Volts podcast: Amy Westervelt on disinformation and propaganda

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


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.

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.