The think tank industrial complex: Sowing doubt and disinformation

Without some kind of regulation, unaccountable think tanks will continue to obscure the truth about the issues they present to the public and offer often financially lucrative revolving doors for politicians and policymakers as they leave government service.


Think tanks, as defined by the Oxford dictionary, are, “a body of experts providing advice and ideas on specific political or economic problems”. Unrecognized by most people, in many ways these outfits help to shape public opinion about the most important issues of our time, almost always in favor of the status quo.

The most powerful ones in North America come in two forms: there are those like the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that call for increased defense spending by the U.S. and its allies at home and militarism abroad, and those like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that advocate for ‘free markets’ and lead the charge in terms of climate change denial.

It’s hard to decide which of these objectives is more damaging. While CSIS, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and others stoke tensions with major powers like the Russian Federation and China in the short term, creating risks of wars that could escalate into a nuclear catastrophe, those that spread climate disinformation like the AEI and even more radical Heartland Institute help create an existential risk to the planet over the slightly longer term.

One way that both types try to manipulate mainstream public opinion is by offering what amounts to free content, usually in the form of opinion pieces published in newspapers and by their associates appearing on network and cable news. These ‘brain trusts’ also ingratiate themselves to the powerful through conferences and other events, often featuring serving and retired politicians and policymakers alongside their own ‘experts’ as speakers.

For those dedicated to promoting fossil fuels, mining and other polluting industries, the idea seems to be to create confusion in the public sphere, with a more recent tactic being not actual denial but creating new theories about the climate emergency that absolve their funders of any responsibility for that crisis and related catastrophes like biodiversity loss.

One theory that’s popular right now is the claim that it’s not so much the way we live that drives what used to be called global warming but rather a natural process beyond human control. Some even go further to say that pumping ever more C0into the atmosphere is a net positive in that it will create longer growing seasons in some places.

At the same time, there are still those like Rodger Bedzek, an adviser to the Heartland Institute, who insist our main worry is not warming but a new Ice Age.

“The real problem is we have a lot more to worry about with global cooling than with global warming,” he told Christine Macdonald, a reporter for In These Times at a conference the Institute held at the Trump International Hotel in 2019.

As John Cook of George Mason University explained to Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC in regards to this, “when people are presented with facts and myths, and they don’t know how to tell the difference between the two, they end up not changing their beliefs either way. They end up canceling each other out.”

study by the consumer advocacy organization, Public Citizen that looked at how much coverage climate change denying think tanks received in the 50 largest American newspapers and on network news between 2014 and 2018 showed why it’s no wonder that so many people continue to be confused about the climate emergency.

In terms of opinion pieces in newspapers alone, the outlets themselves are almost never transparent about their funding“84 op-eds were published by one of the five think tanks over a five-year period by 25 newspapers. The Wall Street Journal published the most (18), followed by the Orange County Register (9) and USA Today (8). Notably, only one of the 84 op-eds, published by USA Today, identified the think tank’s financial relationship to the fossil fuel industry.”

Perhaps even more disturbing, as the Guardian revealed last year, it isn’t just those we’d expect who fund climate denial, “Google is also listed as a sponsor for an upcoming annual meeting of the State Policy Network (SPN), an umbrella organization that supports conservative groups including the Heartland Institute… that has chided the teenage activist Greta Thunberg for “climate delusion hysterics”.

So much for the company’s old slogan, “Don’t be evil”.

Think tanks, war and interventions

Unlike the climate deniers, those from think tanks that call for confrontations with other countries and fearfully demand more defense spending in the United States, Canada and much of Europe and Asia are rarely confronted with other points of view during their public appearances, making it easy to establish at best partially true narratives about less favored governments and rival nations.

Despite records of being wrong about just about everything, including the disasters in Iraq and Libya, many of the voices still associated with militarist think tanks, whether from the rightwing neoconservative camp or the centrist ‘humanitarian interventionist’ one, are given ever larger platforms to call for more of the same. One notable example is Project for a New American Century (PNAC) luminary Bill Kristol, who is routinely featured on the supposedly liberal MSNBC.

The American Democratic Party and many in the media who support it were greatly incensed by reports of Russian interference in the 2016 election but continue to ignore the fact that many governments, most less democratic than that nation, fund think tanks in the US and other NATO countries that are far more effective at swaying public opinion than the memes said to be emanating from the Kremlin.

While despotic countries like Saudi Arabia still spend heavily on lobbying, the more conventional form of influence peddling, think tanks are increasingly seen as a cheaper way to frame the conversation in Washington and beyond, as one anonymous expert told Vox in 2016, “Frankly, think tanks are a very good investment for these guys. For $20,000, that’s a huge amount of money for think tanks or academic institutions. It’s a low-cost, high-value proposition.”

Unsurprisingly, these institutions also rely on defense contractors for cash. CSIS, for example, is heavily reliant on defense contractors like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Boeing.Still, the document cited clearly shows that that think tank, like its peers, receives the lion’s share of its funding from the U.S. government itself.

paper by the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative that looked at donations to the 50 most influential think tanks in the United States found that, in terms of publicly available information. they had received almost $1.1 billion from government agencies like the Pentagon and their defense industry benefactors over a 5 year period ending in 2019.

It will sound strange at first, but think tanks contribute to many people’s understanding of reality and make both war and the worst case scenarios in terms of climate change more likely. Nonetheless, especially in terms of the latter, the perennially underfunded American left has become increasingly successful in breaking through these narratives by organizing ordinary citizens in opposition to mass for profit suicide.

While many larger environmental NGOs have bowed to pressure from their funders in the way the most powerful think tanks were pretty much designed to, from the climate strike movement started by Greta Thunberg through Sunrise in the U.S. and Extinction Rebellion in the UK, grassroots organizations have, in a relatively short period of time, made climate change more of a policy focus than it has been in the past.

With the Trump administration on the way out in January, the hope is that the power of the climate change deniers and the think tanks they fund will wane and President Elect Biden will engage the issue with policies along the lines of those featured in the Green New Deal. In terms of foreign policy, the picture isn’t as rosy and it seems likely that interventionist leaning think tanks will regain some of the prominences they lost in terms of government engagement as the outgoing US president seemed to prefer to outsource wars to countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey or continue military actions in countries like Somalia in secret.

Regardless, without some kind of regulation, unaccountable think tanks will continue to obscure the truth about the issues they present to the public and offer often financially lucrative revolving doors for politicians and policymakers as they leave government service.


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