Discover more from The Simple Heart
Why cover-ups backfire
Smithfield's efforts to "gag" animal cruelty evidence in court is just the latest example of a systemic effort to deceive the public. It hasn't worked.
UPDATE: Smithfield’s largest slaughterhouse on the Western seaboard and their single largest factory farm – the very farm I am being prosecuted for investigating – are closing down or dramatically reducing their operations. See here and sign up for this newsletter for more updates.
This past Friday, the Utah Court of Appeal denied our petition to review a lower court order that prohibits the presentation of animal cruelty evidence at our September trial. That trial, which relates to an investigation and open rescue at the largest pig farm in the nation, has likely generated more attention than any animal rights story of the last decade. (Over 130,000 people shared it on Facebook alone including 6,000 from the author’s post.) And there was one overriding reason for the case’s reach: it was a classic cover-up story, and cover-ups nearly always backfire.
Smithfield Foods, the largest pig farming corporation in the world, has undertaken extraordinary efforts to conceal what happens in its facilities. And the company’s attempt to gag us at trial, like its prior efforts, is likely to be counterproductive. There are at least three reasons, grounded in the science of social change, why cover-ups fail. But before I explain those reasons, let’s first describe what’s happened with Smithfield in the lead-up to our trial.
Cover-up #1: The false promise of “crate-free” farming
In Jan 2007, Smithfield made a historic promise to phase out, within 10 years, the use of so-called gestation crates, the tomb-like devices which have been described by eminent animal welfare scientist Ian Duncan as “one of the cruelest forms of confinement devised by humankind.” In Jan 2018 (one year after the deadline had already passed), the Smithfield CEO made a self-described “landmark announcement.” Smithfield has achieved its goal of phasing out the crates. As the CEO said at the time, “At Smithfield, we keep our promises.”
But the one-year delay was not the only problem with this “landmark” statement. As documented by investigations we performed from 2017-2018, the company was lying. They were continuing to use gestation crates in direct violation of their promise. The cover-up has now generated national media attention and is the subject of litigation by the Humane Society of the United States.
Cover-up #2: The “Ag-Gag” laws
In 2012, Smithfield Foods and other large corporations in Utah, as part of a nationwide effort pushed by the right wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), pushed the state of Utah to criminalize photography at factory farms. Their efforts, which directly contradicted the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, were initially a great success; ag-gag laws passed across the nation. And the various animal protection groups that performed undercover investigations at factory farms ceased operations in Utah and other states that had passed these laws. The industry hope that the routine abuses at factory farms and slaughterhouses, which had begun to go viral on social media, would again be hidden in the dark.
But as with gestation crates, the Ag-Gag effort backfired. A Republican judge struck down the law in Utah as a violation of the First Amendment, and drafted a resounding opinion in defense of not just free speech, but also animal advocates. Numerous other laws suffered a similar fate. The New York Times penned an editorial condemning the Ag-Gag efforts as unconstitutional and immoral. And once again, the industry’s cover-up failed. Millions of people learned of the abuses in factory farms as a result of the industry’s efforts to crush free speech, and prominent civil liberties organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights (which issued a report using DxE photos) offered their support to animal advocates.
Cover-up #3: The prosecutions of open rescue
And then there is the most recent effort: the targeting of grassroots investigators and rescue activists. Open rescue, which uses the power of nonviolence and transparency to directly challenge systems of abuse, has been one of the most powerful tactics in animal rights history. But the rescues, like most grassroots activism, ground to a halt after a major wave of prosecutions in the mid 2000s, culminating in the passage of the notorious Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which made some forms of nonviolent animal activism punishable as “terrorism” felonies under federal law.
But starting in 2014, DxE launched a systemic effort to build a global network for open rescue despite these threats. I spoke at universities across the country and even at events sponsored by more “mainstream” nonprofit organizations, such as Farm Sanctuary, about the moral and legal imperative to rescue animals.
And the results were inspiring: hundreds of people across the globe began walking openly into factory farms to rescue animals from abuse. As the movement grew, one prominent columnist, Thomas Walkom in Canada, described the government’s initially-tepid response to these acts of rescue as an acknowledgment of their legality, and perhaps even of the moral “personhood” of the animals. “The dismissal of charges against [animal advocates] signals a sea change in the way the justice system views animals — that, in effect, the Crown is recognizing the ‘right to rescue’ as a legal form of protest,” Walkom wrote. Ezra Klein, now a New York Times columnist, invited me on his podcast to discuss the right to rescue.
But as with prior instances of public concern over animal abuse, the industry chose not to reform, but to suppress. Beyond a rare few instances of genuine contrition, the factory farming industry has responded to the movement of open rescue with unprecedented efforts to silence the rescuers. The bizarre scene of FBI caravans crossing state lines to chase baby pigs was the most viral demonstration of government intimidation. In many ways, however, it is the small details in these cases that have demonstrated the industry’s intent to silence speech, rather than prosecute any actual crimes. Consider the following:
The publicly-filed Prosecution Summary focuses almost-entirely on the “defamation” campaign by animal rights advocates against Smithfield and not any alleged damage caused by the “theft” of piglets. (The government has failed to describe any specific statement we’ve made that is false.)
The plea offers that were ultimately taken by three defendants include a constitutionally-suspect provision that prohibits the defendants from online “criticism or derision” of Smithfield.
Most recently, the prosecution has spent significant resources to prevent us from showing photos/video of (or even testifying about) the conditions inside Smithfield’s farms. Their stated reason for this gag order is that the evidence of animal cruelty would induce “horror” in the jury.
Sadly, the Court of Appeal’s decision is now the second instance of a judge in Utah ratifying the industry and prosecution’s efforts to cover-up animal abuse. But as with the gestation crate ban and the ag gag laws, this cover-up, I predict, will backfire. It will bring even more attention and opposition to the practices undertaken by corporations like Smithfield.
“It’s not the crime. It’s the cover-up.”
The failure of cover-ups has practically become a point of conventional wisdom in American politics. Perhaps the most notorious instance is President Nixon’s attempt to conceal the Watergate scandal, where Republican operatives broke into Democratic Party offices to obtain information about their adversaries. (There is no evidence Nixon authorized the illegal actions, but he was ultimately brought down by his attempts to conceal the misconduct.) In the decades since Watergate, there have been numerous instances of cover-ups that have spectacularly backfired. For example, the Pentagon Papers (which revealed the government’s cover-up of Vietnam War failures) or the Edward Snowden leak (which exposed the NSA’s secret mass surveillance program of ordinary and law-abiding citizens). In each case, it was not the underlying misconduct, but the efforts to conceal it, that led to the widest attention and condemnation.
But why is that the case? There are three important reasons, grounded in social and psychological research, why cover-ups are so counterproductive.
The first reason is the principle of scarcity, as first illustrated by psychologist Robert Cialdini. People value information most when it seems like its availability is limited. This explains the appeal of conspiracy theories like QAnon, despite their implausibility; people involved in the QAnon movement feel that they are “in” on a secret. It also explains why gun sales skyrocket right after a mass shooting occurs. People assume that gun control measures may soon make firearms scarce — and therefore rush to buy them.
Cover-ups, by definition, create a perception of scarcity. There is information that is being denied to the public, making its availability limited. The irony is that this psychological mechanism appears to have power even if the information at issue is not actually scarce. Anyone with Google can easily obtain credible information about the horrific abuses unfolding in factory farms. By attempting to gag animal advocates, however, the industry has merely made this information even more compelling to the public.
The second reason that cover-ups backfire is that they provide a perfect structure for a compelling story: a huge challenge. Yuval Noah Hariri, the tech industry’s philosopher of choice, has described myth-making as central to our species. The University of Pennsylvania Wharton marketing guru Jonah Berger identifies storytelling as one of the key elements of virality. And the most essential element of a good story, as described by best-selling author Daniel Coyle and legendary organizer Marshall Ganz, is a character facing a challenge.
Cover-ups create just this sort of challenge. The overriding problem with most social movements is not opposition but apathy. Cover-ups ironically help us overcome that problem with a powerful narrative of individuals speaking out despite efforts to silence them. This is not just hypothetical, in the case of DxE. All of our most powerful content, in terms of both the number of people reached and the impact of our message, have been related to our battles with an oppressive industry and government. As Coyle puts it, “Effective stories consist of characters struggling with huge problems, the bigger, the better.” Put another way, the bigger the cover-up, the more powerful our efforts to expose it.
The third reason for the failure of cover-ups is that they trigger the most powerful emotion of protest: anger. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant saw deception as among the most fundamental wrongs that a human being can commit. The reason is that it denies respect for another person’s right to choose their future, by attempting to manipulate them with false beliefs. This manipulation inevitably creates outrage and anger, which is perhaps the central emotion of protest.
Cover-ups, by creating outrage and anger, provide the fuel for this protest. Even individuals who might not otherwise feel much about the underlying misconduct are motivated to protest when they’ve been lied to. Imagine your roommate, for example, forgets to put away his dishes. It’s a minor annoyance, but probably not something that would provoke an outraged response. If he consistently and intentionally lies to you about the dishes, however, claiming that he never left them out, or that someone else left them out instead of him, an offense that is perceived as relatively small will suddenly become much larger. This is exactly what happens with the cover-up of factory farms. Even people who might otherwise think, “It’s sad but we have to eat,” are suddenly motivated to join us in condemnation of the industry when they’ve been lied to.
There’s one other factor, however, that I’ve neglected to discuss that’s crucial to making a cover-up backfire: a critical mass of supporters. Because without this support, the principle of scarcity, the draw of a compelling story, and the emotional trigger of anger cannot be harnessed. The cover-up, instead of backfiring, will succeed.
I’ve compared this process, in the past, to starting a metaphorical wildfire. Once a spark has sufficient kindling, it can become a raging blaze that cannot be stopped. But the early stages of its development are crucial. If it doesn’t reach sufficient size or intensity early on, it will be snuffed out easily by a little rain or wind.
The good news is that, with modern communications technology, it’s far easier for us to achieve the critical mass necessary to overcome the efforts to suppress. It’s one of the reasons that the gestation crate cover-up, and the ag-gag laws, have not worked as the industry hoped. There were enough people out there in the world, amplifying the message by sharing blogs like this one, that our movement could survive the headwinds. As our trial approaches in September, I’m confident we’ll have the same support. Thanks to every one of you for being a part of that.
Ezra Klein released a fascinating podcast on abortion, that has some surprising implications for animal rights. I tweeted about the podcast here, which led to an interesting discussion.
We had a vision and strategy meeting this weekend for the new initiative I’m launching, but even if you couldn’t join, I want your feedback. Fill out the three question survey here. I’m particularly interested in qualitative feedback, so don’t forget the optional third question!
I’ll be sitting down for a podcast conversation with another Stanford professor, this time a psychologist who is an expert on political conversations and want your feedback! What questions do you have for someone who studies political persuasion? Send me an email or leave a comment on this post or, better yet, record your question in audio format!
The horrific violence in a Texas classroom yesterday must be a teaching moment. As I’ve said many times before, gun control is an astonishing example of the power of a relatively unpopular movement, if it’s organized effectively. If we want to understand why these mass shootings keep happening, we need to understand the NRA’s power.