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Exxon Mobil: Manipulating Public Debate at Your University - The Walloper
Exxon Mobil: Manipulating Public Debate at Your University
UNC CFACT is a poster child of corporate misinformation tactics on college campuses. As I noted in Part I of this series, the group’s national affiliate receives hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from corporations in polluting industries, including Exxon Mobil. (See Part II here.)

UNC CFACT's founding story illustrates the way in which corporate front groups gain access to and usurp local resources. As I'll explain, by shaping the agenda of campus chapters, the National CFACT turns college students into foot soldiers of the corporate PR strategy.

During the fall of 2003, a UNC student named Kris Wampler received an email from an organization he had never heard of before, named the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow. In the email, he was asked if he would like to found a UNC chapter of the group. A short time later, he was visited by a representative of National CFACT. Politically right-leaning and eager to make his mark on campus, Wampler agreed to set up the local chapter [1].

Once student groups like the one at UNC are established, student fee money can be used to host speakers with dubious and misleading environmental credentials. For instance, in October of 2004, the new UNC CFACT chapter hosted speaker Joel Schwartz, who was described in promotional material as "a highly respected environmental scientist" [2].

A review of Schwartz's resume, however, cast doubt on the claim that he is an environmental scientist. Not one of Schwartz's research papers on environmental issues has appeared in a peer-review journal. Rather, the majority of his work is published by ideologically-oriented think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Publishing articles in a peer-review journal is an important credential for scientists. As Ross Gelbspan notes in The Heat is On: The Climate Crisis, The Cover-up, The Prescription, "In what is called 'refereed' literature, one’s research peers systematically review an article as a condition of publication. By contrast, private, industry-funded research is not necessarily peer-reviewed and is frequently published in industry journals without undergoing this kind of rigorous scientific scrutiny" (42).

During his talk, Schwartz accused environmental organizations of exaggerating the effects of air pollution, and claimed that the regulation of air pollution is unnecessary. He spoke authoritatively, showing slides with complicated graphs and a dizzying list of chemical compounds. To those with no training in environmental science, Schwartz's distortions and omissions – such as a failure to acknowledge the importance of regulating lead emissions – may not have been obvious. Indeed, his remarks were uncritically reported in the following day’s edition of the campus paper.

Gaining media access is perhaps the most insidious aspect of CFACT's misinformation strategy. Articles consisting only of regurgitated claims give students no context for interpreting the information. Furthermore, a newspaper article can quickly reach thousands of students.

In addition to spreading false information in campus papers, CFACT groups lead attacks on established environmental organizations. In March of 2004, UNC CFACT hosted speaker Paul Driessen, a senior fellow at National CFACT, who claimed that the environmental movement is responsible for poverty, disease, and malnutrition in the Third World.

More recently, National CFACT encouraged UNC CFACT to attack UNC’s Green Energy program. The Green Energy program is a popular student-run initiative that funds the installation of renewable energy technologies on UNC’s campus.

Below, Kris Wampler, the founder of UNC CFACT, describes how the Green Energy program was chosen as a target:
I was asked [by a National CFACT representative] to indicate what sort of environmental programs are active at UNC, and when I mentioned green energy and provided links to the [Green Energy] site and so forth, it was asked whether I'd be interested in researching it [3].
Offensives against the work of campus environmentalists require them to expend resources refuting the charges and exposing the group's agenda. Worse, the attacks may insert misplaced seeds of doubt into the collective mind of the student body, making it less likely that programs such as Green Energy will be renewed. (Fortunately, the Green Energy Program is secure for at least another four years; one can hope that memories of Kris Wampler and his ilk will be long gone by then.)

Although vigorous debate about campus issues is, of course, to be encouraged, students have a right to know about UNC CFACT's big business ties. National CFACT funders have an obvious interest in spreading misinformation about global warming, air pollution, and renewable energy technology.

It should come as no surprise, however, that UNC CFACT has never mentioned its relationship to polluting businesses at a public event or on its website.

Ross Gelbspan notes that corporate PR strategizing is not confined to college campuses:
Over the last six years the coal and oil industries have spent millions of dollars to wage a propaganda campaign to downplay the threat of climate change. Much of that money has gone to amplifying the views of about a half-dozen dissenting researchers, giving them a platform and a level of credibility in the public arena that is grossly out of proportion to their influence in the scientific community (33).
Unfortunately, it seems that UNC is but a microcosm of the larger world.

[Update: After flyers describing CFACT's connections to Exxon were handed out at UNC CFACT's most recent event, Kris Wampler mentioned that the event was funded by student fees, "not by Exxon." Nevertheless, he failed to disclose the fact that UNC CFACT's agenda is driven by people who are, in fact, paid by Exxon.]

Part IV-A: Strange Claims in Recent CFACT Talk
Part V: Why CFACT's Exxon Ties Matter

Non-internet sources:
[1] Wampler, Personal conversation, 8 Oct. 2004.
[2] Wampler, 7 Oct. 2004, Personal correspondence.
[3] Wampler, 9 Oct. 2004, Personal correspondence.
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