Sunday, 26 June 2022 — MROnline
By Eli Horowitz
In the foreword to Last Dance, Last Chance, Ann Rule meditates on the nature of liars. “Once a lie is successful,” she says, “it grows and multiplies, burnished and perfected until it works every time. It’s a sad irony that the more honest a potential victim is, the more innocent, the more likely such a person is to become prey. Honest people don’t expect to be lied to, because they wouldn’t lie to someone else. That doesn’t matter at all to dedicated liars. They only smile.” As a true-crime writer, Rule was talking about murderers, kidnappers, and other violent offenders. But she could just as easily have been talking about corporations.
Under capitalism, corporate dishonesty has become so commonplace that most of us take it for granted. In doing so, however, we’ve allowed ourselves to become numb to the breathtaking scale and bottomless arrogance of corporate deception. To be blunt, capitalism wages a constant, active, ever-evolving war against knowledge and reason. Not only are we constantly deluged by false and misleading advertisements for goods, services, and even jobs, we’ve been sold ideals that do not and cannot exist, told to navigate a supply and demand system that’s been maliciously bent out of shape, and led astray on crucial matters of public interest by industry-backed disinformation campaigns. Capitalism even interferes with language itself, hindering our fundamental ability to name our world and cooperate with one another in order to bring about a better one. What’s more, these aren’t rare or abnormal events. Once you stop taking all of this for granted, the list of ways in which capitalists lie is frighteningly endless.
Selling Lies: Deception, Misdirection, and Befuddlement in Advertising
The most pervasive type of capitalist lie is the advertisement. As a class, commercials and print ads are so obviously untrustworthy that they may seem beneath serious criticism. Indeed, many of us had a good time poking fun at the Fyre Festival, the fraudulent 2017 music “festival” that advertised luxury accommodations to the well-off but delivered dirt floors, soaked mattresses, and cheese sandwiches. But misleading ads are no joke. To the contrary, one study found that nearly three-quarters of humorous ads were deceptive. And even when corporations aren’t trying to be funny, they bombard us with false and dubious advertising claims every day.
These lies come in all different flavors. Truth In Advertising, a pro-consumer nonprofit, lists twenty-three false or misleading ads in the first quarter of 2022 alone, covering products that range from chewing gum to cell phone plans. For months or years prior to a 2013 investigation, grocery stores in the United Kingdom and Ireland sold horse meat that was falsely labeled as beef. And written lies are only the beginning. Photoshop disasters give the lie to falsified images in print and web ads, and fast food commercials are so reliant on deceptive imagery that there are now careers in “food styling.”
Then there are the lies that are subtler and harder to detect, like the ones about image or lifestyle. Influencers may not say anything misleading or doctor their images, but they can still get you to shell out money for a fairy tale. “It was almost funny that we were depicted in this slow-living, lazy lifestyle,” one Instagrammer says, “but we were super busy, you know?” The same goes for #VanLife, the tiny house craze, and a hundred other fads: everyone on the other side of the camera knows that the story isn’t really true, but they still want you to believe. Worse yet, these false ideals extend into our very bodies. Though the burden falls more heavily on certain genders, capitalism leads both women and men to pursue the unrealistic and unhealthy bodies that are depicted as normal in commercials and ads. Add all of this up and you’re more likely to come across an advertisement that is trying to fool you than one that isn’t.
Lest you think that this is all just a harmless market peccadillo limited to hamburgers and makeup ads, think again. Hyundai and Kia sold a combined one million vehicles using false claims about emissions and fuel economy. Two hundred thousand people die every year because they fall for claims relating to fake antimalarial drugs. False advertising even played a significant role in the U.S. opioid epidemic, which has killed over 760,000 people. And those are just the consequences of the false claims that the market makes about products. When companies advertise jobs, the lies can do even more harm.
As a small-scale example, consider Madbird, a fake design agency that fraudulently “employed” over fifty people in the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of those deceived workers went months without income from their so-called employer. Some even went into debt on the company’s behalf. If this seems extreme, think again: compared to how the market works in less fashionable industries, Madbird’s “employees” got off easy. Dishonest or fraudulent job postings play a major role in the global slave trade, which affects some forty million workers across a wide array of economic sectors. Slavery is one of the most poisonous fruits that thrive under capitalism, and the seed from which it grows is deception.
Then again, you don’t have to travel to the nadir of human life in order to be victimized by a fake job listing. Job sites are becoming a popular vector for scammers, who convince applicants to hand over their personal or financial information. It is also disturbingly common for companies to lie about wages and work arrangements in their job ads, to say nothing of corporations that intentionally misclassify their employees as contractors in order to evade pro-worker regulations.
Bent Curves: Manipulated Supply, Demand, and Pricing
But if we cannot trust companies to tell us what we’re spending our money on or how we’re earning it in the first place, surely, we can trust one another, right? If a product, person, or piece of media is well-liked by regular people who have no financial incentive to promote it, then that gives us information about its quality, at least in theory. There are some exceptions—Fox News springs to mind—but the rule is a good one, at least most of the time. There’s only one problem: thanks to capitalism, it’s becoming impossible to know what regular people really think.
Take music concerts or other live events. Headlines regularly boast of sold-out shows, thereby creating the impression that the performers must be wildly popular. But in many cases, these sellouts are simply not real, meaning that consumers who read “sold-out” headlines have no real idea how hard it would be to get a ticket or how much one would be worth. Online follower counts are another prime example. You may think that your favorite content creators are loved by millions, but buying followers on sites like Instagram and Twitch is a common practice. Brands also create a false impression of popularity by straight-up lying about their site traffic. Facebook got in trouble with its advertisers in 2018 for doing this, but these lies affect consumers, too. If you’ve ever rushed to buy something because a website told you that other shoppers were looking at the same product, you may be upset to learn that those counters are often fake.
Reviews aren’t necessarily any more helpful, either. We have good evidence that many so-called consumer reviews on sites like Rotten Tomatoes are bogus, left either by bots or humans who are paid to act like bots. Similarly, Yelp’s so-called “elite” reviewers have been known to sell their reviews, thereby undermining the entire point of the system. Incredibly, even when consumer reviews are legitimate, they may not pertain to the actual product or service that you’re currently looking at. Companies have learned that they can sell one product (say, socks) on a site like Amazon, collect positive reviews, and then use the same digital listing to sell something completely different (like an adapter). That way, shoppers who only look at the average review score will think that the newly listed product (the adapter) is good when in fact all of the good reviews pertain to the old one (the socks). When these so-called hijacked reviews happen, they completely invalidate star ratings and other common data aggregations that we trust to inform us about a product’s quality.
Then there are the algorithms that supposedly tell us what we (or people like us) want. By now, you’ve probably guessed the pattern. Those algorithms? Far too many of them are intentionally skewed. Instead of telling you what you might want or like, they are designed to sell you on what a corporation likes. In the music world, this is called payola. The rest of us can just call it what it is: a scam.
Prices are hardly any better. Whereas economists will tell you that prices reflect the true value of a good or service and are determined by a natural equilibrium between supply and demand, the truth is far less flattering. For one thing, as we have just seen, supply and demand are themselves subject to manipulation. But corporations hardly need to jump through hoops to confuse us about prices. As the existence of “meme stocks” demonstrates, prices in a capitalist market can be made to look like just about anything for just about any reason. This is why business experts talk about pricing “strategy” and why prices for things like medicine can jump 5,000 percent overnight: in actual fact, prices are whatever corporations say they are, meaning that they can’t be trusted to convey any information about what something is “really” worth.
People have reported finding going-out-of-business events where the “sales” price was more than the original price. Black Friday, the annual post-Thanksgiving bacchanalia of purchasing, is now a hotbed of such fake discounts. But you don’t have to wait until November to get taken for a ride. Algorithmic pricing, a technique that dynamically sets the price for an item by guessing the maximum you’d be willing to pay based on your consumer profile, is featured on sites like Amazon year-round.
Bigger Is Badder: Disinformation Economies of Scale
As if all of this wasn’t already bad enough, capitalists also engage in coordinated disinformation campaigns. You likely already know about some of these: the infamous “tobacco industry playbook” that protected cigarette revenues for decades against the threat of cancer lawsuits; the National Football League’s history of muddying the waters on concussions; and, of course, the fact that the oil industry knew about global warming nearly fifty years ago and chose to cover it up rather than lose out on profits. But corporate-backed disinformation programs like these are much more common and much older than you may think.
Instead of admitting that its products poisoned millions of children, the lead industry threatened to sue television networks and ran public relation campaigns blaming parents. The industry-backed National Rifle Association has been pushing pro-gun propaganda for decades. Not satisfied with having hidden the reality and severity of climate change from us for decades, the oil industry is now spreading lies about electric vehicles. Coca-Cola and Georgia-Pacific have been known to launder their propaganda through flawed publications in science journals. Sometimes, corporations even wage these campaigns against one another, as in the recent case of Facebook hiring a right-wing political strategy firm to spread false claims about TikTok, one of its competitors.
Nor is the problem limited to corporations that want to downplay specific dangers so as to protect their existing business models. More and more, falsehoods are the business model. The capitalist need for deception has become so widespread that there’s now an entire “disinformation-for-hire” industry whose entire purpose is to mislead and confuse the public. At the same time, traffic-oriented businesses like Facebook have learned to build themselves around anything that grabs users’ attention, even if those things are misinformation, manufactured controversies, or lies.
False Names: “Procrustics” and the Capitalist Attack on Free Communication
In an ideal world, all of these nefarious tactics would be met by a robust response from governments, researchers, nonprofits, and the press. But we are not living in an ideal world. If anything, the opposite is closer to the truth: under capitalism, we are fast approaching dystopia.
Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science-fiction master, foresaw our situation in a way that no other writer did. In his 1958 novel Eden, he proposed a method by which a tyrant could achieve total, permanent control over a populace—but without the use of jails, guards, or even constant surveillance. He called this method procrustics, and he described it like this: “It’s not that they do not have names for things, and for the relations between things, but that the names they have are in fact false, are masks.… In order to control the world, one must first name it.” Without the ability to speak the truth to one another, we cannot unite in action; and without the ability to unite in action, we cannot overthrow the tyrant that drives us toward poverty, strife, sickness, and misery. In Eden, the name of this tyrant is never revealed. In the real world, however, we know its name: capital.
Thanks to the constant presence of corporate deception in our lives, we barely even have the words to describe what is happening to us. Regulatory agencies are dwarfed by the corporations they are supposed to oversee, watchdog nonprofits are overwhelmed, and the higher education system is buckling under the weight of private profiteering. But it is media organizations that have been hardest-hit in recent years, as private equity firms and other hostile investors have stripped newsrooms and shuttered entire reporting divisions. In other words, even when capitalism isn’t profiting by lying to us, it finds a way to profit by silencing the voices that want to offer us the truth.
As news outlets get picked off like so many deer in hunting season, the ones that remain are being increasingly corrupted by hard-right ideologies and corporate money. Paid content and “advertorials” are now ubiquitous, making it difficult to know whether we are reading honest reporting or an ad with a byline. Profit-maximizing news organizations also shy away from stories that might damage their bottom lines, even when the stories are indisputably true. In 2018, for example, ESPN altered a fluff piece about a linebacker’s diet in order to avoid offending Wendy’s, one of its advertising partners. All of these practices are blatant violations of journalistic ethics, but capitalism will never choose transparency—let alone morality—over money.
Not even our day-to-day conversations are safe. As many observers have noted in recent years, capitalist culture has begun leaking out into the broader world, interfering with our ability to simply talk to one another. Corporate “garbage language” has spilled over into casual speech, filling our conversations with meaningless jargon and inspiring many of us to think in toxic, empty-headed “grindset” memes. Naturally, the situation inside the workplace is even worse. Hundreds of posts on the popular r/antiwork subreddit feature bosses who falsely tell their employees that they are not allowed to discuss their wages. Other workers strain against job requirements that require them to lie to customers and colleagues. And by threatening, censoring, and retaliating against any workers who dare to speak their minds, corporations chop away at our ability to communicate with one another, thereby attacking dissent at the root.
Looking Ahead: The Future of Capitalist Lies
Resurgent labor unions can act as a partial solution to these problems—that is, assuming that workers do not believe the lies that companies tell about them. Still, the truly grim thing is that the problems exist—and are so deeply integrated into our way of life—in the first place. Let us be brutally honest: our economic system is so completely saturated with deceit that it is impossible to imagine a version of it that we could actually trust. The examples above are just the tiniest sliver of what we already know about capitalism’s assault on knowledge, and what we know is only a fraction of the whole truth. Even when we aren’t being actively lied to, misled, confused, or distracted, we have to struggle to find important information because capitalist investors go out of their way to hamstring the organizations that are supposed to keep us informed.
In recent years, philosophers have begun to discuss what they call epistemic harms. As they see it, an epistemic harm is something that interferes with our ability to know or reason. Under capitalism, we suffer not just epistemic harms but epistemic aggression, that is, intentional, targeted acts of epistemic interference that are aimed at achieving dominance. Indeed, given how broadly and how routinely capitalist agents lie, we should all consider ourselves to be belligerents in an epistemic battle—or, to repurpose Alex Jones’s phrase, an information war.
And it’s not getting better. As we develop more advanced forms of communication and more reliable knowledge about how humans form beliefs, capitalists race to invent new forms of deception. Corporate propagandists quickly learned to take advantage of influencers and streamers. Thanks to advances in information technology, scams are now automated, cons are data-driven, and profitable hoaxes spread algorithmically. As deepfakes proliferate and virtual worlds blend with the physical one, the potential for capitalistic dishonesty will only grow.
Nor are capitalists satisfied with lying their way to the top of the digital world. They aim to expand their influence in the physical world by forming privately owned cities, replacing the public courts with their own private arbitration system, and perfecting the gatekeeping mechanisms that punish us for being anything other than productive, compliant subjects. If corporations can succeed in replacing public and community services with capitalist surrogates, they can redefine every part of our lives, changing the very meanings of the words and concepts that structure our reality.
To understand just how much depends on these efforts, look to the current right-to-repair movement. Until recently, everyone understood that ownership of an object implied the right to alter that object. If you bought a book, you could highlight the passages you liked; if you bought a couch, you could replace the cushions; and if you bought a lawnmower that eventually broke, you could repair it yourself using whichever parts you liked. But many corporations now want you to believe that you are “not permitted” to tinker with your own property. To most of us, this is patently absurd—but if the procrustic capabilities of capitalism continue to grow, we may soon find ourselves in a society where “ownership” and other key ideas have radically different meanings.
About Eli Horowitz
Eli Horowitz lives in Pittsburgh, where he writes, plays pickup basketball, and watches too many movies. His first novel, Bodied, is for sale online.