Are You Being Misled Online?

Have you ever been misled online? If so, you are not alone! It’s not easy to discern fact from fiction online, especially for teenagers who grew up with the internet. But help is on the way, thanks to MediaWise and a three million dollar grant from Google.

What is MediaWise? It’s a groundbreaking digital literacy project designed to teach 1 million teenagers—half from underserved communities—how to sort fact from fiction online by 2020.

Yes, there are actual skills one can learn to become more critical consumers of information online.

While teens are generally regarded as digitally savvy, research from Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) show that the vast majority of teenagers have trouble navigating digital information—whether it’s viral hoaxes on Instagram, misinformation campaigns on Facebook, or sponsored content on news websites.

MediaWise is tackling these issues in three ways:

1. A new curriculum that will be available in fall 2019
2. In-person events at schools nationwide
3. Fact-checking content and outreach via social media

MediaWise also has a great hashtag #isthislegit.

In the meantime, Media Wise reminds all of us that there are three questions we should be asking when we see and read something online:

1. Who is behind the information?
2. What is the evidence
3. What do other sources say?


 Life is a Pitch (and Then You Buy) – an excerpt from Jon Atack’s “Opening Minds”

Ninkasi, the ancient Sumerian goddess of beer and brewing

Advertising, in the form of branding, reaches back at least to Sumeria, the cradle of civilization, where writing was first discovered. Beer bottle caps made there predate the crown cap by over 4000 years. This is a positive use of influence: remember our brand so that you can buy it again.

There is no clear dividing line between art, advertising and propaganda. For many centuries, European artists illustrated Bible stories for an illiterate population. In the Renaissance, art became a demonstration of wealth and influence, and a tool of propaganda utilised by the ruling class to maintain authority over the masses, as artists were paid to add images of their patrons to religious pictures.

In an early example of political spin, in the sixteenth century Queen Elizabeth I ordered all existing portraits of her to be destroyed. They were replaced with approved images, depicting her as a beautiful Virgin Queen. These approved images bore little resemblance to the reality.

By this time, advertising had been spurred on with the introduction of the printing press, which also heralded a new age of propaganda (originally the Catholic Church’s term for the office that lured defectors back into the fold, during the Reformation).

Modern advertising, however, began after the American Civil War, in the 1860s: the first modern conflict, which left a mass of physically and psychologically traumatised combatants. The pharmaceutical companies were born at this time, selling patent medicines that would be illegal today, because along with alcohol, they contained opium and cannabis. Cocaine was added to the mix at the end of the nineteenth century, and enthusiastically endorsed by Pope Leo XIII – on billboards for Mariani wine – and by Sigmund Freud, in his first published paper, Uber Coca.

Pope Leo went so far as to award a gold medal to the hard drug concoction ‘bearing his august effigy.’ Many celebrated figures endorsed the wine, including Thomas Edison, Jules Verne, the Russian Empress, Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas and Henrik Ibsen. As with celebrities in contemporary advertising, it was hoped that endorsements by prominent figures would persuade the public at large that they would benefit from these products.

Ronald Reagan, advertising Chesterfield cigarettes

By the mid-twentieth century, advertising had come to include a plethora of new techniques. Corporations would now ‘sell the sizzle, not the steak.’ The housewife would be subjected to ‘two tarts in the kitchen’ advertisements. TV medical doctor Marcus Welby, MD (actor Robert Young) sold coffee, dressed up in a white coat. The appeal of authority gave way to the use of celebrities, so Ronald Reagan advocated not only for the Voice of America – the US anti-Communist radio station – but also Chesterfield cigarettes, in the years before his presidency.

In the 1970s, positioning theory showed that it was best to ‘position’ your product against a market leader. Avis car rentals ran against Hertz with their ‘we try harder’ campaign, which successfully increased their market share. In the UK, a very popular series of ads showed Leonard Rossiter spilling Cinzano on Joan Collins. Unfortunately for Cinzano, this led to a surge in market leader Martini’s sales. The outcome of covert influence is not always predictable.

Next came aspirational ‘lifestyle’ marketing, where the product was seen as part of an envied lifestyle. Sharper Image exemplifies this approach where the customer buys in to a way of life rather than a product.

Advertisers can afford the latest in technology, so by the 1990s, CT scanners were being used for ‘neuromarketing’ surveys. Instead of relying on verbal answers to questions – which might be influenced by the desire to please the questioner – volunteers were brain-scanned to see what their real uncensored responses were.

Coca-Cola was among the first corporations to use this new technique. This led to ‘emotional’ marketing, which tries to tap straight into the emotional centres of the brain. The most profound allegiances are rerouted, so, for instance, one fan of Pepsi talked about the patriotic rush he felt when looking at the red, white and blue logo on the can.

These days, manufacturers contribute to the funding for movies, with the guarantee that their products will feature prominently in the resulting film. This ‘product placement’ may very well work at a hypnotic level.

The whole drift of advertising is to induce an experience, to create an emotional demand for a product or service. And advertising is a mainstay of modern life. We watch films and go to concerts, because we want to be given an experience. Sitting at home and watching a film on the TV, or listening to music on a sound system, is quite different from participating in a group. This receptivity to group experience makes us more susceptible to the contrived tricks of exploiters. We experience a natural high when in company, whether it is a rock concert or a political rally. That innocent high is easily manipulated.

This is an excerpt from chapter 7 of Jon’s book, Opening Minds: the secret world of manipulation, undue influence, and brainwashing

Influencing American Healthcare

I feel very lucky to live in the UK, where our fine National Health Service (NHS) caters for all my medical needs. We don’t have to pay anything for the treatment we need, and only pay a small amount towards prescriptions. I know it is easy to point to imperfections and funding issues in the NHS, but it’s still a wonderful system and, after 70 years, we British are very proud and protective of it. It is worth pointing out that it runs successfully alongside a private health system. Some time ago, I watched the excellent film “Sicko” by Michael Moore. Today, I was prompted to reflect again on this film, and the plight of many Americans who can’t pay for insurance coverage or medical treatment. It was then that my Undue Influence alarm went off. It’s so simple, too.

Some Americans, who oppose a universal system like the NHS, refer to it as a Nationalised Health Service, instead of a National Health Service. Those four letters were deliberately added to influence the many Americans who take pride in their apparent freedom of choice and the right to free enterprise, and who balk without thinking at any notion or hint of nationalisation or state control. In fact, while the NHS is funded through public taxation, it functions as a set of independent health providers, who are closely monitored for their efficiency.

In his model of thought reform, Dr Robert Jay Lifton describes “loaded language”, where words take on an emotional meaning. Loaded language leads to “thought terminating clichés” – slogans and buzz phrases that are obstacles to reasoning. Propagandists are expert at the exact use of words to deflect criticism and shore up their own arguments.

By using an incorrect and loaded term, many are influenced to dismiss the very concept that could lead to massive benefit in their nation’s health and well-being. From where I sit, it seems that the American public are held hostage by health providers. The poor must rely on those public-spirited doctors and nurses who forego rich rewards out of a sense of public duty. It takes just a minor change to a single word, conjured up by vested interests – for whatever reason – to close down discussion through undue influence. As George Washington recommended, we need to be “eternally vigilant” when it comes to our rights and liberties. In the UK, we believe that healthcare is a fundamental right.

[ Spin doctor Frank Luntz’s Words that Work provides many examples of the careful use of language to color public opinion. On a plane journey to Chicago, some years ago, a retired Armenian American couple told me that they’d had eight unnecessary surgical operations between them, simply because they had health insurance. The husband then boasted, “But at least we don’t have your socialist health system!” Caring for everyone is not “socialist”; it is human decency. Two interesting comparisons of the UK and US health systems can be found here, and here. ~ ed.]

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree?  Do you have a story about loaded language that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 


The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case – How Fake News Turned a Victim into a Pariah

We all remember the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case – as some national news anchors reported it, a woman had ordered a cup of coffee at the drive through, lodged it between her legs and drove through town, spilling the drink on her lap in the process. Angry over the incident, she sued the McDonald’s corporation and received over two million dollars.

It is a case that enraged many. The tale of a greedy woman misusing our court system to bilk millions from the system became a clarion call against frivolous lawsuits.

Except that the lawsuit was far from frivolous: Ms. Stella Liebeck, 79, was sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car in the McDonald’s parking lot; the car had come to a full halt, and, because the interior of the car had no flat surfaces – this was before built-in cup-holders became a standard feature – she braced the cup between her legs in order to remove the lid. The spilled hot coffee soaked into her garments, causing third-degree burns, sending her into shock and nearly killing her, disfiguring her permanently.

hot coffeeThis was not the first injury via hot coffee McDonald’s had been made aware of – for ten years, from 1982 to ’92, over 700 men, women, children and even infants had been burned by hot coffee at McDonald’s; moreover, the Shriners’ Burn Institute had previously issued a published warning to the fast-food injury that serving liquids at temperatures above 130 degrees Fahrenheit was unnecessary and dangerous. Nonetheless, McDonald’s expressed no plans to change their policy at the time of the lawsuit, even though it had admitted that coffee served at 180-190 degrees was “not fit for consumption,” and would inevitably scald if spilled or drunk at that temperature.

The jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $160,000, and added 2.7 million dollars in punitive damages – roughly two days’ worth of the corporation’s income from just coffee sales. However, these figures were not what the plaintiff received; ultimately, she and McDonald’s arrived at a post-court settlement which was undisclosed, but believed to be just under $500,000 – enough to compensate for her medical and court expenses, but certainly not enough to compensate for the emotional aftermath of the case. Ms. Liebeck testified that all she ever wanted was for the restaurant chain to turn the temperature of the hot coffee down so that others would not be injured; in this, she succeeded – today it would be rare to find any drive-through serving hot coffee at or above 185 degrees; the average McDonald’s coffee is 165 degrees, only slightly higher than most home brewing devices.

Ms. Liebeck should have been hailed as a hero: a working-class woman, standing up to a corporation and holding them accountable for their unsafe policies, and changing those policies for the public good. However, as the story was repeated across the wire services – and the copy shortened to fit the national and international news – important details, such as the scalding temperature of the coffee, the severity of Ms. Liebeck’s burns and her repeated attempts to settle out of court for far more modest sums, were lost on the cutting-room floor. The emerging alternative narrative, of a money-grubbing woman misusing the court system to steal from the honest family company, was far from accurate – and much more useful to corporate lawyers intent on discouraging others from coming forward with similar cases.

Stella Liebeck became a despised pariah, receiving mail-bags full of poison pen letters, wishing her misfortune and pain. Forbidden by the settlement to speak on her own behalf, she and her beleaguered family could only stand silently by as she became a punchline in a Jay Leno monologue, a throwaway gag in sitcoms like Seinfeld and Futurama, and even a lyric in a popular country western song: “Plasma getting bigger/ Jesus getting smaller/ Spill a cup of coffee/ Win a million dollars”. The kneejerk reaction of outrage assured that the nation accepted the false news pouring forth from the media, demonizing a woman who had dared to sue a national icon. Emotions, running high, obscured the true facts.

Grassroots organizations of concerned citizens organized protests against frivolous lawsuits – except that the “concerned citizens” were, in fact, paid representatives of such large corporations as Pfizer, Texaco, and Philip Morris Tobacco: these multinational firms, under the name Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, continue to sponsor and stage protests to highlight the issue of frivolous lawsuits – an issue which, according to such experts as William Haltom and Michael McCann, in their book Distorting the Law: Politics, Media, and the Litigation Crisis, is vastly exaggerated in scope by these groups: in fact, such “personal injury” lawsuits are on a decline, and, instead of garnering millions for an injury, a plaintiff receives on average $55,000 – barely enough to cover the medical bills, let alone lawyers’ fees.

For Stella Liebeck, her legal fight might have been successful, but the conseqences were far from happy: for the rest of her life, she had to withstand endless abuse from misinformed people who, due to fake news, could not – and would not – see the case for what it really was. “My mother was made the villain… it feels like bullying,” her daughter recalled in a recent interview. “The emotion she went through – she felt like people were coming at her.”

Ms. Liebeck died in 2004, at the age of 92.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about fake news that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Mind Your Language – the Perils of Verbal Deception

Sometimes we simply do not know what we are saying. For instance, how many atheists pause before they say ‘goodbye’, because they understand that it is a contraction of ‘God be with you’ so contradicts their beliefs?

Words move away from their original meanings – ‘tawdry’ from ‘St Audrey’s lace’ or ‘exorbitant’ from ‘out of the wheel track’, for instance. And words can also vary in their meanings from one country to another. As George Bernard Shaw said, the US and the UK are ‘divided by a common language.’ Even simple terms like ‘potato chips’ have different meanings (and please avoid ‘fanny’ in polite company when in the UK!).

The dictionary-makers track the movement of language and try to keep up, but with over a million words and counting in the English language, it is a hard task.

Language separates us from the other species. Without language, we would be nothing more than chimpanzees. Language provides us with collective memory, so allows us to build on the insights – the memes – of past generations.

Because of language, we can explore the world and our own consciousness with a vast literature from the very first named author – Princess Enheduanna of Babylon- to the present day.

Alongside the language of words, some see music and mathematics as languages. But where music and mathematics are for the most part logical and honorable, verbal language is capable of tremendous deception. And the use of language to cajole and coerce is an everyday aspect of human life.

The distinction between concrete and abstract language is vital to our understanding of verbal deception. Language is used to describe not only objects but also feelings and concepts. Abstract language is the essential tool of persuasion: it flowers into poetry and song, celebrates messages of harmony and unity and can at times help us to transcend the mundane world; but language is also the essential tool of deception.

Orators and propagandists, demagogues and tyrants are all familiar with the thought-stopping platitude and the armour-piercing phrase. Careful examination can show that such arguments are at times pure sophistry: ways of twisting logic to gain consent.

John Wesley used a relatively simple approach to convert thousands to his Methodist creed: he would describe the beauty of heaven and the horrors of hell, and then warn his listeners that death might strike them down as they strolled home from his sermon. If they had not repented their sinfulness, they would surely plummet straight into the fiery pit. Words can be very powerful, as every hell-fire preacher knows.

Loaded language is an essential aspect of Robert Jay Lifton’s remarkable delineation of thought reform.[1] Words become weapons to the totalist, who appeals to emotion rather than reason. Lifton pointed to ‘loaded language’ as a tool of manipulation: specialised meanings with an emotional bias.

Smart people immediately question the idea of a ‘loaded language’ by pointing out that medicine and the sciences are loaded down with complex terms. This is true, and at times a forest of verbiage becomes a screen for ignorance; a way of retaining authority through highfalutin jargon rather than actual expertise.

Historian Barbara Tuchman put it this way: ‘Let us beware the plight of our colleagues, the behavioral scientists, who by use of a proliferating jargon have painted themselves into a corner – or isolation ward – of unintelligibility. They know what they mean, but no one else does. Psychologists and sociologists are the farthest gone in the disease and probably incurable. Their condition might be pitied if one did not suspect it was deliberate. Their retreat into the arcane is meant to set them apart from the great unlearned, to mark their possession of some unshared, un-sharable expertise. No matter how illuminating their discoveries, if the behavioral scientists write only to be understood by one another, they must come to the end of the Mandarins.’[2]

And, with the collapse of Imperial China, the Mandarin bureaucrats came to a very bad end. The latest iteration of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Society (DSMV) highlights this propensity for definitions. Yet again, the APA has produced a labyrinth of symptoms rather than actual ailments. It is likely that the thousands of variants described in this vast manual will diminish exponentially, once their neurology is comprehended. So we have to be cautious: words do not necessarily enhance understanding: at times, quite the opposite.

Where the terminology of the behavioral sciences should be viewed with skepticism, the same does not hold for real medical terms. My friend, Spike, tells me that contrary to popular opinion, there is a name for the back of the knee – the popiteal fossa – and the rest of the body is pretty well covered from the hallux to the coronal suture (from toe to tip, that is). This means that doctors know where to look, and what they are looking at, and can easily communicate their observations to others schooled in the same language.

Robert Jay Lifton gave this description of loaded language: ‘The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.’[3]

Members of totalist groups speak in slogans: ‘thought-terminating clichés’. When challenged on any aspect of doctrine, they will tend to parrot an example given by the leadership. Words are used to induce phobia, guilt, and loathing. Any disagreement with the leadership will be labeled ‘selfish’. Any conflicting perception will be quickly dismissed.

George Orwell finished his last book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, with a remarkable appendix on the potential of language to confine thought. He suggested that a ‘thoughtcrime’ against Big Brother might even be impossible without the words to think it.

While language is not our only means of thinking, it can all too easily persuade us. For instance, adding the word ‘because’, and only the word ‘because’, to a request to use a photocopier will significantly raise your chance of jumping the copier queue (‘I need to use the copier, because…’). We respond automatically to words. This automatic tendency – compliance – is a basis of thought reform.

A new language is donned like a new set of clothes, but at times they prove to be the Emperor’s new clothes. The words are empty of meaning but loaded with emotion. Scientologists are told that members of the ‘élite’ Sea Organization can do anything, whether they are trained or not. They are urged to ‘Make it go right!’ Even as a believer, I did not accept that an unqualified person could build a nuclear reactor from a length of damp string, but I’ve met many people convinced that with the right ‘necessity level’ – their leader Hubbard’s expression – they could.

Indeed, one long-term Scientologist when asked her response to the imminent nuclear war predicted by Hubbard in 1980, said that she would simply ‘mock up’ (create out of nothing) an ‘electropsychometer’ and counsel out her own trauma. The impish chap who had put the question to her simply said, ‘Do it now. Go on: prove that you can.’ And she, of course, responded that her ‘necessity level’ was not high enough.

English professor and US Senator Samuel Hayakawa said this: “Everyone needs to have a habitually critical attitude towards language” his own as well as that of others, both for the sake of his personal well being and for his adequate functioning as a citizen…. If the majority of our fellow citizens are more susceptible to the slogans of fear and race hatred than to those of peaceful accommodation and mutual respect among human beings, our political liberties remain at the mercy of any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue.’[4]

As with so much else in manipulation, time is of the essence. When subjected to impenetrable jargon, it is necessary to retreat and regroup, to take time away from the persuader and consider the ideas in private and with the help of sympathetic friends. With enough discussion, profound-sounding philosophy can soon degenerate into mumbo-jumbo. Whenever you are urged not to offer your opinion- for whatever reason – it is definitely time to leave, because we understand in part through putting ideas into our own words. Totalists tend to censor communication for this very reason.

Just because someone uses unfamiliar words does not mean that they are wise. As we have seen, psychiatric jargon deserves suspicion, and we should feel able to say, ‘Yes, but what does that mean in everyday language?’ If someone cannot explain in simple terms, it usually means that they don’t know what they are talking about; but it can also mean that they are intentionally fomenting confusion with the aim of recruiting you.

On this occasion, I will agree with cult-leader Ron Hubbard that it is very important to know the meaning of words, but let me add that it is even more important to understand the intention behind the words. When large sums of money or blind loyalty are demanded in return for these words, they are probably part of a trap. Beware!

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about [subject] you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

[1]Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism

[2]Barbara Tuchman, Practising History

[3]Robert Jay Lifton, op.cit., p.429

[4]S.I.Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action


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