In a couple of weeks, residents of Berkeley, California, will decide whether or not to place a penny-an-ounce tax on sugary beverages such as sweetened teas and sodas. The beverage industry has fought off similar taxes and restrictions in every American city where they've been proposed, but it has never faced a more formidable challenge than it does in this overwhelmingly liberal and well-educated college town.
The soda fight is, if nothing else, a case study in whether truckloads of cash can sway a politically engaged citizenry.
Early polls show almost two-thirds of Berkeley residents favoring the tax proposal, known as Measure D. If Big Soda can defeat a tax here, the thinking goes, it can defeat one anywhere. Yet if the industry loses, the momentum could swing to the nutritionists and health advocates who've argued for years that sugar-packed foods and sugary drinks are the smoking guns in our diabetes and obesity epidemics—despite decades of campaigning by the sugar industry to make us believe otherwise. (A new study suggests that drinking a 20-ounce soda daily can age your cells as much as smoking does.)
To date, beverage companies have poured an astounding $1.7 million into derailing this small-city measure, more than $21 per registered voter. With No on D ads flooding local TV and radio broadcasts, newspapers, bus stops, light-rail stations, and residential doorknobs—not to mention all the mailers and handouts from paid canvassers, it can feel like the whole city is under invasion by a propaganda machine. The soda fight is, if nothing else, a case study in whether truckloads of cash can sway a politically engaged citizenry.
Rather than defend the merits of sugary beverages or even question the point of taxing them, the ads seem designed to confuse voters and breed cynicism about how the money will be spent. I snapped some photos of the advertising around town and asked the measure's outgunned campaign to respond to some of the claims.
Bus stop, Telegraph and Ashby avenues.
Anti-Measure D ads appear on numerous Berkeley bus shelters. Clear Channel Outdoor, which handles the advertising did not return a call seeking information about their cost and placement.
Detail from a similar ad at the North Berkeley BART station.
According to Sara Soka, the campaign manager for Berkeley vs. Big Soda, as the pro-D campaign is known, milk products and 100% fruit juice were exempted due to their nutritional value. Soda, on the other hand, is just empty calories. "It's not like kids are walking around and drinking milkshakes," Soka says. Liquid sweeteners added to coffee drinks are taxed. Alcohol is exempted because it's already taxed. Diet drinks, while not exactly good for you, also aren't strongly linked to diabetes or obesity.
Two of Berkeley's three BART stations, I discovered, were awash with ads opposing the measure. According to Berkeleyside, a local news site, the No campaign has spent $46,750 on the BART ads alone. Here are more shots at the North Berkeley station.
Outside of the station, I ran into these paid canvassers, who hightailed it once I told them I was a reporter and started snapping some photos. (They said they weren't allowed to talk to the media.)
But before I outed myself as a reporter, I wanted to hear their pitch to voters firsthand. Here's a short clip from my chat with one canvasser. (The background music is coming from his cell phone).
One of the reasons he said I should vote against the measure—I'm actually an Oakland resident, so I can't vote on it either way—is that it would hurt local businesses and the poor. Now it's conceivable that someone going on a big soda run might pop over the border to avoid the tax, but it's hard to imagine that anyone grabbing a drink at the local convenience store would bother.
As for whether the tax would hurt the poor, Soka of Berkeley vs. Big soda argues that the tax was in fact designed to help low-income people by reducing the obesity epidemic that disproportionately affects the poor and people of color. And while some people may not like the nanny-state aspect of that, Measure D has been endorsed by the NAACP and Latinos Unidos. If the measure's opponents "were truly concerned about communities of color or low-income communities," Soka said, "they would stop using them as a target."
Here are some flyers the canvassers were handing out:
Front and back.
The fairness factor is always a nice argument. The irony, though, is that soda interests used nearly the opposite critique to defeat a soda-tax proposal in nearby Richmond two years ago. The wording of the Richmond proposal did not explicitly exclude certain beverages, such as soy milk and baby formula. So "they immediately attacked us saying that we were going to tax that," recalls Jeff Ritterman, who led the Richmond effort. And although the city attorney clarified that the tax would indeed exempt those drinks, the industry's campaign firm kept using the bogus claims, right up through Election Day.
Over at the Ashby BART station, which was covered completely in anti-Measure D ads, I encountered still more canvassers.
Courtesy Berkeley vs Big Soda
A canvasser at the Ashby station.
They were handing out the following leaflet...
Berkeleyside has found it necessary to respond to the prominent use of its logo: "Many Berkeley residents have been confused by that literature, and have asked Berkeleyside whether the news site has taken a position to oppose Measure D," the publication noted in an article about the flyers. "Berkeleyside does not take editorial positions. The flyer is a production of the No on Measure D campaign."
In fact, most of the relevant op-eds on the site support Measure D. But Big Soda has spent almost $10,000 placing ads on Berkeleyside, and tens of thousands more on similar ads in most local publications. Here's a two-page spread in the East Bay Express, which also has covered the fight.
The measure's opponents have also spent at least $327,000 running this TV ad on at least two local stations:
The argument about the tax receipts going into Berkeley's general fund instead of being earmarked for, say, nutrition programs—a pitch I also heard from the canvasser—is misleading at best, the soda-tax proponents say. There's a reason it's not earmarked: Under California law, you need a two-thirds majority to pass a local ordinance that earmarks tax money for a specific use. (One reason why a similar proposal in San Francisco is far less likely to pass.) Measure D, Soka informs me, would direct the Berkeley City Council to appoint a panel of experts with backgrounds in nutrition and education to determine how to spend the money. And it's almost a given that the cash would go toward health and education programs for low-income communities.
Even if they don't watch TV, use public transit, or read local newspapers, Berkeleyans can hardly avoid these:
A doorknob hanger.
Foes of the Measure D also have done at least seven mass mailings, defined as mailings targeting more than 200 households. Here's one mailer:
The opinion of a Berkeley resident—who happens to profit from sugary drinks.
The White Pages doesn't show anybody named Masanoni Yasumagn living in Berkeley. But they do list a very similarly named resident, Masanori Yasunaga, who happens to be the CEO of Calbee, Inc.—the "second largest snack company in the world."
Here's another mailer. What is this woman thinking? If she were an actual Berkeley resident, she might be wondering why she's getting so many anti-Measure D mailers.
Or rather, read the soda industry's annotated version.
Until recently, there were a lot more signs around town like the one below. But that was before the city sent out two letters warning the campaigns that it's illegal to place yard signs on public property. Now No on D yard signs can only be found in actual yards—which is to say, not many can be found. After driving all over town one morning, this was the only one I saw, and only after I asked Sara Soka where I might find one.
A rare sighting of a No on D yard sign in an actual yard.
Video game critic and feminist author Anita Sarkeesian canceled a speaking engagement at Utah State University on Tuesday after an email from an unknown source promised "the deadliest school shooting in American history" and threatened that Sarkeesian would "die screaming like the craven little whore that she is if you let her come to USU." Sarkeesian is the creator of an online video series that critiques mainstream video games for misogyny; she has long been the target of violent threats from online trolls. Despite that Sarkeesian had every reason to be concerned about the specter of vicious misogyny mixed with guns, USU officials said that under state law concealed weapons could not be barred from the event. She blasted the university late Wednesday for how it handled the situation:
USU acted irresponsibly. They did not even inform me of the threat. I learned about it via news stories on Twitter after I landed in Utah.
Sarkeesian noted recently that she has been "subjected to the worst harassment I've ever faced" as part of a convoluted conflict known as #Gamergate, which has been roiling the gaming industry since August. Playing out primarily on social media, #Gamergate centers around several women who work in the industry and have criticized its dominant macho culture and frequent sexualization of women. Their critique has met with intense harassment and bullying. The FBI is currently investigating the threats against Sarkeesian and others, according to Vice.
On one level, #Gamergate is an internal squabble between ideologically opposed factions within the gaming world. But now, disturbing developments such as Sarkeesian's canceled appearance reflect how the controversy has blown up beyond the familiar trappings of online nastiness and spilled into real life—with serious consequences. At least two women involved in #Gamergate have said that they had to flee their homes, fearing for their safety. Kyle Wagner at Deadspinsuggests that #Gamergate may be no less than "the future of grievance politics as they will be carried out by people who grew up online."
So what is #Gamergate and how did this all start?
#Gamergate is essentially an escalating fight about the direction of gaming culture. It pits a group of feminists and their supporters—who advocate for expanding beyond the testosterone-fueled games that dominate the industry—against a vocal faction that is openly hostile toward their views. The conflict first blew up in August after a programmer named Eron Gonji wrote a revenge post about his breakup with developer Zoe Quinn, the creator of Depression Quest, a critically acclaimed game whose purpose is to illustrate the challenges of coping with depression.
The post implied Quinn had a romantic relationship with a writer for Kotaku, the gaming site run by Gawker Media, supposedly to receive favorable coverage of Depression Quest. In fact, Kotaku never reviewed the game, but nasty attacks against Quinn—including the circulation of nude photos, death threats, and rape threats—quickly flooded sites like Reddit and 4chan. Sarkeesian experienced similar threats just a few days later, after publishing a new video in her series on women and gaming. Brianna Wu, a developer behind a game with all female lead characters, has written about harassment of women in the industry; she received a series of graphic death threats last week after sharing a meme making fun of #Gamergate. She said she had to flee her home as a result.
"Ordinarily, I develop videogames with female characters that aren't girlfriends, bimbos and sidekicks," she wrote. "I am a software engineer, a popular public speaker and an expert in the Unreal engine. Today, I'm being targeted by a delusional mob." That's the tame part: "They threatened the wrong woman this time. I am the Godzilla of bitches. I have a backbone of pure adamantium, and I'm sick of seeing them abuse my friends."
Who is responsible for all this nastiness?
It's hard to say: Most of the viciousness comes from anonymous trolls. However, a couple of particular players have helped inflame the situation:
Adam Baldwin, perhaps best known for portraying paranoid mercenary Jayne Cobb in Firefly and for voicing strident political views on social media, chimed in:
Patterns of Failure: #GunGrabbers exploit dead children to advance their political agenda. Anti- #GamerGate’rs exploit anon-troll threats.
Milo Yiannopoulos, associate editor at Breitbart.com, also helped fuel the haters with a blog post in which he declared "an army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners, abetted by achingly politically correct American tech bloggers, are terrorising the entire community."
What's the deal with those strange hashtags and other terms?
Here's a quick primer:
8chan: A site that allows anyone to anonymously create their own message board. Threads related to #Gamergate originally sprung up on 4chan, but were banned for breaking the site's policy on distributing personal information. At that point, the conversation largely moved to 8chan.
"Social justice warrior" (or SJW): A derisive term used by many in the #Gamergate crowd to describe its feminist and otherwise inclusion-minded critics. It's largely synonymous with "PC police."
#NotYourShield: A Twitter hashtag used to point out that not all #Gamergate supporters are white and/or male. It's been used by women and people of color sympathetic to the cause to counter claims that the movement is inherently misogynistic or comprised solely of gaming's status quo. Some claim that many "sock puppets," or fake accounts, have been created to make the tag appear more popular than it is; there is no way to confirm or deny this.
#StopGamerGate2014: A Twitter hashtag that has garnered around 75,000 tweets since it first appeared late Tuesday night (#Gamergate has been getting around 100,000 tweets a day). It's essentially a form of counterprotest.
So what is this really all about?
#Gamergaters, as they're called, say their target isn't women but instead what they deem to be corrupt journalism. They claim the fact that a game developer like Quinn once had a romantic relationship with a writer at Kotaku is evidence that media coverage of games can be bought and sold with sexual favors. But the writer in question never reviewed Quinn's game, and nor did anyone else at Kotaku. Kotakulooked into the accusations and said it found no evidence of a conflict of interest.
#Gamergaters argue more broadly that journalists are too cozy with game developers—they fund their projects, date them, and are sometimes roommates or friends with them—which makes it impossible, they say, for gamers to trust reviews from gaming news sites. Polygon, Kotaku, and the Verge have come under attack along these lines. (You can read about their ethics policies here, here, and here.) Other #Gamergaters take issue with a growing pool of gaming writers and editors interested in issues of diversity, inclusion, sexism, and violence in video games. "Headlines are becoming less about gaming and more about mysoginy [sic], feminism, and are reduced to click-grabbing disappointments," laments one manifesto.
Meanwhile, there is an email listserv called GamingJournoPros that some industry writers use to discuss trends and new releases; its recent "discovery" by Breitbart.com has prompted additional outrage among #Gamergaters, despite that there are multitudes of such listservs in journalism. (Read more from its moderator here.) On the other hand, popular gaming critic Leigh Alexander has compiled a list of more substantive ethics issues in the trade. For instance, "One of the US's most long-running and successful print game publications is owned by one of the world's best-known game retailers, and few of the magazine's consumers seem aware of what, if any impact that relationship might have."
And if you're still wondering whether #Gamergate is about journalism ethics, read this piece from Amanda Marcotte, who calls total bullshit. (Well, "horseshit," to be precise.)
How are tech and social media companies reacting?
Intel was pulled into #Gamergate early this month when it bowed to pressure from an email blizzard by yanking it ads from Gamasutra, one of several sites that have published essays critical of rampant sexism in gamer culture. Subsequently criticized for that move, the company apologized two days later but hasn't reinstated the ads.
Though #Gamergate first caught fire on 4chan, it exploded on more mainstream social media outlets such as Reddit and Twitter, which have been criticized for providing a platform for its worst elements. On Saturday, for example, developer Brianna Wu left her home after a Twitter user sent her a string of threats including a pledge to choke her to death with her husband's penis. Though Twitter has suspended those accounts, critics argue it could do much more by, say, actively detecting hostile behavior, limiting fake accounts, and making it easier to block users. Twitter spokesman Nu Wexler referred Mother Jones to the company's user rules banning targeted abuse. He declined to say how many accounts have been suspended in relation to #Gamergate or if any have been referred to law enforcement.
On Reddit, a group devoted to #Gamergate has more than 11,000 subscribers. Many of the comments in these threads are misogynistic, and Zoe Quinn has produced logs of Reddit chatrooms that show gamers planning to hack her personal accounts. Even so, Reddit's moderators haven't shut down its main #Gamergate page. (In contrast, a #Gamergate forum on Github has been disabled by the site's staff.) "We received a number of contacts related to this issue," Reddit spokeswoman Victoria Taylor wrote in response to questions from Mother Jones. "Anything that we found or that was reported to us that broke our rules was removed and the user banned." But it seems that the fallout from #Gamergate hasn't prompted much concern or soul searching at Reddit: "We do not plan on changing any site policies due to the occurrence of this event."
How have leaders in the gaming industry responded?
Pushback on the nastiness from the world of gaming journalism has included comments from Stephen Totilo, the editor in chief of Kotaku (and #Gamergate's journalistic enemy No. 1), who published a piece criticizing the movement and its tactics:
"All of us at Kotaku condemn the sort of harassment that's being carried out against critics, developers, journalists, and other members of the gaming community. If you're someone who harasses people online, you're not a part of the community we want to foster at Kotaku, and you're actively hurting people and driving important voices away from the video game scene. Enough."
Chris Plante at Polygon, the Vox Media-owned video game site and frequent #Gamergate punching bag, scolded:
"This week, the obstinate child threw a temper tantrum, and the industry was stuck in the metaphorical grocery store as everyone was forced to suffer through it together. But unlike a child, the people behind these temper tantrums are hurting others. It's time to grow up."
"I have found a lot of the actions of self-confessed hardcore gamers horrendous, upsetting and unjustifiable over the past two weeks…I don't have a problem with the term 'gamer'…I have a problem with gamers who deny that this industry needs to improve its representation—in terms of race, gender and sexuality."
On Wednesday, the Entertainment Software Association, gaming's largest industry group, issued a short statement:
"Threats of violence and harassment are wrong…They have to stop. There is no place in the video game community—or our society—for personal attacks and threats."
"We believe that everyone, no matter what gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion or disability has the right to play games, criticize games and make games without getting harassed or threatened…If you see hateful, harassing speech, take a public stand against it and make the gaming community a more enjoyable space to be in."
The letter was signed by hundreds in the gaming community, including people from big-time studios like Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Ubisoft, and Nintendo.
From the indie community, developer Phil Fish has led the charge to defend Quinn and others:
I made a commitment very early on that I am unequivocally committed to net neutrality. I think that it is what has unleashed the power of the internet and we don't want to lose that or clog up the pipes...I know one of the things that people are most concerned about is paid prioritization, the notion that some folks can pay a little more money and get better service, more exclusive access to customers though the internet. That's something I am opposed to. I was opposed to it when I ran, I continue to be opposed to it now. Now, the FCC is an independent agency. They came out with some preliminary rules that I think the netroots and a lot of the folks in favor of net neutrality were concerned with. My appointee [to the FCC], Tom Wheeler, knows my position. I can't...call him up and tell him exactly what to do. But what I've been clear about, what the White House has been clear about, is that we expect whatever final rules to emerge to make sure that we're not creating two or three or four tiers of internet. That ends up being a big priority of mine.
Expecting the preservation of net neutrality is not the same as guaranteeing it. But this is the strongest indication yet that Obama won't allow the FCC to push through its deeply unpopular plan to limit open access to the internet.
Everybody knows that middle-class incomes have stagnated while those of the richest Americans have skyrocketed, but the trend is even more pronounced when you look at the relative fortunes of the super-duper rich. Consider the Walmart heirs: Since 1983, their net worth has increased a staggering 6,700 percent. According to a report released today by the union-backed Economic Policy Institute, here's how many American families earning the median income it would have taken to match the Waltons' wealth in a given year:
In 1983, the Walton family's net worth was $2.15 billion, equivalent to the net worth of 61,992 average American families, about the population* of...
Correction: An earlier version of this article confused families with individuals, causing an under-estimate of how many individuals' net worth would equal that of the Waltons. Population equivalents in this story are based on the size of the average American family: 2.55 individuals.
Is this the year that voters will finally insist on knowing which supermarket foods contain genetically modified organisms? Activists in Oregon say the momentum is on their side for a GMO labeling initiative on the November ballot. "The electorate in Oregon has a greater awareness of this issue than in other states," says Sandeep Kaushik, a spokesman for Yes On 92, as the initiative is known. "We are approaching a tipping point."
In 2002, Oregon became first state to try and pass a GMO labeling initiative—Measure 27 lost by a margin of more than 2 to 1. But the more recent initiatives in California and Washington suffered far narrower defeats, despite a barrage of attack ads bankrolled by biotech, grocery, and ag conglomerates. Washington's I-522, the most expensive ballot measure in state history, lost by barely 1 percent—a mere 19,000 votes.
Washington's I-522, the most expensive ballot measure in state history, lost by barely 1 percent—a mere 19,000 votes
Oregon may now be poised to finish what it started: A poll released in July by Oregon Public Broadcasting put support for GMO labeling at a whopping 77 percent. Even if it wins, Oregon probably won't be the first state to require disclosure. A labeling bill approved in April by the Vermont Legislature takes effect in 2016, assuming it doesn't get overturned by a lawsuit. Maine and Connecticut have also passed GMO labeling laws, though they're contingent upon further regional support. Such laws are common outside the United States, and this year alone, according to Slate, 25 states have proposed 67 pieces of legislation related to GMO labeling. But the Oregon prop (and possibly a similar one in Colorado) would be the first directly enacted by voters—a major PR victory for the movement against GMO foods.
Despite the unpopularity of GMOs with consumers, the debate over their health and environmental impacts is far from settled. While the commercialization of GMOs has triggered few health complaints, long-term studies on the chronic health effects of GMOs have been sparse. The makers of pest- and herbicide-resistant GMO crops claim that they've boosted yields* around the world, benefiting farmers and the poor, but GMOs have also spawned chemical resistant "superbugs" and "superweeds."
The labeling campaigns are designed to bypass the thorny scientific debate by reframing the issue around the consumer's "right to know." This idea polls extremely well with voters, but not so well that it can't be overcome by an avalanche of spending on political ads. For instance, 66 percent of Washington voters supported I-522 in the summer of 2013, yet some $22 million in spending against the measure whittled support down to 49 percent by Election Day. A similar phenomenon is under way in Oregon, where a poll released by a Portland TV station last week showed that voter support for the labeling measure has fallen to 53 percent, with 16 percent undecided.
Oregonians also will decide on a pot legalization initiative, boosting turnout by the young voters who tend to back GMO labeling
Advocates for Oregon's I-92 remain optimistic, however. While rural areas of Washington and California are strongly opposed to labeling, that's less the case so far in Oregon, where GMO contamination incidents have angered farmers and two rural counties have banned cultivation of GM crops. The Oregon measure is also well timed: Young voters, who tend to support labeling, didn't turn out to vote last year in Washington, but Oregonians will cast ballots this year on a pot legalization initiative, which is seen as a potential magnet for the non-AARP crowd. Anti-GMO activists, for the first time, are also funding a registration drive to target young voters.
For now, at least, I-92's backers have raised more money than its opponents, but nobody expects that advantage to last. In Washington, the anti-GMO crowd was outspent 3 to 1, and the chasm would have been even wider were it not for the heavy involvement of a few organics companies, notably Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, which is shoveling money at the Oregon effort.
Unlike its opponents in Big Food and Ag, Dr. Bronner's hasn't entered the fight to retain its own bottom line, at least not directly—GMOs don't play much of a role in the soap business. Yet the company has become a fascinating model for how genuine corporate activism can increase sales and create a fiercely loyal customer base, as I noted last year in a profile of David Bronner, the family business' idealistic, third-generation CEO. About half of Dr. Bronner's profits go towards activism. "If we are not maxed out and pushing our organization to the limit," he asked me at the time, "then what are we doing?"
UPDATE: Tom Philpott tells me that the claim that GMOs boost crop yields is still disputed by some scientists