3 historic examples of social engineering

3 historic examples of social engineering

Samuel Brooks on 24th Jan 2024

This article reviews three moments in history that businesses and even entire industries have used coordinated social engineering to alter the public consensus to better their interests at the expense of the general public.

I: The Hemp Hex (1920s)

In the aftermath of World War I, a wave of social and economic changes swept through the United States. The 1920s saw the rise of the petrochemical industry, which sought to establish dominance over emerging markets. Amidst this backdrop, hemp, a versatile and eco-friendly crop, gained popularity for its myriad of industrial applications, including paper, textiles, and even as a potential biofuel.

Marijuana: the devil's harvest
Fear-mongering was used to form lasting prejudices

However, powerful figures within the petrochemical industry recognised hemp as a formidable competitor. To protect their interests, they embarked on a calculated campaign to discredit and demonise the plant. Leveraging racial prejudices and exploiting the association between hemp and marijuana, these industrialists framed a narrative that portrayed hemp as a dangerous substance.

Headlines in newspapers of the time often linked hemp to criminal activity, perpetuating stereotypes and fear. William Randolph Hearst, a prominent newspaper magnate with interests in the timber industry, played a pivotal role in shaping public opinion against hemp [1]. Hearst's newspapers ran sensational stories associating hemp with the "Reefer Madness" phenomenon, creating a distorted image of the plant and manipulating public sentiment.

This along with Hearst’s influences in government at the time, culminated in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, effectively criminalising hemp cultivation and use. By the time the legislation was passed, the petrochemical industry had successfully eliminated a sustainable and competitive resource from the market, securing their dominance and laying the foundation for the decades-long vilification of hemp.

These warped perceptions still linger to this day, as hemp continues to carry the stigma created in the 1920s. Efforts to rebrand the image of hemp and promote its diverse applications face the enduring legacy of a deliberate campaign that prioritised corporate interests over sustainability and innovation. It wouldn’t be the last time.

II: Smoke and Mirrors - the Tobacco Industry (1950s Onwards)

More doctor's smoke Camals
Aggressive multi-media promotions challenged scientific evidence

In the middle of the 20th century, the tobacco industry found itself grappling with mounting scientific evidence linking smoking to severe health issues. Rather than acknowledging these findings, the tobacco industry initiated a systematic effort to cast doubt on the research and create confusion [2]. Internal industry documents, later exposed through litigation, revealed a deliberate campaign to fund alternative research, create counterfeit scientific organisations, and challenge the credibility of established scientists.

This multifaceted strategy sought to present smoking as a matter of personal choice rather than a significant health risk. Through astute lobbying and political influence, the tobacco industry managed to stall regulations and maintain its market dominance for decades. This carefully coordinated, deliberate deception persisted well into the 1990s, when legal battles and whistleblowers exposed the extent of the industry's efforts to conceal the harms of smoking.

This orchestrated effort to control the narrative around the harms of smoking not only prolonged the tobacco industry's dominance but also contributed to a culture of misinformation that persists to this day. The fallout from this era continues to impact public health, as smoking-related diseases remain a leading cause of preventable deaths worldwide [3]. Incredibly, arguably even more disastrous is that these techniques have been used as a blueprint for suppression and misinformation campaigns ever since.

III: From Greenwash to Gaslight - the Carbon Cover-Up

In the annals of corporate influence, a truly shameful chapter unfolds—a calculated campaign orchestrated in the shadows of power to discredit and stifle the scientific consensus on the impending environmental crisis fuelled by rising carbon dioxide levels.

Oil companies continuing to burn fossil fuels
Public relation campaigns delayed sustainable solutions

The story begins in the mid-20th century (although according to NASA the Irish physicist John Tyndell is the first reported person to indicate that slight changes in the atmospheric composition could bring about climatic variations [4]), when scientific alarm bells were rang regarding the consequences of escalating carbon emissions. A silent cabal, driven by vested interests in fossil fuels, initiated a strategic campaign to suppress the damning evidence. Including over the last three decades, five major US oil companies have spent a total of at least $3.6 billion on advertisements [5]. Funding selective research that painted a less dire picture, they aimed to muddy the waters of scientific certainty.

As the 1980s and 1990s dawned, the machinery of disinformation kicked into high gear. Lobbyists and PR experts with ties to corporate giants deftly manipulated public opinion. Carefully crafted narratives filled media channels, casting doubt on climate scientists and framing a legitimate debate as a manufactured controversy. The playbook expanded with the establishment of pseudo-research institutions, financed by powerful corporations. These entities produced a stream of reports challenging climate science consensus, creating confusion among policymakers and the public.

Into the 21st century, the politicisation of climate science deepened. Big businesses exploited political divides, ensuring climate change denial became a polarised issue. The consequences were profound—environmental policies were stymied, and the transition to sustainable practices delayed. Yet, amidst the orchestrated chaos, whistleblowers emerged. Scientists, once part of industry-funded studies, bravely stepped forward, revealing the manipulation and suppression of critical findings to align with corporate interests.

IV: Keeping mycelium buried (Present Day)

In the contemporary landscape, we witness another similar narrative. As a sustainable alternative with vast applications, mycelium and fungi have faced resistance from industries threatened by their potential to revolutionise sectors such as farming, packaging and construction. As well as the healing properties of psilocybin (the psychoactive present in magic mushrooms - the fruiting body of mycelium) acting as a treatment for addiction, depression and other mental issues. Backed by vested interests, decade-long campaigns have sought to vilify mycelium & fungi, leveraging misinformation and lobbying power to hinder its progress (sounding familiar?).

Fungi & mycelium networks
The demonisation of mycelium and fungi have thwarted scientific research

An unsung hero of Earth's ecosystems, pivotal in promoting soil health, bioremediation, and sustainable practices, mycelium has been the victim of lingering stigmas that have delayed research denying the public access to its potential benefits across a plethora of industries.

Yet, amid the existing prejudices, voices advocating for mycelium's true potential have emerged. Environmental activists, scientists, and a growing community of mycophiles began dismantling the veil of mistrust. They have continued to highlight mycelium's crucial role in carbon sequestration, biodegradation, and even medicinal applications, challenging the narrative perpetuated by those eager to inhibit development.

The quest of mycelium is a microcosm of the larger struggle for a sustainable future, emphasising the importance of transparency, scientific integrity, and a collective responsibility to champion the extraordinary potential embedded within the delicate threads of mycelium. In the face of orchestrated misinformation, the rallying cry emerges: to recognise it not as a threat but as a beacon of hope for a planet in dire need of ecological allies.

So I don’t believe it too hasty to suggest that mycelium may just be the most important subject of study for the greater benefit of the environment and people’s mental health – two of the greatest challenges of our time.


1: Natalie Leppard (2019) 1933 – William Randolph Hearst Plays Role in Denouncing Marijuana. Available at: https://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/timeline-events/1933-william-randolph-hearst-plays-role-in-denouncing-marijuana/ (Accessed 24 January 2024).

2: Allan M. Brandt, PhD (2012) Inventing Conflicts of Interest: A History of Tobacco Industry Tactics. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3490543/#bib3 (Accessed 16 January 2024).

3: World Health Organisation (2023) Tobacco [key facts]. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/tobacco (Accessed 16 January 2024).

4: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (2023) How Do We Know Climate Change Is Real?. Available at: https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/#:~:text=In%201896%2C%20a%20seminal%20paper,temperature%20through%20the%20greenhouse%20effect (Accessed 12 January 2024).

5: Emily Holden (2020) How the oil industry has spent billions to control the climate change conversation. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jan/08/oil-companies-climate-crisis-pr-spending (Accessed 24 January 2024).