Friday, 4 May 2018

Censoring Twitter in the name of health

This video about tobacco companies using Twitter is laugh-out-loud funny.

The punchline is when the journalist feels obliged to end the item by reminding us that smoking is, like, really bad. In Australia, as in Britain, even news stories have to double as health information films. This only serves to highlight the total dominance of the anti-smoking lobby in the media.

The idea that a few corporate Twitter accounts are a threat to the 'public health' hegemony is laughable and yet that is what is being claimed in the video. The news story is based on a study in Tobacco Control by some of Simon Chapman's mini-mes at Sydney University. The mere fact that a fatuous piece of research in a risible journal is being covered by the television news further underlines the victory of the fanatics.

The 'study' analyses 3,301 tweets from the big four tobacco companies' Twitter accounts and found - shock, horror! - that some of them implicitly or explicitly opposed policies that were aimed at driving them out of business.

BAT, Imperial and JTI most frequently tweeted about topics that either outright opposed or critiqued tobacco control policies or aimed to reduce the effectiveness or legitimacy of the measures (36.3%, 35.1% and 34.0%, respectively). Such tweets were coded as policy opposition. PMI tweeted less frequently on this area, with just 9.6% of their total tweets directly resisting or opposing tobacco control measures. One topic mentioned frequently across all accounts was illicit and counterfeit tobacco, which represented 12.6% of all tweets.

Here are a couple of the tweets that the authors quote to illustrate this...

The first tweet is a link to a corporate statement responding to the Chantler review of plain packs. The second links to an article in which the drinks industry responds to calls for plain packaging for alcohol. The third (correctly) quotes the Australian government's official statistics on youth smoking prevalence.

Do these tweets oppose plain packaging? Yes. Is it reasonable for an industry to make such arguments? Yes. Is it the kind of thing you expect to see if you decide to follow a tobacco company on Twitter? Presumably, yes.

Incidentally, these tweets received 3 retweets, 0 retweets and 5 retweets respectively, and none of the accounts had more than 11,000 followers at the time.

The authors then complain that tobacco companies do the kind of boring corporate messaging about sustainability and diversity that stops normal people following such accounts in the first place.

All four TTCs [transnational tobacco companies] tweeted about social and environmental issues such as child labour and human rights, environmental sustainability and racial and gender diversity and inclusion.

Among the tweets quote from this exciting category are these...

Even the blandest of tweets upset these sensitive researchers who say...

BAT, Imperial, PMI and JTI are using their respective corporate Twitter accounts to oppose and critique tobacco control policies, to promote an image of being socially responsible corporations and position themselves as favourable workplaces.

So what?

The lack of regulation on social media has opened an opportunity for TTCs [transnational tobacco companies] to also use Twitter to highlight information that is potentially false or misleading

If we're going to start banning people from saying things that are 'potentially false or misleading' on Twitter, we're going to have a lot of work on our hands, starting with the institutionally dishonest 'public health' racket.

For example, false tweets such as, ‘Myth 5: Tobacco Control said #plain-packs would stop young ppl from taking up smoking. Govt stats show this isn't true’, were published by Imperial, despite evidence that plain packaging reduces the appeal of cigarette packs to adolescents.

As this is the only specific example the authors give of a 'false or misleading' tweet, I assume they also think it is the strongest. So let's examine it - it's one of the ones I've embedded above.

The claim of the anti-smoking lobby is that plain packaging would reduce youth smoking rates. The evidence amounts to some glorified focus groups in which young people were asked if they thought an attractive pack was more attractive than an ugly pack. The result was much as you might expect.

The real question is whether this stated preference translates to fewer young people smoking. The Imperial tweet cites statistics from the Australian government showing a rise in youth smoking from 2.5% in 2010 to 3.7% in 2013 (plain packaging was introduced in December 2012). It also cites a number of peer-reviewed studies which found that packaging is not an important factor in the decision of young people to smoke.

By any reasonable standard, these are relevant facts and they are not refuted by the results of a focus group. The evidence does not decisively answer the question of whether plain packaging deters teenagers from taking up smoking, but since the anti-smoking lobby cited a fall in adult smoking prevalence between 2010 and 2013 as proof that plain packaging works, it is fair for Imperial to cite the data on underage users from the same survey to claim that it failed.

Neither point of view should be censored. And make no mistake, it is censorship that the study's authors want. 

...for the first time, the public is able to easily respond directly to TTCs within a public domain and engage with their content. The regulation of tobacco industry use of social media is urgently needed.

This is a straightforward argument about free speech and the anti-smoking lobby is on the fascist side of it. The idea that people should be forbidden from disagreeing with scientific claims and policy proposals is abhorrent. It would be bad enough in a serious area of science. In the Mickey Mouse world of 'public health science' it is obscene.

If tobacco companies are to be banned from disagreeing with anti-smoking campaigners because those same campaigners consider their arguments to be 'misleading', what is to stop them banning anybody from disagreeing with them? Why should a private citizen be allowed to use Twitter to make claims that 'public health' lobbyists regard as 'false' or 'misleading'?

The reality is that these people want to silence the opposition in policy debates because their own arguments and evidence are often so fragile that they cannot withstand the slightest scrutiny. They even want to stop tobacco companies mentioning their corporate responsibility and charity work to their followers because such tweets 'have the potential to shift public sentiment on TTCs'.

Well, tough. If these companies libel somebody or incite someone to violence, they can be sued like anyone else. They're obviously not going to do that and they are not promoting their brands on social media, so the censorious nutcases at Tobacco Control will have to live with a few thousand people on Twitter being told that Philip Morris gives money to charity and that BAT is a nice place to work.

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