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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

Techniques of distraction are used to suppress information or points of view by crowding them out of the media, or by inducing other people or groups of people to stop listening to certain arguments, or simply by drawing their attention elsewhere.

In a general age of information overload, it is far easier and more cost-effective to simply not discuss an issue, than to spend money on propaganda and spin. Many governments may be discovering that dealing with the public is best achieved through Weapons of Mass Distraction.

There is no doubt that all countries have priorities in news reporting that constitutes a bias, and that many times the bias will favor the administration currently in power. It is controversial, and may be just another conspiracy theory, to say that the government or large corporations are deliberately manipulating the media to distract the populace. But the media does have that effect, and the population is distracted. The only question left is whether it's deliberate or not.

Distracting the media is relatively easy, using some time-tested techniques--Some of the following recent examples helped keep U.S. public sentiment in favor of an Iraq invasion:

Distraction by nationalism

A variant on the traditional ad hominem and bandwagon fallacies applied to entire countries. The method is to discredit arguments coming from other countries by appealing to nationalistic pride or memory of past accomplishments, or appealing to fear or dislike of a specific country, or of foreigners in general. It can be very powerful as it discredits foreign journalists (the ones that are least easily manipulated by domestic political or corporate interests).

Example: "You want to know what I really think of the Europeans?" asked the senior United States State Department official. "I think they have been wrong on just about every major international issue for the past 20 years." [1]

Straw man

(See Straw man fallacy): Lumping a strong opposition argument together with one or many weak ones, to create a simplistic weak argument that can easily be refuted.

Example: Grouping all opposed to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq as "pacifists", so they can be refuted by arguments for war in general.

Distraction by scapegoat

A combination of straw man and ad hominem, in which your weakest opponent (or easiest to discredit) is considered as your only important opponent.

Example: If many countries are opposed to our actions, but one of them (say, France) is obviously acting out of self-interest, mention mostly France. Bash the French. Talk about Freedom Fries. Complain about ingratitude from World War II. Forget about the 90% of all other countries who feel the same way.

Distraction by phenomenon

A risky but effective strategy summarized by David Mamet's movie Wag the Dog, in which the public can be distracted, for long periods of time, from an important issue, by one which occupies more news time. When the strategy works, you have a war or other media event taking attention away from misbehaving or crooked leaders. When the strategy does not work, the leader's misbehavior remains in the press, and the war is derided as an attempted distraction.

Example:The fact that Bush Iraq War gets over 2 million hits on Google, while U.S. Economy Bush gets only 1.3 million may be an example of an effective use of "Wag the Dog".

Distraction by broadening the issue

The tobacco industry uses distraction by broadening the issue to de-fuse anti-tobacco industry sentiment and give cover to politicians on a number of topics. For example, secondhand smoke becomes an issue of poor building ventilation (rather than nonsmoker health), tobacco taxes are spun as a tax on the poor, smoking bans become an issue of property rights.


(See Appeal to authority and Bandwagon within the article propaganda): This one is widespread and subtle: Simply giving credence only to "mainstream" sources of information, which are also the easiest to manipulate by corporate or political interests, since they can be owned or sponsored by them. Information, arguments, and objections that come from other sources are simply considered "fringe" and ignored, or their proponents permanently discredited.

Example: "I think there are a lot of people out there who feel the way I do, but haven't wanted to come forward because they're afraid of being identified with a fringe group..." Langley said. "I don't believe in all the things that all the (anti-war) groups stand for, but we all do share one thing in common: I do believe that this war is wrong."[2]

Demonisation of the opposition

(See 'Obtain disapproval' within the article propaganda): A more general case of distraction by nationalism. Opposing views are ascribed to an out-group and thus dismissed out of hand. This approach, carried to extremes, becomes a form of suppression, as in McCarthyism, where anyone disapproving of the government was considered "un-American" and "Communist" and was likely to be denounced.

Example: Recent demonization of any public figure who dared to criticize the Bush administration's motives, including Michael Moore, the Dixie Chicks, etc.


A newly coined word by Andrew Orlowski of The Register [3] in April of 2003 to describe the alleged practice of changing the meaning of a meme (in this example, w:Second Superpower) by web-publishing a well-linked article using the term in an inoffensive manner, stripped of its political significance.

A few older examples

(again recall that distraction need not be deliberate):

  • Example:
In 1995 in Poland the tobacco control bill was debated in the parliament. News were spread to media that smoking while driving will be prohibited and punishable, because it impairs driver's ability to concentrate.
There were no such provision proposed, but news turned away public attention from incredible loopholes, which Philip Morris admits to plant in the bill (in the secret documents in American lawsuits). Incredibly, no jounalist bothered to check the draft first hand. At the time, Burson Marsteller handled PR for Philip Morris in Poland.