On 21st September 2016 a debate was held in the Department of Communication of the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain) to discuss vivisection. Two teams were faced for this purpose. The defenders of vivisection were a philosopher and a public relations executive from the European Animal Research Association (EARA the largest European lobby protecting the interests of organizations using animals in research in Europe). Against vivisection, two vegan philosophers confronted them. Interestingly, towards the end of the debate, the industry representative (a former vivisector herself) pronounced an embarrassing “I’m not ethic”.
What she clearly wanted to say was that she was not “an ethicist” (and thus could not counter argue the philosophers in their terms), yet for many the mistake could easily be interpreted as the subconscious betraying her. Probably because of this slip-up, she lost her composure short after and decided to attack her opponents with ad hominem arguments, the dirtiest tactic possible when debating. Hence, as an answer to a clear and concise explanation by one of the members of the team against vivisection, she stated “It is clear that you are not a researcher”, suggesting that her opponent could not understand the topic because he was not a genuine researcher. Ad hominem arguments are always logical fallacies. Usually brought up as ultimate last resort, they consist of calling personal discredit on the person making the argument with unrelated claims on them, rather than refuting the argument itself. The type of personal attack chosen by the PR was, furthermore, a highly representative example of the speciesist dualistic conception the industry disseminates: true researchers are the ones doing vivisection. But philosophers, and particularly ethicists, are also researchers: they investigate not nerves, fluids or cells – but the nature of existence, of truth, of rightness. Yet this was absolutely disregarded by the industry’s representatives.1
The above example does not represent two isolated arguments in the European vivisection discourse, but actually two key messages in the consistent and homogeneous narrative of the industry worldwide. The relevance of these two messages is confirmed by the findings of a research conducted on the discourse of the vivisection industrial complex (defined as businesses that directly or indirectly conduct or support experiments with animals) in 2015 by Natalie Khazaal and myself.2 This revealed two core ideas promoted by the industry: First, although ethics must be somehow addressed in order to exhibit that the vivisection industry is sensitive, the main point in animal experimentation should not be ethics but human health and human “progress” in general. Second, serious science can only be conducted experimenting with other animals, if someone is not tough enough to resist human progress she better devote herself to other issues and let scientists do their job.
The extremist shift in the industry’s narrative in the EU
It is commonly said that the European Union has the world’s strictest regulations in animal testing – which demand the application of the 3Rs principle3 for diminishing animal suffering, has already banned animal testing for cosmetics, and even explicitly mentions that phasing out animal testing is the future goal. This is enshrined in the EU Directive 2010/63/EU (Protection of Animals Used for Scientific Purposes, art. 10).4 The European region also seemed to be a less aggressive battlefield for animal rights compared to the U.S., where a criminalization narrative of anti-vivisectors and animal rights activists in general has been belligerently and consistently spread by lobbies in the last decades – what Delgandio and Nocella called the terrorization of dissent.5 These differences are well illustrated in the most important recent related regulations in both regions.
The 2006 U.S. Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) was legislation pushed by the industry as a reaction to animal rights activism, and as a regulation explicitly protecting the industry from them. This law criminalizes in unprecedented ways non-violent activism in defense of nonhumans and humans, while protecting the interests of the global animal industrial complex. It was adopted after relentless public relations and lobby campaign in which the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), a corporate front group representing around 300 institutions involved in animal research, was instrumental to secure it. On the other hand, Directive 2010/63/EU was promoted to “reduce suffering” on animals in experiments and, as mentioned above, its ultimate stated aim (in theory) is to replace animals in research. Whereas AETA’s adoption was promoted and celebrated by the U.S. industry, the EU Directive was triggered by the increasing public concern on the cruelty involved in vivisection and produced a great distress in the European industry.
Those regional differences may be currently blurring, however, since the very small yet meaningful achievements reached in the EU have also promoted a radical shift in the European context. Directive 2010/63/EU actually represented a turning point in the industry’ public relations and lobbying strategy.
Directive 2010/63/EU was struggling in the political arena for two years before being passed. The tentative language of the EU Directive, introduced in the 2008 European Commission’s draft, was strongly criticized by the biomedical research industry because the draft placed tight restrictions on issues like invasive studies using primates.6 Due to the industry’s opposition, the European Parliament approved a 2010 version that watered down the original draft.7 Members of Parliament criticized the interactions between lobbyists and legislators that took place between the introduction of the 2008 draft and the altered 2010 version as “excessive lobbying” by the drug industry.8 The industry, in short, fiercely counter-lobbied the activists, lawmakers, and a number of scientists.
Certainly, until 2008 the vivisection industrial complex was already a powerful lobby in the EU. Yet the terrorization of dissent was absent in the European vivisection industry’s discourse and strategies. However, the passing of the Directive 2010/63/EU and the increasing opposition of public opinion, stirred the industry toward more aggressive tactics. The main difference since then has been the use of more belligerent information platforms – or think tanks – to generate often self-serving data to feed to policy makers, journalists and to feed public opinion in general. This was a common strategy in the US long before 2008, but new for the European region.
Organization was swift: up to four lobby platforms appeared between 2008 and 2011 to promote animal testing in Europe. Although all of them are carefully promoted as international platforms, they are the product of the European animal laboratory business – particularly the European Animal Research Association (EARA that participated in the debate mentioned at the beginning of this paper), and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA). These platforms emulate the US template used to steamroll compassion in the US. They include undrestandinganimalresearch.org.uk (UAR), animalresearch.info (AR), animalrightsextremism.info (ARE) and animaltestingperspectives.org (ATP) – the first three promoted by EARA and the latter by EFPIA.
UAR, AR, ARE and ATP all share a common goal: to promote the “understanding and acceptance” of the use of animals in research and to confront “animal rights extremism”. Particularly, the UAR, AR and ARE replicate the radical strategy of U.S. lobbies based on (1) repeating the message that animal research has been and continues to be essential for all key medical discoveries – and thus it is an issue of human progress – and (2) connecting “antivivisection”, “animal rights” and “animal activists” with “extremism” – and thus associating such activism with violence and against human progress, rather to the compassionate and rational arguments behind the movement. The websites’ discourse reinforce this by labelling activists actions as “criminal acts” and vivisection practitioners as “victims”. Of course, such narratives conceal the fact that the overwhelming majority of animal rights activism is pacifist and ethically grounded, that the destruction of property or use of firearms is only anecdotal, and personal injuries have been totally absent of the animal rights movement’s strategies. This also conceals the fact that a large amount of experimentation with animals has no direct benefits for human health and that, for the ones that have, in many cases already have effective alternatives without animals. Overwhelmingly concealed is the fact that a large amount of the physical and psychological suffering produced by these “victims” is solely produced because of tradition and money – that is, because of the scientific inertia and the pressure of the providers and breeders of animals and animal testing services, a huge business.
The emergence of this more violent discourse has not obliterated the usual more moderate European approach like the one still deployed by EFPIA’s ATP, yet it represents the adoption in the EU region of the most aggressive US public relations and lobby techniques.
Reinforcing the compassionate narrative delusion through discourse coalition
The more advanced EU regulation reveals, nevertheless, what still might be a distinctive EU trait: the reinforcement of a compassionate narrative to support and perpetuate vivisection.
Although it is common everywhere, including the US, the discourse of “we do care for animals” is very loud in the European region – in the above-mentioned platforms, the industry’s public statements and self-regulation, and the EU regulation. It is actually the main argument of recent industry agreements produced as a response to the public outcry against animal research, such as the 2014 United Kingdom’s Concordat on Openness on Animal Research9 that has inspired other similar national agreements, or the 2016 Spanish Agreement on Transparency on the use of animals in scientific research.10 Signed by the most important biomedical research funders, major pharmaceutical companies and largest research universities and medical charities, these agreements try to counterbalance the increasing public opposition to animal testing and are based in the “we do care” strategy. The industry acknowledges the “interest” of the animals and includes self-imposed, non-binding regulation for more openness and transparency.
The industry’s strategy, of course, is simply a masquerade of care.11 Even from a narrow PR perspective, the main arguments are centered on a delusion: that there is not a higher support for vivisection amongst public opinion because the public lacks information – when it is precisely the increase of information available to the public that is the trigger for the growing public concern and awareness. The vast level of secrecy still in place around animal testing supports this statement. This veil of secrecy shrouds painful and unscientific animal testing from public view. The public outcry is not only for uncovering this veil, but mostly for removing the need of any veil at all. The outcry is thus not truly for more transparency, but for less – or no – animal suffering.
Yet this strategy has proven effective, as it can also be seen in the EU regulation, in spite of this more restrictive approach. To illustrate this we can simply check the arguments used by the European Commission to justify its rejection of a 1.2 million signatures petition12 to stop vivisection in the EU and promote the adoption of a new legislative framework that effectively phases out animal experiments in the EU. The Commission’s authorities asserted in the answer that phasing out animal testing was their future goal but denied the possibility of a ban at the moment. Their arguments and words exactly mirror the industry’s list of claims: animal welfare is a limited goal that must be balanced against human interests; despite progress in the development of alternative approaches, replacing animal research is currently impossible; and animal research is central to the development of effective and safe medical treatments. The similitude of arguments between the industry and the European Commission is no coincidence. The Commission even referenced the webpage of the largest industry’s lobby, the European Animal Research Association (EARA), to support its statement –showing, therefore, how much interest groups have been able to penetrate the political sphere.
The narrative of care, conducted by mimicking the language of animal welfare and actually used by the industry to obstruct public’s compassion, has been very effectively promoted by means of the creation of a homogeneous global discourse by the industry’s interest groups – a sort of discourse coalition that in this case is promoted by the EU in opposition to the US promotion of the extremist discourse.
One of the most experienced researchers on discourse coalitions, Dieter Plehwe, a German political scientist at the Science Center Berlin for Social Research, defines discourse coalitions as “social forces acting jointly, though not necessarily in direct interaction, in pursuit of a common goal”.13 By studying these social forces, including lobbies and think tanks, Plehwe and other authors have described the national and transnational networks of interest groups, institutionalized actor constellations and power relations behind the neoliberal and climate change discourse coalition at large.14 The study of the discourse coalition in the vivisection industrial complex can have a similar outcome and help understand their enormous influence on policy makers and public opinion. Of course, the vivisection industrial complex is big business, yet the business alone – and particularly a business increasingly seen as based upon such abject cruelty – is not the single explanation for their huge impact on politics. Public relations, and particularly the role of interest groups, play a big role in it.
Unquestionably, the role of lobbies and think tanks in promoting the speciesist discourse in Western societies is one of the most un-researched fields. Of course, the use of interest groups, and more particularly of think tanks, to shape mainstream discourse is not at all new. To pay attention at the most successful cases of discourse dissemination by means of interest groups is actually very illustrating. The best examples of successful interest coalitions in the past are tobacco defenders, climate change deniers, and promoters of neoliberalism. In all these cases, interest groups have been able to disseminate a narrative that, regardless of its fraudulent grounding, have managed to establish as mainstream for some time. Furthermore, the three aforementioned cases share a common storyline: to sow doubt. That is, extraordinary efforts have been made in science lobbying by what Oreskes and Conway call “merchants of doubt” – institutes funded by the industry and devoted to maintaining controversy and keeping “debate” alive on claims contrary to most scientific evidence – and ethics.15 With the complicity of the media, the result is the social perception that there is no real consensus in science (and thus that the wisest thing is to do nothing concerning regulatory issues or habits).
In all these cases16 we see how the successful shaping of social perceptions is very much linked to specific advocacy strategies like the scientific claims made by the interests groups, the use of professional lobbying, and elites’ revolving doors. In particular, direct lobbying has evolved to include a wide variety of forms, among which we find the use of think tanks’ policy and research institutes.
In the case neoliberalism discourses, we already know how policy makers and financial elites cooperate internationally, sharing a broad consensus in their choices and demonstrating that their agenda and storylines are consistent worldwide. This discourse consistency has been proven to receive much support in the form of dissemination by the mainstream media.17 The strength of the neoliberal discourse was based on the well-developed and deeply entrenched networks of neoliberal knowledge production and diffusion – intellectuals and think tanks – which are able to articulate the core principles of neoliberalism in a cross-disciplinary fashion not only in the sphere of policy but also in civil society.18
Plehwe has produced similar results on the battle over climate change policy agendas. He states as a summary of his work:
The large number of think tanks and think tank networks involved in climate change policy skepticism can be considered central in this regard. Such networks are designed to promote or to disrupt political discourse. Although many individual think tanks and network relationships do not give cause for particular concern, the combination of powerful expert, consulting and lobby/advocacy capacities that rely on organized think tank infrastructures implies a growing need for closer attention to think tank models in public policy analysis. A new approach to think tank network studies will be useful to develop an agenda for a second generation of cooperative transnational think tank studies capable of engaging with the cross- border dimensions of the knowledge–interest nexus of ideas and orientations.19
The strategy pursued by the vivisection industrial complex fits into the traditional use of interest groups by tobacco defenders, neoliberalism promoters and climate change deniers: on the one hand, stepping up lobbying efforts to protect its interests by blocking animal welfare regulation and vilifying animal rights advocates, and on the other adopting an animal welfare narrative to demonstrate that it cares for animals and heeds ethical concerns. Both strategies are pursued not only through classical lobbying but with the help of industry-funded think tanks that sow doubt on the idea of having a future free of animal suffering and cages in laboratories thanks to cruelty-free alternative methods.
Pulling out all the stops
The current public relations and lobby strategy of the vivisection industrial complex in the EU illustrates a strategy of pulling out all the stops. The industry seems to be heavily investing in all the possible strategies available. But what it is strategically expedient can also be very dangerous because it can involve contradictory actions. And certainly this is the case. On one hand, the most aggressive tactics are followed: the criminalization of individuals and communities using rational ethical arguments to defend the right of other animals not to be used in laboratories. On the other, the discourse of care that mimics the compassionate and rational arguments of the same criminalized public is also strongly disseminated. It certainly looks like a desperate attempt. And, in spite of the belligerence of the former and the hypocrisy of the later, it also certainly looks as sign of weakness.
Both strategies are very much coordinated under the umbrella of the new generation of cooperative transnational knowledge manufacturing which is building consistent storylines across the industry and, consequently, across politics and the media. Certainly, the terrorization of dissent imported to the EU may be seen as a threat to the more moderate European approach. Yet the EU approach –probably exported outwards– can also be seen as mere propaganda perpetuating the core speciesist ideology that prevents change. I can’t produce any robust response to the question regarding which strategy is dominant in the EU at present, whether the aggressive or the propaganda one regarding their outcomes. Both complement each other and that both are the frantic reaction of the industry with respect to the increasing politicization of antivivisection advocacy.
The industry, in spite of all their economic strength and their huge capacity of political influence, is not only adapting to animal liberation organization in the case of animals in vivisection but tacitly acknowledging the irreversibility of the shift in public opinion around these questions. Feeling forced into a corner, it is pulling out all the stops to keep business as usual to continue profiting from it and following the path of other industrial coalitions with the strategy of sowing doubt as to the chances of a future with zero animal use in laboratories. And certainly they will continue for a while. But it is only a matter of time that it realizes – or it is forced to realize – that true modern science is a science without cages nor torture for anyone, regardless the species.
To speed up the industry’s inescapable shift, activists may help unveiling the real nature of the think tanks funded by the industry or interlinked with them, and the secret work of lobbies in promoting or disrupting political discourse and social perceptions. The entrenched networks of neoliberal knowledge production and diffusion are also very much intertwined with the interests of the vivisection industrial complex – with the financialization of corporations and the intersectionalities of oppressing businesses. And perhaps we should in a sense copy them in the articulation of a globally consistent discourse and the building of interest networks and coalitions –in this case for ethical reasons.
- The debate (¿Está justificado el uso de animales en experimentación científica? [Is animal testing justified for scientific research?]) was organized by Regueifas de Ciencia and can be watched here (in Spanish): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2O-ku7alJw
- Almiron, Núria & Khazaal, Natalie (2016). Lobbying Against Compassion: Speciesist Discourse in the Vivisection Industrial Complex. American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 60(3) 256–275.
- The 3Rs principle promotes methods that Replace (i.e., avoid or replace the use of animals), Reduce (i.e., minimize the number of animals per experiment), and Refine (i.e., minimize suffering and improve animal welfare).
- Del Gandio, J., & Nocella, A., II. (Eds.) (2014) The terrorization of dissent: Corporate repression, legal corruption, and the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. New York, NY: Lantern Books.
- Editorial: European scientists who support neuroscience research on primates should tell their politicians why. (2008). Nature, 456, 281-282.
- Abbot, A. (2010). Lab-animal battle reaches truce. Nature, 464, 964.
- Harrison, P. (2009, February 24). Politician makes protest in EU’s “Great Apes Debate.” Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/02/24/eu-research-animals- idUSLN70970520090224
- UAR. (2014). Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK. London: Understanding Animal Research. Retrieved from http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/policy/concordat- openness-animal-research/
- COSCE (2016). Acuerdo de transparencia sobre el uso de animales en experimentación científica en España. Madrid: Confederación de sociedades científicas de España. Retrieved from http://www.cosce.org/pdf/Acuerdo_Transparencia_COSCE_2016.pdf
- Almiron, Núria & Khazaal, Natalie (2016). Lobbying Against Compassion: Speciesist Discourse in the Vivisection Industrial Complex. American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 60(3) 256–275.
- Plehwe, Dieter (2011). Transnational discourse coalitions and monetary policy: Argentina and the limited powers of the “Washington Consensus.” Critical Policy Studies, 5, 130.
- Plehwe, Dieter & Walpen, Bernhard (2006). Between network and complex organization: The making of neoliberal knowledge and hegemony. In Dieter Plehwe, Bernhard Walpen, & Gisela Neunhöffer (Eds.), Neoliberal hegemony: A global critique (pp. 27-50). London, England: Routledge. See also Plehwe, Dieter (2014). Think tank networks and the knowledge-interest nexus: The case of climate change. Critical Policy Studies, 8, 101-115, & Plehwe, Dieter (2011). Transnational discourse coalitions and monetary policy: Argentina and the limited powers of the “Washington Consensus.” Critical Policy Studies, 5, 127-148.
- Oreskes, N., and Conway, E. M. (2010). Merchants of doubt. London: Bloomsbury
- Almiron, Núria (2016). Favouring the Elites. Think Tanks, Interest Coalitions, and the political economy of communication. Paper presented at IAMCR 2016 in the Panel “Growing Economic Inequality and Mediated Communication”, Leicester, United Kingdom.
- Davis, Aeron (2012). Mediation, financialization and the global financial crises: An inverted political economy perspective. In D. Winseck & D. Y. Yin (Eds.) The political economies of media: The transformation of the global media industries (pp. 241-254). London, England: Bloomsbury Academic.
- Plehwe & Walpen 2006 Op. cit.
- Plehwe, Dieter (2011). Transnational discourse coalitions and monetary policy: Argentina and the limited powers of the “Washington Consensus.” Critical Policy Studies, 5, p 101.