by Carl V Phillips
CASAA is amused, proud, and annoyed (but mostly amused) to be the topic of a new research paper. Of course, we have been mentioned in papers a dozen times before, not including in our own work, and are most proud of being mentioned as the sponsor of Igor Burstyn’s seminal paper. But never before were we the main subject of the study. Of course, the paper was written by ANTZ and so it should come as no surprise that its main claim is a serious lie.
The paper, by Jenine K Harris (Washington University in St. Louis), Sarah Moreland-Russell, PhD (WU), Bechara Choucair (Chicago Department of Public Health[*]), Raed Mansour (CDPH), Mackenzie Staub (WU), and Kendall Simmons (WU), published at Journal of Medical Internet Research, is actually a little bit interesting. They conducted a study of particular Twitter responses to Chicago’s plan to ban e-cigarette use in most private and public places. I should give them credit, before getting around to the fundamental lie, that unlike what normally appears in anti-tobacco and “public health” journals, this is a well written paper that actually reports their methodology.
[*Note that they apparently do not put Public Health in scare quotes, as is increasingly the modern style.]
I believe I have mentioned that you should never read paper introductions. I always regret it when I do, unless I am doing it for amusement or to look for lies. This one definitely fulfills those goals. The amusing part is that the start reads like a freshman term paper, in which someone ran a search for journal articles about “e-cigarettes” and then just strung together the authors’ main conclusions from those. This is done without any apparent awareness that much of what the original authors asserted was wrong, nor with any apparent coherence by the present authors. As I said, freshman term paper. But unlike most ANTZ papers, after 2.5 paragraphs of that it actually gets around to providing background on what is actually being studied.
Specifically, Chicago voted to include e-cigarettes in laws about combustible cigarettes in January (which basically meant banning vaping in the many private and public places where smoking is banned). The Department of “Public Health” recognized an obligation to actually communicate with the public (it is truly sad that they felt like they needed to devote a paragraph to explaining why this is, rather than it just being a given!). As part of that, “One week prior to the e-cigarette policy vote, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) used Twitter to disseminate a series of tweets about e-cigarettes.” The authors did not mention that they sent out lies about e-cigarettes (you can see what they sent out in Appendix 1 of the paper), but well, we wouldn’t expect such honesty by “public health” people. The lies of commission began immediately after that. But before getting to those, a bit of background:
Last December, Chicago introduced the proposed ban. Opposing such anti-THR regulations is, of course, central to CASAA’s mission. They gave basically no notice to the public (you might say “what do you expect from Chicago?”, but this is an increasingly common ANTZ tactic everywhere, since they know that they do not really have public support for these draconian policies, so they try to prevent the public from getting involved). We had intel that this was coming in November, but could not get anything concrete until they moved to implement it with three day’s notice. We issued an Urgent Call to Action about this and managed to get it derailed briefly. But, of course, they reintroduced it in January. We issued another Call To Action because Chicago is a big place and we needed to at least get on record. But it is Chicago, after all, so we did not bother to send anyone to the hearing for basically the same reason that we would not waste a lot of our limited resources to stop Putin from imposing anti-THR regulations. (Also we were focused on New York City at the time — another rather quixotic effort, but not nearly as much as Chicago would have been.)
(For those who are interested in the Chicago regulation per se, this Facebook page, started by local activists, could serve as a gathering point for trying to undo the public health damage done by the Department of “Public Health”. It is obviously pretty quixotic right now, but maybe someday. For those interested in the details of the lies that were presented by the Chicago DPH to their city, a repurposed version of their sLIEDshow appears here (skip to p.44 or search “Kendall Stagg”).)
Meanwhile, Alex Clark was busy on Twitter. I am going to take the liberty of including him in “we” for present purposes, though this actually took place a few months before he merged his one-man THR activist shop into CASAA and joined our Board of Directors. Alex, with the help of other CASAA members who scrambled to deal with the grossly anti-democratic short notice, compiled a list of Twitter addresses for the Chicago Alderman (city council) and shared it with CASAA members and other THR advocates via Facebook. He also issued calls to grassroots e-cigarette advocates via social media (Twitter and Facebook) as part of his Fight For Your Right To Vape Daily Action Plan (now: CASAA’s Daily Action Plan; note that it is not produced daily — the name refers to the fact that the actions are quick tasks that we are asking people to do immediately). Part of that included responding to the lies being promulgated by the DPH, as well as trying to contact other government officials.
Back to the article: The next thing the authors claim in their introduction is that these communications directed at the DPH represented a “twitter bomb”. This is the lesser of their two self-serving mischaracterizations (i.e., lies). That term refers to using Twitter to send a message to the point that it constitutes full-on spam and that it has elements of a DDOS attack, and generally includes one entity using multiple accounts to send the same message repeatedly. The reality here is that there were about 600 Twitter messages directed at the DPH, and while the same person often sent a few tweets, they came from over 300 individual grassroots advocates according to the paper. Obviously not a twitter bomb.
The major lie comes later in that paragraph, where they refer to our efforts as “astroturfing”, and throw in the mandatory innuendo about tobacco industry involvement. For those who may not know, “astroturf” (the brand name of the first successful fake grass used in sports arenas) is a play on “grassroots”, referring to something that pretends to be grassroots activism, but is actually secretly orchestrated by industry or a similar non-grassroots operation. Thus, when “public health” organizations (governmental or otherwise) use their corporate and tax funding to create the illusion of popular support for anti-THR measures, that is astroturfing. By contrast, what CASAA does is not astroturfing by definition. We are grassroots organizers and the word specifically means “fake grassroots”. The word was created to describe people who are pretending to be what we really are.
Of course the ANTZ show no hesitation about lying, including trying to misconstrue words, to stop THR efforts. In the 2000s they made a play to try to misconstrue THR to basically mean abstinence from all tobacco products. This is standard playbook for them. They are making a concerted effort to misconstrue “astroturf” to mean “any activism by the public that they do not like”.
The paper authors apparently emphasized this “astroturf” lie in their communications with the press, since the only story I have seen about this paper was all about that claim, and characterized all the political activism as astroturfing. In fairness to the authors, in one sentence late in the paper they actually draw a distinction between CASAA and the tweets that they consider to be astroturfing. Still, this is too little too late (and also their measures of which tweets did constitute astroturf are just silly, such as anyone on Twitter who follows a lot more people than they are followed by). Careless readers — i.e., pretty much any reporter or ANTZ — will read this paper as claiming that all consumer opposition to Chicago’s terrible policy, and the lies on which it was based, were astroturf. The usual ANTZ are already making that claim about it, either because they did not understand what it actually said or they just ran with the convenient lie (either is plausible).
It is not surprising that the coverage of the paper is entirely about the astroturfing accusation. The actual content is pretty boring, though the presentation and methods are unquestionably cute. You can check it out, particularly the timeline graph that shows the effectiveness of CASAA’s actions in promoting tweets. But I can sum it up for you with what the abstract should have read: “We saw this cool network mapping software and were looking for an excuse to use it. Oooh! pretty graphs and charts.”
One thing that struck me about this article — in common with most ANTZ articles despite somewhat greater sophistication in the present case — is the incredibly naive characterization of the consumer community (i.e., the public). It reminds me of reading anthropology from c.1900, where the arrogant white men thought they had nothing to learn from the wogs. The “researchers” considered that they were so much more expert than the subjects of their study — including about the subjects’ own cultures and experiences — that the “researchers” just imposed their characterizations on them without trying to learn anything from them. Anyone doing this today would be drummed out of the profession. Ironically, a lot of “public health” people got their training in sociology, which includes a branch that does what is basically serious good anthropology. Unfortunately, the “public health” people do not come from that branch, but rather the branch of sociology that is best described as, “I want to pontificate about politics and stuff, but reading all those books they assign in political science is sooo hard, and they require, like, systematic analyses and numbers and stuff, but I just want to tell people how things are without doing any of that.”
The result is that whenever “public health” people actually try to talk about the public it is, at best, pathetic, and often constitutes a gross violation of scholarly ethics. For example, in this case, if these authors were not so far up their own…er, ivory towers, they would have at least sent an email to CASAA to get a better understanding what they were talking about. We could have explained to them how their measure of what constitutes astroturfing was badly naive. We would have also pointed out to them that CASAA is actively anti-astroturf. On a few occasions, e-cigarette companies have tried to start astroturf campaigns in our space, and we made it clear to them that we would not put up with that and forced them to shut it down. There definitely are some minor bits of astroturfing in our space (including industry organizations that cultivate the illusion that they represent consumers and not industry) but we push back against them when they get too bad.
Finally, no exploration of this topic would be complete without a bit of additional context from similar accusations. CASAA and the American THR activist community have largely avoided accusations of astroturfing from all but the most rabid anti-THR liars. Americans generally respect and understand grassroots activism, and CASAA is so clearly true grassroots that someone has to be willing to aggressively and blatantly lie to suggest otherwise. In the UK and Europe, however, true grassroots activism does not get such respect, and the accusations there have been over-the-top. While “public health” has built-in biases against respecting the public, on both sides of the Atlantic, as I discussed at length here, the grandees of public health over there are worse because of their aristocratic mindset.
For example, there is this rant by the UK’s Martin McKee (professor of European public health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine — i.e., School of Public Health), which was graciously liberated from behind its British Medical Journal paywall by “Jo Lincoln”. Lincoln wrote a post about it here in which he brilliantly likens McKee and his “public health” colleagues to an army of occupation who complain that the population they are oppressing is not playing by the rules because they do not have the proper uniforms to wear when they fight back. Taking this metaphor a step further, because Her Majesty’s Imperial Army cannot allow themselves to admit that the people they oppress hate them and want them to go away, they pretend to believe that the resistance must be secretly doing the work of the French King or the Russian Tsar or someone. After all, the nobility are the only ones capable of having goals and volition — the people cannot possibly be standing up for themselves.
McKee subtitled his rant, “How big corporations are helping to fund the internet trolls”. Right there, in one phrase, we have the characterization of anyone who objects to the “public health” grandees as a mere “troll”, not a member of the public who has a genuine objection, and that they must be paid off by the Tsar or someone. He starts out with an extended whine about poor-little-him and his lavishly-paid and powerful colleagues, and how they risk seeing pushback if they dare step out of the ivory tower and engage with the public they pretend to care about. He whines that sometimes people on social media are anonymous (though mostly this is because “public health” people lack the research skills to link someone’s handle back to their real name, which is usually public somewhere). He then goes on to claim that this is an orchestrated corporate campaign. What is his evidence for this claim? He reports that he read one book, about some political battles in New Zealand, which tells the story of one public relations professional who was paid by corporate clients to push back against “public health” zealotry (not anonymously, it should be noted).
That is the entire analysis that got his rant published in BMJ. Even by the pathetic standards of public health this is bad. He read one book about one series of events that does not remotely resemble the grassroots pushback he finds oh-so-inconvenient, and makes wild accusations based on it. Seriously? Creationists base all their claims on one book also, but it is a rather more momentous book and the quality of their scientific analysis dwarfs that of McKee and friends.
Now I am not saying that the British have a monopoly on such whining. Predating them was this 2011 whine about grassroots activism, published in Tobacco Control, by Ellen Hahn and company (probably not worth clicking on — the article is paywalled and not at all interesting). It also included groundless accusations about CASAA. But there is a sharp contrast, with only the most blatant and aggressive anti-THR liars in the USA, along with some of their random useful idiots, making claims of astroturfing. You seldom see any such claims from the other corners of the tobacco control industry, even those who aggressively traffic in other lies. Meanwhile, it seems to dominate discourse in the UK.
I think the contrast is genuinely scientifically informative. “Public health” people generally see themselves as better than the public. In the USA, however, this is tempered by our cultural tendency to believe in populism and object to aristocracy (of course, in reality there is still a ruling class that ignores the public and an aristocracy created by grossly unequal wealth, but the point is that there is a strong cultural bias to deny that this is the case). But in most of Old Europe, populism is far less respected and there is an accepted established aristocracy. This dovetails with the inherent attitudes of “public health” to make their anti-public sentiment much more vicious over there.
So I guess we should count our blessings here. Only the most clownish of our ANTZ even make the astroturf claim, and sometimes when they spread the innuendo they even bury a sentence that makes clear that they were not actually talking about us. And no US “public health” grandee, to my knowledge, has ever called someone a c–t on twitter.