Propaganda 101: What the Indian Right has learnt from Big Tobacco

Outside the Eco-Chamber
Last Updated 26 September 2020, 19:52 IST

The Indian economy, as measured by GDP, contracted by 23.9% during April to June 2020 in comparison to the same period in 2019. This contraction was huge – a shrinkage by almost a quarter.

But soon journalists, economists, corporate honchos and analysts who are close to the current dispensation started telling us, so what if India has contracted by 23.9%, the American economy contracted by 32% during the same period. The point sought to be made was that if India was in trouble, America was in bigger trouble. How that lessens our pain, they didn’t bother to explain.

There was an even bigger problem with the 32% US contraction figure. It was wrong, when compared to India’s 23.9% contraction. The way India calculates GDP contraction (or for that matter, growth) and the way America does it, are different.

So, what was the American contraction if we used the Indian method? It was 9.1% year on year, not 32% (for those interested in the fifth-standard math behind this, I suggest you Google it. It has been explained by multiple people, including yours truly).

Also, none of the people who believed that the US economy had contracted by 32%, bothered to sit back and think what it would have done to the world economy at large if that figure were true.

Data from the World Bank suggests that the American GDP (real GDP adjusted for inflation), was $18.3 trillion. This was around 21.7% -- or somewhere between one-fifth and a quarter -- of the global GDP. Now, imagine the American economy contracting by 32%, or almost a third. This would have led the world into a second Great Depression.

America is the world’s largest source of consumer demand. If that demand had contracted by a third, the global economy would have been in an even worse situation than it currently is in. This simple thought did not occur to any of those who went around telling people that the American economy had done worse than the Indian economy, so we must be happy under the present dispensation. Or maybe it did occur to them, but they chose to ignore it.

Our 23.9% GDP contraction was announced on August 31, but a month later, the doubts about how bad it really is are still buzzing on social media.

Do the people who spread the story of the US economy contracting by 32% to counter the news of India’s 23.9% shrinkage not understand basic fifth standard math? They do. In fact, this bunch of people is a smart lot and I don’t think there is any problem with their math. So, what were they up to then? They were basically borrowing a simple propaganda idea first used by Big Tobacco Companies in the 1950s.

In the early 1950s, research started to come out that linked the smoking of cigarettes to incidence of lung cancer. Big Tobacco Companies met at the Plaza Hotel in New York in December 1953. They were worried. Scientific research which was being published was making them look very bad, and they had to do something about it.

What did they do? As Tim Harford writes in How to Make the World Add Up: Ten Rules for Thinking Differently About Numbers: “They muddied the waters. They questioned the existing research; they called for more research; they funded research into other things that they might persuade the media to get excited about, such as sick building syndrome or mad cow disease. They manufactured doubt. A secret industry memo later reminded insiders that ‘doubt is our product’.”

How did muddying the waters about the research help Big Tobacco? It basically created confusion in the minds of smokers. Was the research linking smoking to lung cancer right? Was there enough evidence of it? Aren’t correlation and causation two different things? These were the questions that the smokers were suddenly asking themselves.

As Harford writes: “Smokers liked smoking, were physically dependent on nicotine, and wanted to keep smoking if they could. A situation where smokers shrugged and said to themselves. ‘I can’t figure out all these confusing claims’ was a situation that suited the tobacco industry well.”

Big tobacco wasn’t trying to tell smokers that smoking was safe. They weren’t so blatant about it. All they were trying to do was to create doubt about the statistical evidence that showed that smoking was dangerous.

The muddying of waters to create doubt has been a standard part of propaganda since then. It’s Propaganda 101. As Harford says: “Their answer [that of the Big Tobacco Companies] was – alas – quite brilliant, and set the standard for propaganda ever since.”

Something very similar happened in the case of the Indian economy contracting by 23.9%, as well. The fact that the Indian economy contracted by close to a fourth was something that the government’s sympathisers couldn’t deny, nor that this contraction was bad for the average Indian, just as Big Tobacco couldn’t deny that smoking was injurious to health. But the waters could be muddied by getting the American angle in. The message was, see, all economies are suffering, and the mighty US economy is doing worse than the Indian economy, we are therefore actually better off.

The sad part of all this is that many ‘educated’ Indians fell for this spin. But that’s the thing about propaganda, even the educated fall for it.

(Published 26 September 2020, 19:23 IST)

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