04/12/2012 12:23 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2012

Money Buys a Deluge of False Information

If you are unnerved by the cascade of corporate cash flooding the country in multiple ways, imagine how much of that money is being used to disseminate lies.

It isn't just the blatant misinformation that permeates current election politicking. Corporations inform us, and deceive us, in many ways. Who can forget the operations of companies in financial services, energy, pharmaceuticals, and tobacco, to note some of the most flagrant practitioners?

No one knows when or how often company statements contain falsifications, omissions, or exaggerations. Yet they seem pervasive enough to require constant scrutiny and skepticism -- if not a deaf ear. To the ageless admonition caveat emptor could be added caveat lector and caveat auditor.

Does such distrust unfairly malign all companies and thus the entire capitalist enterprise? No, since everyone fully realizes what astonishing contributions the corporate world and its employees have made to society.

To be sure, we all live in a culture rampant with dishonesty -- tax cheating, shoplifting, plagiarizing, mortgage lending, political campaigning (think Swift Boat Veterans for Truth as a gold standard).

ut large companies are the most worrisome. Immense financial and personal stakes create compelling temptations to lie. Greed can become endemic. The resulting disinformation infects and corrupts not only the nation's economic life but its intricate democratic machinery.

Moreover, corporations connect to all facets of life, with crucial impacts on the welfare of citizens. In constantly feeding information to the public and the government, they have endless opportunities to manipulate information.

Notably at the moment, corporate money is being spent extravagantly on political campaigns for legislators (and even judges in some places) -- thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision dictating that corporations are "persons" with free-speech rights they can exercise with big bucks. (There may be a right to free speech, says comedian Stephen Colbert, "but only money talks.")

Yet the funding of political campaigns through PACs is but one of many ways in which corporations "speak." They also lobby candidates, legislators, and their staffs. They fund conferences, think tanks, and non-profits with deceptive names. They have elaborate public relations departments.

They seek to subvert at every step the efforts of the government agencies -- federal, state, and local -- charged with regulating them. And of course they spend vast sums on advertisements and commercials to influence a happily attentive consuming public.

Alas, the public has limited defenses against corporate distortions. Some media provide effective but limited fact-checking or exposes of political and commercial falsehoods, albeit after the fact. Corporate statements and testimony throughout government are relentless and call for tight laws, tenacious regulators, and sensitive courts, a long-shot trifecta. Federal and state laws prohibiting "false and deceptive" advertising may be enforced but carry little in the way of penalties. And they have loopholes; for example, it is easy for advertisers to misrepresent the truth by omitting selective information. Prosecuting the more serious fraud and perjury cases is similarly demanding.

As for the clouds of political speech now darkening the landscape, corporations and corporate PACs can lie just like candidates. The Supreme Court justices who gave corporations a constitutional right to speak as persons were also giving them a right to lie like persons. Or, as a blogger recently quipped, "People lie, corporations lie, therefore corporations are people after all."

With little chance of more effective protection against the false, the last line of defense rests with citizens themselves. Everyone has a right to doubt, or to disbelieve. Or to avoid. This may be small comfort against the daily barrage.