the counter to that?

David Roberts:   

Final question: Not only do you do three different podcasts, you also are executive producing a bunch of others, you’re running this podcast network, you’re a parent and wrote a book about how ridiculously difficult we've made parenting in the modern world. Now you're doing this new project … and some other new project. I literally was losing count.

Can you share your drug cocktail or meditation techniques? How do you do this?

Amy Westervelt: 

Two things. One, only in the last five years did I realize this is not how everybody reads, but I have that thing where I just look at a page and absorb all the information on it at once. Very handy. The other thing is, I feel like everything I'm working on right now connects to the other. So it seems like it's ten different things, but it's mostly one: disinformation and power.

I've been really obsessed for a long time with why America is so uniquely bad on all these fronts, and going back to how American individualism was conceptualized, and all of the underpinnings of that, is just fascinating to me. So I feel like I would totally be nerding out on a lot of this stuff whether it was my job or not. 

David Roberts:   

Well, thank you so much for all that you do and for taking so much time today. It's been a delight.

Amy Westervelt: 

It was great to talk to you. Thank you.