Genres of mass deception

In 2006, a federal court judged four of the ‘Big Five’ US tobacco companies – Phillip Morris, RJ Reynolds, British American Tobacco, Lorillard (sold to RJ Reynolds in 2014) – to have been operating for more than half a century as a de facto criminal enterprise guilty of racketeering. In November 2017, US tobacco companies finally issued, through national TV and print media, a series of statements correcting their sixty year deception of the American public. They had been appealing the original judgement for over ten years.


The ‘racket’ was the continued sale and marketing of tobacco products in full knowledge of their addictive properties and their causal connection to lung cancer.  Under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations (RICO) Act 1970, these tobacco companies were held to have defrauded smokers i.e. obtained smokers’ money by dishonest means, specifically “deceiving smokers, potential smokers, and the American public about the hazards of smoking and second hand smoke, and the addictiveness of nicotine” (United States vs. Phillip Morris et al, 2006, p4).

Below is a list of deceptions maintained by the ‘Big Tobacco’ enterprise:

  • false denial of the adverse health consequences of smoking
  • publicly denial that nicotine is addictive
  • concealment of research data and other evidence that nicotine is addictive
  • false denial of the manipulation of nicotine levels to create and sustain addiction
  • deceptive marketing and public statements suggesting ‘low tar’ cigarettes are less harmful than full-flavor cigarettes
  • false denial that their marketing targets youth
  • false and misleading public statements denying that environmental tobacco smoke (passive smoking) is hazardous to nonsmokers

How does one deceive the public for so long (linguistically)? My approach to this question is to first identify the agents and channels of deceptive communication. We know who received the deceptive messages but who were the senders? Did they use agents/messengers? What channels did they use?

The ‘Big Tobacco’ enterprise built an infrastructure of deception by establishing a number of front organizations i.e. groups that appear to independently support or be motivated by one particular purpose but are actually a ‘front’ for another group whose covert agenda they secretly serve. Front organizations are agent-messengers that appear to be senders. Examples of the forms that front organizations might take include think tanks, associations of consumers or workers, and single-issue interest groups.

Chief among these was the Tobacco and Industry Research Council (TIRC), founded in 1954, which later changed its name to the Centre for Tobacco Research (CTR). TIRC/CTR was established on the strategic recommendation of Hill & Knowlton, public relations counsel to the Big Tobacco enterprise. Backed by money from the Big Tobacco enterprise, it ran a multi-million dollar research programme providing substantial grants for ‘independent’ scientific research into the health effects of smoking. This produced a body of research that obfuscated the link between smoking and cancer and left their causal connection as an “open question”. TIRC/CTR also funded research that diverted discourse away from the dangers of smoking by suggesting alternative causes of cancer such as air pollution, diet and genetics.

This programme of decoy research clearly had a deceptive purpose. However, the research itself was not necessarily deceptive – it created doubt rather than false belief by challenging the anti-smoking research attracting the attention of the American government and health organisations at that time. Neither was this research directly responsible for the mass deception of the American public since the public was not the audience for scientific research.

In the 2006 judgement, Judge Kessler noted that The Big Tobacco front organisations disseminated ‘commentaries’ on both pro- and anti-smoking research through a variety of publication channels, including:

  • management commentaries in annual reports, read by business professionals
  • newsletters and booklets targeting medical professionals with favourable research summaries.
  • public statements, comments made by tobacco-friendly scientists discrediting research that linked smoking with cancer.

Whilst annual reports and newsletters helped communicate the tobacco deception to professional outgroups, as shown in Figure 1 below, press releases were the most influential channel for reaching the general public. Every publication and statement made by a scientist connected to the enterprise was accompanied by a press release. This would be sent out to thousands of editors and then transmitted to the general public through newspapers and popular magazines.

Thus, the press release plays a doubly deceptive role; it reports the deceptive framing of the discourse around tobacco/cancer research and then amplifies its interpretation though popular media. Indeed, PR agency Hill & Knowlton prided themselves on their ability to spin “obscure scientific reports favourable to the industry into headline news across the country”.

Deception Infrastructure S

Figure 1: Mass deception; infrastructure, channels and genres

Below (Figure 2) is one example of press release distortion of research in the tobacco domain.  This 1955 study from the British Empire Cancer Campaign (a forerunner of Cancer Research),  published in the British Medical Journal, reports a nuanced set of findings in relation to the carcinogenic properties of smoking. It reports findings indicating that: i) tar is not carcinogenic in mice,  ii) condensation from tobacco smoke is carcinogenic in mice and iii) carcinogenic effects vary between species so more research is needed.

This nuance is lost in the press release, which seizes on the first finding related to tar and extends it to smoking and tobacco in general. The press release, authored by Hill & Knowlton, draws it authority by reporting the statement made by the TIRC chairman Timothy Hartnett and uses repetition to reinforce its point three times in the first page – “Outstanding British scientists could not induce cancer in experimental animals with tobacco smoke derivatives” / “Experiments conducted at several leading British medical research institutions had failed to induce any cancers” / “18 month experiments fail to show any connection between cancer and smoking”.


Figure 2: Comparison of British Medical Journal article and TIRC press release

The fact that this repetitive message itself references a message that is practically self-authored (considering the close relationship between TIRC and Hill & Knowlton, who even shared the same office at one stage) is indicative of the low information quotient in this press release. Yet providing information is arguably the main purpose of the press release genre. What we have here, then, is a deficient or deviant genre communication – inauthenticity (deception) has compromised the integrity of the genre.

The same has been suggested about the annual reports produced by the TIRC, “which read much like industry position papers” (USA vs Phillip Morris et al, 2006, p58). The extract below, from the 1958 TIRC annual report, is illustrative:

A problem may well be obscured, and its solution delayed, by the soothing acceptance of an oversimplified and immature [tobacco theory] hypothesis. The proponents of the tobacco theory have generated increasingly intensive and extensive propaganda. As a result, a non-scientific atmosphere, conducive to prematurity, unbalance, and inadequacy of public judgement, has pervaded the whole field. The prohibition concept discounts or ignores all considerations of smoking benefits in terms of pleasure, relaxation, relief of tension or other functions.

Once again, in this case by allowing bias to enter annual reporting, a genre is compromised through performing a deceptive purpose. These two examples suggest that the tobacco deception was partly sustained by ‘genre fronts’ – communications that appear to serve one conventional purpose but in fact fulfill functions of another genre or are simply deficient.

Press releases are more central to mass deception than annual reports because they are more frequent and produced for immediate impact in popular media. Press release spin is picked up by editors and transferred to newspapers and magazines – sometimes wholesale, sometimes with additional fervour. This resulted in a news environment that actively facilitated the disinformation strategies of the Big Tobacco enterprise leading to a massively misinformed general public.

The selection of headlines, news articles and editorials in Figure 3 below reflect the general tenor of the ‘decoy discourse’ maintained by the tobacco industry, which involved: attacking the integrity of government scientists, casting doubt on environmental controversies such as the use of pesticides and climate change, and linking cancer to spurious causes. The confluence of tobacco advocates and climate change skeptics is a striking feature of this mass deception.


Figure 3: Selection of newspaper and magazine items used to support tobacco advocacy. Taken from ‘Bad Science: A Resource Book’

Newspaper items come in a variety of sub-genres, for example news articles whose purpose is to present factual information and editorials that present an opinion. Editorials themselves can be written by newspaper staff or invited writers as ‘op-eds’. Both of these sub-genres can be used for deceptive means i.e. the presentation of false facts in news articles and the advancement of an undisclosed agenda in the case of editorials. In such cases, the news genre loses its features of objectivity and transparency and becomes distorted as ‘fake news’.

Taking the ‘tobacco deception’ as a case study, it would seem that the infrastructure for maintaining this deception was built on the deviant use of a variety of genres – annual reports, press releases, newspaper/magazine items – that were connected by channels invisible to the general public i.e. front organizations and funded scientists. The schema presented above will be used in future posts to evaluate similar deception controversies in the environmental and health domains.



What does honesty look like (statistically)?

Certain linguistic features (e.g  reference, modality) facilitate deception because they are malleable to context and flexible to interpretation. My first blog post showed that deceptive communication contains ‘outliars’, portions of texts with an unusually high concentration of these linguistic features; in the second post we saw that the linguistic hotspots where these features cluster can be taken as ‘points of interest’ worthy of further investigation. Of course, liars do not have a monopoly on the use of modals! Furthermore, truth-tellers can sometimes be mistaken for liars due to nervousness, fear of disbelief, or perceptions of powerlessness (known as the ‘Othello error’). So what does honesty (non-deceptive) communication look like?

sharapova mistake

In my Standford Decepticon 2017 conference paper I tested the ‘Outliar’ investigative linguistic methodology on honest admissions of doping – true confessions – by the following five sports persons and professionals:

true doping confessions.png

The Maria Sharapova case took the tennis world by surprise (she was the first high-profile female tennis player to fail a drug test). In 2016, Sharapova was banned from competition after testing positive for meldonium during the Australian Open in January of that year. Meldonium is a heart medication that was found by the World Anti-Doping organisation (WADA) to be particularly popular amongst sports persons from Russia and Eastern Europe, perhaps due to its ability to block the body’s conversion of testosterone to oestrogen. Having placed meldonium on a watch list in 2015, WADA had fully prohibited the substance from January 1 2016, two weeks before the Australian Open. Following the failed drug test, Sharapova admitted she had been taking meldonium as medication since 2006 and stated that she had negligently and inexcusably missed the communications from WADA prohibiting its use.

Linguistic analysis of the explanation Sharapova gave to fans via her Facebook page shows two ‘outliars’ at the beginning and end of the post (see Figure 4 below).

Sharapova outliar graph

[1] I want to reach out to you to share some information, discuss the latest news, and let you know that there have been things that have been reported wrong in the media, and I am determined to fight back. You have shown me a tremendous outpouring of support, and I’m so grateful for it.

[13] I have been honest and upfront. I won’t pretend to be injured so I can hide the truth about my testing. I look forward to the ITF hearing at which time they will receive my detailed medical records. I hope I will be allowed to play again. But no matter what, I want you, my fans, to know the truth and have the facts.

Figure 3: Outliar analysis of Maria Sharapova’s 2016 Facebook post and outlier extracts.

Sharapova begins her post by suggesting she has been a victim of unjust media coverage. It had been widely reported that she had received five ‘warnings’ about the upcoming change to the WADA regulations. Sharapova agreed that she had received newsletters with links to the WADA rule changes but argued that these were ‘communications’ rather than warnings through which one had to “hunt, click, hunt, click, hunt, click, scroll and read” in order to find information about the prohibition. Sharapova ends her post by strongly maintaining that she is being honest about her genuine mistake (of using Meldonium as medication after the ban).

These anomalous extracts are particularly emotional when compared to the main body of this post, in which Sharapova gives specific details about all the communications she did receive (see yellow highlighted text in Figure 4 below). There is a lot of literature that suggests specific details are a strong indicator of veracity in legal genres such as witness statements. (Professor Aldert Vrij’s research on Criteria Based Content Analysis is a good place to start.) These anomalous extracts could just be ‘Othello errors’ that are confusing emotional intensity for deception.

Sharapova FB 1cSharapova FB 2c

Figure 4: Maria Sharapova Facebook post, March 2016. Last accessed 21/7/2018

Accounting for the ‘Othello error’ is one reason a full ‘Outliar’ analysis uses an additional measure of language change within a text – intratextual language variation – when assessing text veracity. Texts can range from having a uniform style with consistent use of features throughout – a stable text – to displaying marked changes in language style at several points – variable or ‘spiky’ text.  Outliar captures this by summing the amount of change shown in a text.

Figure 5 is an example of this. It compares ‘Outliar’ analysis of Sharapova’s Facebook post (left) one of a Lance Armstrong TV interview in whch he falsely denied doping (see previous blog for more discussion of Armstrong’s deception). Visually, you can see that  Lance Armstrong’s language use displayes high variability in comparison to which Sharapova’s language is relatively stable.

Figure 5: Comparison of the ‘Outliar’ analysis of Maria Sharapova’s Facebook post (left) and Lance Armstrong’s ESPN interview (right) .

Figure 6 below shows a statistical measure of intratextual language variation for five false doping denials vs. five true doping confessions (see p7 here for the formula). It can be seen that the deceptive communications show more language change than the honest ones. So, combining outlier text detection with an overall measure of language variability can be helpful in distinguishing honesty from dishonesty. Frequent and marked language style change is a signal of potential deception.

intratext analysis edit 2

Figure 6: Analysis of intratextual variation. Y-axis = total intratextual variation measured as aggregate z-score for each text; X-axis represents ten texts in total –  five deceptive texts (false denials by: 1) Barry Bonds; 2) Linford Christie; 3) Lance Armstrong; 4) Alex Rodriguez; 5) Marion Jones) and five honest texts (true confessions by: 1) Maria Sharapova; 2) Dwain Chambers; 3) Victor Conte; 4) Floyd Landis; 5) Levi Leiphemer)

In Sharapova’s case, the tribunal were satisfied she had not intended to cheat (although she was found to have also taken the drug to enhance her performance) and her relatively light ban (reduced from two years to 15 months on appeal) reflected the fact that she had been negligent but not deceptive. I would argue that the (relatively) stable language of both Sharapova’s Facebook post and the initial press conference where she announced her drug test failure support the tribunal finding. The press conference video is below – judge for yourself.