Earth Day: How Can Climate Activists Fight Misinformation?
Award-winning filmmaker Josh Fox talks about his new book, The Truth Has Changed, and how climate movements can—and must—fight misinformation campaigns
Award-winning filmmaker Josh Fox talks about his new book, The Truth Has Changed, and how climate movements can—and must—fight misinformation campaigns
DHARNA NOOR It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor. Happy Earth Day from our climate bureau to you. The climate science is clear: human-caused climate change has already wreaked havoc on the earth, causing worse natural disasters, sea level rise, drought, species have died off, people have been killed and left without their homes, and the world must undergo a rapid and total transformation to avoid even more catastrophic effects that could cause human life to change as we know it. But how do we know that’s all true? How do we know what’s true? That’s the question to start off Josh Fox’s new book and one-man show. Now joining me to talk about this new book and one-person show is Josh Fox. He’s an environmental activist and Emmy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmaker. He’s known for his films like Gasland and Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock. And again, his new book and one-man show is The Truth Has Changed. Thanks for being here, Josh.
JOSH FOX It’s great to be back on Real News.
DHARNA NOOR So The Truth Has Changed looks at the contemporary history of misinformation from things like 9/11 to climate denial, and you begin with a student who asks you how to determine what’s true. Talk about that and the format of this book in exploring that question. Why a one-person show?
JOSH FOX Well I was originally commissioned to do the piece by Sheila Nevins, the documentary guru and my mentor over at HBO that I’ve been working with for years. And she looked right at me right after the 2016 election and she said, we want you to do a one-person show, and we want to put that on HBO, and make that into your next film. So we did that. We filmed it. I took a year and a half to write the script, which then became the book. We’re looking for the opportunity to premiere that film right now. We’re trying to figure out where that’s going to happen over the next several months. My background actually is originally in the theater. As a theater director, I would make giant, epic theater productions that were based on real life events so in many ways, a documentary-style process before I started to make documentary films. This was sort of going back to my roots as a performer and as a person who when we toured Gasland, when we toured Gasland II, when we toured How to Let Go of the World— which we toured extensively all across America, Europe, Asia— I would go with the film and then after the film, answer people’s questions, tell stories and anecdotes. And that became a kind of performance. That became a way that people knew me in the world. And then, going out on the road with Bernie Sanders, doing speeches and lectures on the circuit, and all those kinds of things, being very comfortable in front of people— this really brings me back to my days as a performer where I’m performing the new documentary. I think of it as a spoken documentary where instead of filming these things, I tell you what happened in a Spalding Gray-type of style. When I was performing the piece in this workshop capacity in New York City, the brilliant Dan Simon, the publisher for Seven Stories Press was like, this is an amazing book. We have to make this into a book. And so, we put the book out and right now we’re waiting for the film’s release, both in theaters and on television. We’ll see how that goes forward but I’m also still performing the piece, so take a look out for it. We did a 22-state, 40-city tour, something like that in the runup to the midterm elections. I believe I’m going to start performing it again on the road in the next couple of months.
DHARNA NOOR Cool. Send us the schedule and we can let folks know where to check it out. And again, the book and your show deal with the concept of misinformation which isn’t new. Obviously, you point to the story of Thanksgiving as an old, old example but…
JOSH FOX The original fake news.
DHARNA NOOR Yeah, exactly. The original fake news, but you learned about the power of these misinformation campaigns when you were taking your 2010 film, Gasland, which is about the dangers of fracking, on tour. You write about how you were the subject of a smear campaign by the gas industry-funded group called Energy in Depth. And then when you toured with Gasland II, the gas industry started making its own films. One of the people who made them was Andrew Breitbart, who back then wasn’t really a household name. Talk about those experiences and what they taught you about the nature of this kind of misinformation campaign.
JOSH FOX Well when I first took on this assignment, I thought of it as really my reporter’s notebook— frontline, eyewitness accounts, everything from 9/11 to the BP oil spill, to Standing Rock— and I was really wanting to bring out that frontline reporter’s feeling. But then I realized that there was a completely other through line throughout all of these events in my life. That was smear, misinformation, and propaganda. So when I look at 9/11-— 9/11 was something that we New Yorkers went through very vividly. Obviously anyone who was here for that will never forget what happened that day, that week, that month, that year and realizing then how our grief was manipulated into rage, that we were being told to go and kill people in foreign countries that we never met before, that we would never meet, that had absolutely nothing to do with this crisis, like in Iraq— that twisting of the messaging from the Bush administration from a grief and sorrow into rage and violence, was one of the most slick and destructive events in American history. Then looking at the BP oil spill through the eyes of someone on the ground, watching how we were being told again and again that the oil had disappeared, that the dispersants that we are spraying over the ocean are okay, and that we were not being allowed to see the actual oil spill. We saw tar balls on beaches and we saw oiled pelicans. I was one of the first planes to fly over the oil spill at a height that you could actually see it from. Most planes were directed much, much, much higher, but we got clearance to fly lower. We saw the extent of the spill and it was absolutely apocalyptic and devastating and realizing if they could cover up the BP oil spill and not show it to the American people, what else are we not seeing? Obviously, that led me down the path of trying to undo and take apart the smear campaign against my films, Gasland and Gasland II, where the oil industry, led by people like Phelim McAleer, James O’Keefe, Andrew Breitbart, Steve Bannon, came after me with a $50 million smear campaign that lasted years and years and years, that went after me in every possible aspect of public life and private life. They published my address. They encouraged people to drive by my house. I received nonstop death threats. They bought my name and the name of the film Gasland on Google, so when you google searched my name, the first search result would be their smear campaign against my film. There was an arson on my property. But beyond this, it was really challenging the truth of my reporting itself, saying fracking doesn’t contaminate ground water. Fracking is just fine. Those chemicals just came from somewhere else. You can light water on fire naturally. These were the things that they were doing. They were doing damage to the truth. So yes, when this student at one of these screenings very innocently, very profoundly, very sincerely asked the question, how do we know what’s true? You say all these things about fracking and how climate change is real and fracking is bad, but we can look on the internet and see that the opposite of all things are true, so how do we know, he says. I thought, oh my god. This is a student in college with every resource possible at her fingertips to be able to learn, to have an education. And what does that mean? That meant I had to go forward and try to find out how the truth has changed and go into this whole history of smear and misinformation. This tormented me to the point to which in the book there are scenes where I’m sitting on my couch in Pennsylvania having borrowed an AR-15 from the neighbors and cleared my entire house to make sure there’s no one in it. It’s 4 o’ clock in the morning and I’m drinking half a bottle of whiskey and watching The Hurt Locker. This stuff makes you crazy and it doesn’t just make me crazy, it makes the whole electorate crazy. What they did to me in 2010 through 2015 is what they then turn around through Cambridge Analytica, Steve Bannon through Google and Facebook, did to the entire American population in the election of 2016 by totally distorting the facts on everything from Donald Trump to the Russians, to Hillary Clinton, to pizzagate, to whatever, to climate change, to what have you. Now we’re seeing the complete onslaught against truth by the Trump administration.
DHARNA NOOR Yeah and a big theme of your book is the way that they use this method of essentially, psychological warfare to spread this misinformation. My Real News climate bureau colleague, Steve Horn, who you have also known for many years, attended a 2011 natural gas energy industry P.R. conference in Houston where he heard industry reps say that they use Iraq War special ops veterans to deploy psychological warfare techniques on communities where they want to frack in Pennsylvania. And that also comes up in The Truth Has Changed. Talk about that moment of time and how that is significant to how they’ve been essentially, changing the truth or what people see as the truth.
JOSH FOX Well I wanted to put people in the mindset of the journalist or the scientist who is getting completely attacked and berated by a very, very powerful industry. I wanted people to really understand what that’s like on the inside, so that they could see themselves through the eyes of what happened to me and understand that that’s what happened in the course of the 2016 election. These people are trained to get inside your mind. They knew everything about me. They clearly went after me, psychologically. They made fun of my glasses. They made fun of the fact that I’m Jewish. They said that I was a smoker, which was not true. They psychologically try to undermine you so that you stop believing in your own convictions, or they take your greatest convictions and they start to turn those things against you. So in 2011, when they were literally following me around the country and going to Q&A sessions and taping my responses and then rearranging the words through their editing to make me say things that I had never said, this was a time of incredible paranoia. And they do get underneath your skin and you do feel like at every minute, you don’t know what’s real. It’s very, very difficult. Cambridge Analytica through Google and Facebook, now have a— well, Cambridge Analytica doesn’t exist anymore; they’ve changed their name. It’s now EmerData and Steve Bannon has a brand new project with $100 million worth of backing to consolidate white nationalists and nationalist groups all across America and all across Europe, to wreak havoc on the world. And what they have access to is your personal information in the same way that they had access to my personal information. So Cambridge Analytica amassed four to five thousand data points on every adult American. And what did that mean? That meant that because your Facebook feed was different than somebody else’s Facebook feed, and they knew your psychographic data, your intimate psychological makeup, that they could target ads specifically designed towards your personality type, your demographic, and your personal and political convictions. So for example, if they showed that you liked things that were softer or more mild, then all of a sudden Donald Trump is being seen with puppy dogs and white clouds behind him and some soft, mild version of Donald Trump. If you were a rugged individualist, then you might see Donald Trump in an ad with weaponry or more hard edges so that only those specific psychological types were going to get a certain type of ad and advertising, as we all know, is very, very deeply effective. It’s especially effective when you can hit your target dead-on. And that’s the kind of technology that they use. They also did a lot of misdirection. There were a lot of attacks on Hillary Clinton, for example, as a person who supported fracking. She did support fracking. However, myself and Bill McKibben and many other amazing environmentalists, were on the Democratic platform committee and we had come to compromise with the Clinton administration and we had made enormous headway. But what did the Cambridge Analytica sponsored ads do? They played up Hillary Clinton’s pro-fracking background. They downplayed any progress that we had made and they tried to funnel people in our movement, the anti-fracking movement, over towards Jill Stein. The more Clinton voters they could siphon over towards Jill Stein, the greater they had a chance of Donald Trump winning. That’s called misdirection. That’s one of the many techniques of propaganda and misinformation that they used and in order to know that, you have to know people’s political leanings. You have to know their psychological type. You have to know their anger and all those kinds of things. And they can deploy that very effectively through the data that’s being sold on a daily basis by Google, by Facebook, by all the social media.
DHARNA NOOR We’re going to come back for a part two where we’re going to talk more about that misinformation campaign. But I want to end this part by asking you about the end of your book. Your book of course ends at Standing Rock, where you filmed your most recent documentary, Awake. What did Standing Rock teach you about this sort of misinformation campaign and resistance to it?
JOSH FOX Well I think it’s really important to understand and remember that we won at Standing Rock. All of that effort, all of those months and months of campaigning, the building of the camp, all the civil disobedience action, and all of the coalition building that happened there, resulted in Obama stopping the pipeline. So we actually won. Those tactics won. And what was there? A coalition of people from so many different movements obviously led by the indigenous sovereignty movement out of Standing Rock and the 500 indigenous tribes that showed up in support, but then joined by the climate movement, by the anti-fracking movement, by members of the economic justice movement. There was Black Lives Matter at Standing Rock. People showed up as this intersectional fight for truth, for justice, for the climate, for water. That’s the kind of coalition that we have to build and those are the tactics that we have to express ourselves with. If we had 30,000 people like you had at Standing Rock, surround the White House and refused to leave, you would have a national crisis and that’s what we would need. We’d need to address these incredible injustices that are happening in America right now through those types of actions. That worked, and I think it can work again. That’s what’s the only thing that’s ever changed America. When you look at Susan B. Anthony, when you look at Martin Luther King, when you look at all these incredible civil disobedience movements that won real gains, that’s what we have to do. And when you think about it, all of the climate goals and all the climate tactics and processes— I’m talking about the climate movement here— are intersectional. So we need the people from the different walks of life, the different movements in America and America is a nation right now of oligarchs and movements. We have incredible movements in America. When you think about the anti-war movement, the Fight for 15, the fight for economic justice, and when you think about Medicare for All, these are all things that climate activists share a great amount of intersectional goals with. We need to have Medicare for all as we have renewable energy, as we get off of fossil fuels. We need to have criminal justice reform. We need to be able to get rid of the electoral college, which has installed the last two incredibly conservative administrations, Trump and Bush, in this America that did not elect those people by majority rule. We need to be able to take back the reins of power. That’s what we saw at Standing Rock. Remember, we won at Standing Rock; we lost the election. The election was a horrible travesty and the electoral college has got to go, but what we can learn from Standing Rock is that that coalition was enormously strong. It inspired the world. It inspired this nation, and we have to do it again.
DHARNA NOOR Alright. We’ll pick up in part two and talk a little bit more about how to continue that legacy. Josh Fox’s new book and one-man show is The Truth Has Changed. It will soon also be a documentary. So thanks for being here again, Josh, and we’ll pick it up in part two.
JOSH FOX Awesome. Thank you.
DHARNA NOOR And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.