Saturday, July 29, 2006

How to Run a Successful Scare Campaign

It has been well observed that Toowoomba’s (failed) poll will provide many lessons for future planned potable water recycling schemes in Australia. There will be lessons to learn for both pro- and anti- recycling campaigners. I fully intend to investigate the lessons to be learned by both sides.

First up, I hereby offer this handy guide to running future successful scare campaigns. I expect to see it well utilised in other major cities in the coming months.

1. Exploit the “Yuck Factor” for all its worth

You will go into this campaign with a great natural head-start. All humans have a negative instinctive and emotional response to the concept of water being used in close human contact more than once. Unless people have had a good reason to carefully consider the issue and the capabilities of modern water treatment technology, emotional responses will prevail. This will come naturally for most people, but you can encourage this natural “yuck factor” by drawing on all opportunities to link recycled water with human excrement.

2. Agree on a catchy slogan

A catchy slogan is worth more than any fact. You don’t have to think too hard about this one since you can always recycle slogans from overseas. ‘Toilet-to-Tap’ is a tried and tested standard and should not be overlooked. ‘WEEcycled POOrified Sewage Water’ is perhaps less sophisticated, but can be effective for the right demographic and may appeal to children under the age of nine. If you can work terms relating to human excrement into the name of your town or city, then you are truly on a winner.

3. Remember, it’s not ‘water’, it’s ‘sewage’ (or sewerage)

Smarmy scientists and politicians may claim that water should be judged by its quality, rather than its history. You should seek to remind them of the well known scientific adage: ‘once sewage, always sewage’. It doesn’t matter how much water (sewage) is purified, it has a tainted past from which it can never be redeemed. Homeopathy is a well-established science in our community and this fact can be conveniently exploited. It means that many people will understand that water has a ‘molecular memory’ and will forever be tarnished by that with which it has previously been in contact.

People who use the term ‘water’ rather than ‘sewage’ are simply trying to sanitise the issue and these propaganda merchants should be quickly exposed.

4. Use suggestive images

A picture is worth a thousand clichés. Invest about 10 seconds on Google Images to find a few good shots of sewage being treated by conventional treatment processes. Useful keywords to try are ‘activated sludge’ or just simply ‘sludge’. Present your images with a caption like “Is This Our Future Water Source?”

An image of a dog drinking from a toilet bowl, or a glass of water placed in the general vicinity of toilet, is worth two thousand clichés. A graphic suggesting a direct connection between a toilet and a bathroom tap is worth three thousand. A pseudo-medical image of a foetus inside a womb is priceless.

5. Refuse to be a lab rat

Insist that your community should not be the ‘lab rats’ for the rest of the country (‘guinea pigs’ is a possible alternative, but may be too cute).

No two towns or cities are identical and this means that no two water management schemes will be identical. Obviously, if no existing scheme is identical to the one planned for your town, then you are being asked to be the subject of a radical and dangerous experiment.

Differences to look for include the precise treatment process (it doesn’t matter if yours is more comprehensive), precise proportions of ‘sewage water’ to be mixed with ‘pristine natural water’, and whether a scheme is generally considered to be ‘planned’ or ‘unplanned’ (remember that ‘unplanned’ is usually safer). If all of these fail (which is highly unlikely), demand details of the likely colour schemes for the plant office.

6. Defend children and future generations

Are children and future generations being consulted? If not, why not? It is your responsibility to assume the role of defender of those ‘without a voice’. Who knows what effects purified water may have on the fragile immune systems of children and unborn foetuses? Tell those monsters and their cronies that they have no right to harm your family!!! How dare these evil-doers even consider harming children!?

7. Be prepared to misrepresent science

It is perfectly honest, ethical and acceptable to intentionally misrepresent science when there is ‘a greater good’ at stake. Effective strategies include quoting facts out of context and careful juxtaposition to suggest a relationship between unrelated facts.

It is well established that raw sewage contains all sorts of nasty chemicals and microbial organisms. Furthermore, conventionally treated sewage processes are not 100 per cent effective at removing trace concentrations of all chemicals. People who drink poorly treated sewage get sick and some die!! This fact can be used to provide conclusive evidence that any recycled water is a deadly cocktail.

Even reports that claim to provide evidence that recycled water can be just as safe as any other source can be misrepresented by careful selection of key quotes. If all else fails, you can always claim that the authors (and peer-reviewers) have misinterpreted the results. “Flawed” is a useful and flexible term that can be applied to prove that you speak the ‘scientific language’ and are therefore a credible authority on any subject.

Remember that if someone else has already expressed an anti-recycling opinion on the internet, then it is thus proved to be indisputably true. Such opinions can be extrapolated to any potential scheme regardless of trivial details such as the treatment processes involved. Pioneers from previous campaigns in California will provide rich pickings. Google is a loyal friend.

8. Point out that you can run but you can’t hide

Buying bottled water will not save people from the peril of recycled water. People will still be exposed in baths and showers. Remember that the skin is porus and all chemicals will be quickly absorbed into the body. All food that is prepared in your city will be highly contaminated with recycled water. This will cause local food-producing industries to be bankrupted with devastating flow-on effects to the local economy. A quiet cup of coffee in town will be rendered an adrenaline-inducing deadly game of Russian roulette.

9. Exploit the broad use of the term “recycled water”

Precedents exist on the internet referring to all sorts of waters as ‘recycled water’. If secondary treated sewage is used to irrigate a timber plantation, then that is ‘recycled water’. A few schemes distribute lower-quality water to houses by ‘purple pipe dual reticulation’ systems. Utilities involved in managing this water publish information regarding how the recycled water should be used. This can be a useful source for quotes such as: “Recycled water is suitable for watering gardens and flushing toilets, but should never be used for drinking, washing or filling swimming pools”. The mere existence of such information provides irrefutable evidence that anybody that suggests drinking recycled water, from any source, has a sinister ulterior motive.

10. Demand that every possible chemical must be monitored

Pick a large number, double it and quote it as the number of chemicals in existence. The number can be preceded with a ‘greater than’ sign or simply stick a ‘plus’ sign on the end. A figure like 87,000 is more convincing than a round number like 100,000 (which is clearly just an estimation). Ask the water testing authority whether they plan to regularly monitor for every single one. If the laboratory manager is unable to even name every one of these chemicals, this is an obvious blow to their credibility and should be exposed.

Ignore the fact that the vast majority of chemicals come from nature. Focus on words like ‘hormones’, ‘endocrine disrupters’, ‘pharmaceuticals’, ‘illicit drugs’, ‘phthalates’, ‘RU486 abortion pills’, ‘emerging contaminants’, ‘prions’ and ‘carcinogens’. Point out that new drugs are being developed all the time and we don’t even have analytical methods for them yet!!!! (multiple exclamation marks reinforce the scientific validity of any statement. CAPITAL LETTERS HAVE A SIMILAR SIGNIFICANCE!!!!).

Read the book “Our Stolen Future”. It doesn’t mention water recycling, but all facts and theories described in this book were written with planned potable water recycling in mind (read between the lines, dummy!). Those alligators were foolish to unquestioningly accept an advanced recycled water supply from the state of Florida (contamination of the swamp by a DDT spill is a red herring invented by pro-water recycling devil worshipers).

I trust that this handy guide will be useful for budding campaigners. Most importantly, have fun and enjoy the assured media exposure. Once the campaign is over you can settle back to the important task of revealing the lies of climate change.

Note: This post is intended to be satirical. However, yes, it is a venting of some frustration. While Toowoomba has certainly seen the type of scare campaign suggested in this post, I do acknowledge that there were other important (legitimate) issues to be considered as well. Readers are welcome to offer alternative lessons (to both sides), seriously.


rod said...

Other legitimate issues:

Like - there was nowhere for the RO waste stream to go?

Acland Coal didn't want it so the project cost would have doubled for the evaporaton ponds. Not that you could get Thorely or Flanagan to admit it.

Greg said...

Perhaps Stuart would like to explain what we should have done with it - pipe it to the ocean perhaps or just dump it in our local environmenet?

Jaun said...

Five simple steps to educate your community:

1. Lie.
2. Deny the lies.
3. Tell people there's no other options.
4. Don't provide evidence to support your case.
5.Winge and cry when people don't agree.

Stuart, you're a hypocrite, you said that you have nothing to do with the Toowoomba debate, yet here you are right after the no vote wins posting this stupid rubbish.

You are obviously more involved then you wish to admit, and I can not believe you would post something like this, we had a choice here and the choice has been made. If you can't live with the fact people don't accept something that has not been proven, then you should resign as being a professor or anything else and get a normal job.

I find it absolutely pointless to follow through on this and force the same debate on other cities in Australia. Our community is now divided even more, it was expected and uncalled for. Our mayor didn't even consider what this would do to the city and the people living here (the same as you don't care), and she is crying now when she only herself to blame.

The people of Toowoomba have made the decision not to be the first in the world to be lab tests, it does not mean the city is against recycling, we just wanted a more ethical approach to the water issue. The council took it on themselves to go alone and have failed. With 2 years of educating us, it didn't do much good when mixed with lies and deceit, how do you expect anyone to believe in a technology that is a first. It's quiet clear that the people of Australia are more sensible and want better control of recycling waste water, The council has not be given that right, because they are not the right people to do it, neither are you.

I believe in recycling, but you can't recycle a substance over and over and keep the same product, you as a scientist should know this. Nothing is indestructible, this includes water.

The no voters got a bad wrap, but at least we did not insult and lie (we had other options), now the no vote has won, the yes voters are doing exactly has predicted, the same as the accused the no voters of.

If you believe that other cities WORLD WIDE are not going to take our debate into account, think again, this win for the no vote was a step in the right direction for the use of recycled sewerage. I can only hope more people take the right choice of using recycled sewerage, it does not need to be used for drinking, how hard is that to accept.

Stuart Khan said...


I very much respect the decision that the City of Toowoomba has made. You may be surprised to know that I am not particularly disappointed in the outcome. I have always been fairly ‘neutral’ on the proposal for Toowoomba since I can well see some of the difficulties involved there (strong community opposition, potential difficulties with the brine and loss of water down Gowrie Creek). As I have said before, I can see no good argument to force a city to recycle water against the will of its citizens. Limiting growth may well be a more suitable solution.

My frustration is not at the outcome of the poll, but at the repeated efforts by some people to run a scare campaign based on misinformation. Each of the 10 tips listed in this post was used and I would be happy to point to the evidence. I have held off posting this until the polling in Toowoomba has closed. The reason is that it is not really intended for Toowoomba consumption, It’s a way of pre-empting the scare campaigns that I am fairly confident will be repeated in Goulburn, Brisbane, Sydney, … If people would stick to the real issues, it would benefit all of us.

Jaun said...

Sturat, the council and people like you had 2 years to educate us, and you couldn't, so what was the problem? It wasn't scare tactics it was evidence and the truth.

The truth is that 25%-30% of recycled sewerage for indirect potable use is not used anywhere in the world, if our mayor opt to have like 3% maybe 5%, there may have been more support.

But because people started on the no side, the council and scientist got pissed that we didn't agree and this lead to a scare tactic campaign and is the reason why they lost, not because we're uneducated, but because we're exactly the opposite.

Your views on this subject were 99% bias towards the yes case and the reason why I voted no, because you and many other failed to supply me with evidense to support your views.

Stuart Khan said...

Hello Jaun,

I’m sorry if I failed to convince you about the safety of recycled water compared to other water sources. I did my best to provide you with accurate information where you have asked for it, but you have made it clear that ‘my best’ was not good enough. Some things can simply not be ‘proved’ in the way that some people expect them to be. I will try to improve my ability to communicate issues such as ‘risk’ in the future. I appreciate your frank feedback on this.

Jaun said...

Stuart, you provided enough evidence for me to agree that recycled effluent would be best for suited to water uses other then drinking or refilling a town’s dam supply.

If councils, governments and scientist just stick to that simple fact, people would be more agreeable to recycling water.

It's unfortunate, because I would have loved to see recycled water used in a proper manner, but we had no choice to vote it out.

As I mentioned, if Australia wants recycled effluent, it will have to be pushed away from DRINKING supplies and used where it should be, then it will be widely accepted, making everyone happy, there is no need to force people to accept it if used this way.

Greg said...

Well based on some of the feedback I have had and and from some of the comments left on blogs here and there I would assume that a big part of the scare campaign worked - we will run out of water and there are no other options. IMHO at least 10% of people voted yes on this misinformation alone - I could be wrong though!

mick said...

the people have spoken!!!

TCC has no one too blame but it self! I don't really think it was scare mongering that cause the no vote. It was the lies that the yes campainge went on about.

the no vote has saved the citizens toowoomba from being lab rats!! "f you don't like the result! buy a bottle of that singapore water thorley is always drinking!! (sounds better then " If you don't wam't too drink it buy bottle water!!) It's stupid little things like this that wrecked it for them. me? I'm glad i voted no. I'm on a winning side for a change!!

W.F. Blog said...

PART II SCARE CAMPAIGN FOR DAM WATER: Drowning farmers. Dead Koalas, Endangered species, global warming-no rain, Bob Brown doesn't like them.




PART VI SCARE CAMPAIGN FOR PIPELINES: They're really long and dark inside.

Toowoomba didn't go to a NO vote because of a scare campaign. Exit polling showed 'community consultation' and 'options' were the issues and sewage seen as an inferior source , naturally enough.

Stuart you are naughty as is so much media today trying to brand the NO vote in Toowoomba as a scare campaign.

Ask your industry to learn from the experience or they will have to repeat it elsewhere and lose again.

Stuart Khan said...

Thanks W.F. Blog,

I do agree with you. There were many more issues in Toowoomba than just the scare campaign. Many of these (but not all) were local issues and somewhat specific to this particular case. However, they are mistakes that could easily be made again in other parts of Australia.

I give the Water Futures blog a lot of credit for detailed analysis and investigation of some important technical and social issues. The wider media has overlooked many of these.

Nonetheless, I think it is undeniable that a prominent scare campaign did take place. Most of the ‘ten tips’ in this post got a good run on your own blog (increasing during the final week). Perhaps more significantly, they got a good run in some State and National newspapers. I understand that they provide good fodder for newspapers, but I think it is important that such campaigns be shown up for what they are.

I have read a lot of media today and agree that the issues have been described in a very superficial way. This needs to be more widely addressed and I do plan to do what I can to further this goal. There are two important reasons for this. One is to help people see that the decision made by Toowoomba residents is not necessarily as irrational as is currently being portrayed in the media. The other is to make it clear that planned potable water recycling was not rejected simply because there is something fundamentally wrong with the concept. Issues of community empowerment, trust, and due consideration of all options were arguably more significant for many voters.

My ability to spread these messages is somewhat limited (I’m really not a part of any “industry” as you suggest, -I am a university-based researcher). I know that you have referred to it as ‘trite’, but I have previously tried to identify the scope of issues on this blog. I plan to post a more detailed post-poll analysis here soon. This will be a sincere and honest attempt to identify the shortcomings of the ‘Yes’ campaign. I have also been invited to speak at a forum in Sydney next month, and this will be a good opportunity for me to relay these lessons to a wider “industry” audience. Furthermore, I am involved in organising a major water recycling conference in 2007 at which issues such as ‘community participation in decision making’ will feature prominently. I am quite committed to dealing with these issues and helping Australian decision makers to get them right.

Jaun said...

Well Stuart, good luck.

Remember what has happened here, and make sure you make it better to educate people with FACTS and back them up with PROOF, not lies.

Nat said...


You can't run a decent scare campaign without even mentioning DECREASING SPERM COUNTS!!


mick said...

I wish you luck as well stuart. make sure that you don't use any of the following quotes

"If you don't like it drink bottled water"

and the all time faviorte!!

"there are no other options"

I don't think you would thou!!!

(it was ment as a sarcastic joke)

Stuart Khan said...


Good advice indeed!


Stuart Khan said...

Mr Springborg gives Tip No 9 a run

An AAP wire went out today as (partially) reproduced below. After almost unanimously lambasting Toowoomba today for submitting to a scare campaign, I’ll be interested to see which papers (if any) run the story tomorrow…

Recycled water 'can change fish sex'
By Paul Osborne
Recycled water can turn male fish into females, according to Queensland Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg.
Mr Springborg cited what he said was research detailing the sex change powers of recycled water when questioned on why he did not support plans to use purified recycled water for drinking.
Mr Springborg said studies had shown high levels of the female sex hormone oestrogen in recycled water, which impacted on animal life and potentially humans.
"There's quite a significant amount of research with regards to hormones and the effect that is having on the feminisation of fish and other animals that actually drink water, and potentially humans as well," Mr Springborg said.

Stuart Khan said...

Doh! The Courier Mail already has!

The paper managed to take it one step further to suggest that Springborg is suggesting that recycled water may change the sex of humans:

Reused water 'may alter sex'

“RECYCLED water changes the sex of fish and could have similar effects on humans, according to Queensland Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg.”

Scare-campaign journalism at its best...a great contribution to a better informed community. Fortunately the reader’s comments gave it the response it deserved (though the readers were unaware of the newspaper's mischievous modifications).

Greg said...

My reply in the comments section was -
Amazing how many of you people got sucked in. Springborg didn't say it could change the sex of humans or anything like that. Don't some of you people have TV or do you just believe everything you read in a newspaper article! Shame on you Courier Mail or was it an honest mistake?
Lets see if they publish that hey!

Stuart Khan said...

Good on you Greg. I also sent it to Media Watch. Apart from trying to create hysteria in the community, I think it’s a pretty cruel attempt to make Springborg look as ridiculous as possible.

Stuart Khan said...

The Sydney Morning Herald puts it more bluntly…

Lawrence Springborg, the Queensland Opposition Leader with a fine appreciation of the hermaphroditic side of politics, yesterday made the startling claim that recycled water could turn men into women.

He said towns like Toowoomba were right not to vote for recycled water because scientific studies of fish had shown that waste water, even when cleaned up, was a sex-change agent.

"There's quite a significant amount of research with regards to hormones and the effect that is having on the feminisation of fish and other animals that actually drink water, and potentially humans as well," Springborg said.

He continued in a fishy vein, attacking Peter Beattie's plan to hold a referendum on recycled water in 2008. The Premier "has been totally inconsistent - just flip-flopping around on water and water is far too important to flip-flop around".

It was also reported (slightly more reasonably) by the Australian and SBS. The Brisbane scare campaign is undeniably well underway.

Stuart Khan said...

Well, I take back what I said about the Australian. They obviously realised that there was a more alarmist way to report the story and have now joined the club…

Threat of sex-change sewage

PEOPLE should not be forced to risk "feminisation" by drinking recycled sewage, says Queensland Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg.

Outlining the case against treated effluent being added to southeast Queensland's water supply, Mr Springborg said he was concerned that hormones left in the water could cause "changes to the basic metabolism of species".

"There are unanswered questions about it," Mr Springborg said. "This is particularly with female hormones, both artificial and also natural ... Research into hormones and the effect that is having on the feminisation of fish and other animals that actually drink water - and also potentially humans - it is a highly emotion-charged debate.

It might be fun to document some of the most excessive components of water recycling scare campaigns over the next two years. This current episode will be hard to match, but I’d be grateful to receive any nominations.

Anonymous said...

This just goes to prove what I have been told that the average Queenslander is practically a retard, or at the least woefully uneducated but still consider themselves an expert on any subject.
Every business I have worked for within Queensland has been at least 5 years behind it's overseas counterparts, and insist on reinventing the wheel all the time.
Statements like 'being a test case' for recycling just prove it. There are huge numbers of people around the world drinking recycled water. It is common in major cities. Where is the experimental part? Is a technology invalid unless it has already been used in Queensland?
I can see why politicians are cutting funding for education. Stupid and uneducated voters are much easier to manipulate.

Greg said...

Boy I get tired of some of the spiteful lame brain comments coming from people! A bit like our Mayor! Since when has indirect potable reuse been a technology?

Stuart Khan said...

I agree Greg,

I seriously thought about deleting this comment. However, I decided that since I have never deleted one before, I wouldn't start now. I am aware that it does pro-potable recyclers no favours whatsoever. I trust that I do not need to tell you that I don't share these views.

Stuart Khan said...

Springborg passes the ‘scare campaign’ ball to Liberal Party candidate, Steve Dickson, who scores with this jab of aids and hepatitis (A, B, C, and D; just to be sure!). From the Australian today:

"TOOWOOMBA may have voted no to recycled water, but it's still on everyone's lips. The Liberal Party candidate for the seat of Kawana on the Sunshine Coast, Steve Dickson, reckons recycled water could spread AIDS as well as Hepatitis A, B, C and D. This spray comes after Queensland National Party leader Lawrence Springborg -- incidentally, the only political leader in Australia who believes in extra-terrestrial life and isn't scared to admit it -- said recycled water could turn male fish into females."

Stuart Khan said...

John Howard comments on Toowoomba "scare campaign". Perhaps he should have a quiet word to some of his coalition colleagues in Brisbane.

Recycle water now, says PM

THE Queensland Government should move to introduce recycled water immediately rather than wait for a referendum, Prime Minister John Howard said today.

Premier Peter Beattie has proposed a referendum on drinking purified recycled water for March 2008.

The move came after more than 61 per cent of residents of the drought-stricken Darling Downs city of Toowoomba rejected on Saturday a referendum proposing the recycling of sewage for drinking water.

Mr Howard said today nationwide action was needed on recycling.

"I think that the debate would have moved on and it should have moved on before 2008," Mr Howard said in Brisbane.

"The country needs to face the need to change its attitude and its habits in relation to water.

"I think state governments have been too slow to build new dams and that is not only here in Queensland but around Australia.

"I think we have to face the need to recycle water in the big cities like Sydney and also to capture the runoff when there's storms."

Mr Howard said that if he was a Toowoomba resident he would have voted for recycled water.

He said the failure of the referendum might have been due to a scare campaign.

mick said...

well guess what mr howard if you are reading this. you ARE NOT a toowoomba resident!! just because you wanted to vote yes doesn't mean we all have too!!

Scare campaign! the only scare campaign is the aftermath of this referendum!! I think anyone who is egging on the toowoomba outcome should have a good look at themselves! It's people like this is what is screwing it up for recycling water! you are slowly killing it! I mean it is discracefull. people are still going on like complete utter idiots after it all ended on saturday!! with comments in the media as "toowoomba should of voted yes" can't you see this community has been hurt enough with this debate!!" I just wish the pollies would realise you are going too TEAR THIS NATION APART BY FORCING PEOPLE TOO RECYCLE SEWAGE FOR DRINKING!! Learn from toowoomba not antaganise it anymore! do some reasearch like most people who have posted on this site before you make your desision on it! I was concerened about the long term effects of a 25% effulent mix so that is why i voted no. My opion is as valid as the next man! Do not label people who voted no as stupid! We did our reasearch before voting! how about you? inform the community! don't say we have too do this and that!! people do not like being told what to do! the want options and open disscusions not lies!!

Jaun said...

This is just killing me. Why has everyone blown this issue to high heaven, it's only water, not the end of the earth.

Man has survived for 1000's of years, we're not going to die out because some dams dry up or we dam up a river, for Christ sake, get on with what needs to be done, and do it.

Spreading propaganda like men will grow tits is just something for the media to make people buy the paper, or watch 7 news, the media is just that, the media, it's not always true, and can't always be controlled.

If I said Donald Duck was coming to town naked, the media would be the first ones in, they are like flies on shit, get off I was here first.

Everyone needs to start looking forward instead of backward, learn and live.

Greg said...

Well the scare campaign certainly worked in the yes favor Mr Howard. We will run out of water, we cannnot have another dam, there are no other options and then when there was they were too expensive and environmentally unfriendly and our dam water is already crap and the artesion water is drying up. Top that off with global climate change, perpetual drought, legacy for our children and grandchildren, blah blah, and you have some pretty good scare tactics for voting yes!

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