Psychedelic Media Should Stop Parroting Corporate Press Releases

David NicklesOctober 12, 2020

When the media republishes statements from psychedelic pharmaceutical startups and their executives with little-to-no vetting, it functions as a corporate megaphone and damages the field of psychedelic science.

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The push to mainstream psychedelics has included a variety of alarming decisions by psychedelic corporations, from eagerly welcoming in an advisor to “the global elite’s favorite strongman,” to claiming they want “nothing to do with those kinds of folks who want to decriminalize psychedelics,” to expressing disregard for the literal skeletons in their investors’ closets. Although less discussed, the increasing trend of corporadelic firms publishing press releases about impending scientific “breakthroughs” is also troubling.

As certain media outlets have engaged in the irresponsible practice of amplifying press release statements with little-to-no vetting, it’s worth examining how this practice can propagate false and misleading information. Media coverage of a recent press release by Mindset Pharma highlights the hazards of parroting the claims of psychedelic pharmaceutical start-ups. These corporations have incentives to make misleading statements about safe, well-known psychedelic compounds that have long histories of human use. When the media amplifies public relations narratives about the alleged superiority of understudied, proprietary drugs with unknown safety profiles, it does a disservice to psychedelic communities and those interested in learning about these compounds.

Press releases are pseudo-news stories crafted by organizations and delivered to the media for the specific purpose of advertising an organization’s products, services, or actions; they reflect the interests of the companies publishing them. Additionally, corporations have used press releases for a variety of fraudulent purposes, ranging from manipulating the value of penny stocks to making false claims about their ability to acquire N95 masks in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Psychedelic media outlets often treat corporate press releases like peer-reviewed articles, which they are not. In an article titled “Peer Review in Scientific Publications: Benefits, Critiques, & A Survival Guide,” the authors offer the following explanation of “peer review”:

“Peer review has been defined as a process of subjecting an author’s scholarly work, research or ideas to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field. It functions to encourage authors to meet the accepted high standards of their discipline and to control the dissemination of research data to ensure that unwarranted claims, unacceptable interpretations or personal views are not published without prior expert review…Within the scientific community, peer review has become an essential component of the academic writing process. It helps ensure that papers published in scientific journals answer meaningful research questions and draw accurate conclusions based on professionally executed experimentation. Submission of low quality manuscripts has become increasingly prevalent, and peer review acts as a filter to prevent this work from reaching the scientific community. The major advantage of a peer review process is that peer-reviewed articles provide a trusted form of scientific communication. Since scientific knowledge is cumulative and builds on itself, this trust is particularly important.”

As highlighted later in this article, peer review isn’t perfect. Nevertheless, expert scrutiny helps identify methodological errors and faulty claims in publications, before they go to press, thereby helping to reduce the propagation of misinformation.

Science by Press Release: From Pandemic Promises to Oreos and Cocaine

The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the hunt for treatments and cures, the 24-hour news cycle, and politicians desperate to resuscitate the economy has led to numerous outlets highlighting the pitfalls of science by press release. Racing to promote supposed scientific developments, particularly in the context of pandemic, can be a matter of life or death. When individuals and organizations repeat erroneous claims, they reinforce the illusion of credibility or consensus, with dire consequences. This phenomenon was put on full display when President Trump claimed that “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.”

On March 22, following Trump’s false claim, Christian Angermayer, co-founder of ATAI Life Sciences, tweeted, “President Trumo [sic] is absolutely right! There IS enough evidence to give Chloroquine and Azithromycin to Covid patients. These are already approved drugs, with well-understood and minor side effects.” Despite Angermayer’s emphatic assertion of the efficacy of these drugs, it turns out that his faith in both Donald Trump’s and his own grasp of medical science was severely misplaced. On August 26, Clinical Microbiology and Infection published a peer-reviewed study which concluded that “the combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin increases the risk of mortality.” (emphasis added)

This recent example demonstrates some real world harms that can come from promoting claims which lack scientific validation. However, it is important to note that science by tweet or press release has a long history of causing harm and spreading misinformation. While the stakes may not always be as high as when Angermayer promoted non-treatments (and called to end social distancing as early as March 25), non-rigorous scientific reporting has disseminated misinformation far and wide. 

Such misinformation may be difficult or impossible to rectify, as demonstrated by an example in which some university students put out a press release comparing cookies to cocaine. In 2013, numerous reputable news outlets circulated a story alleging that Oreos were as addictive as cocaine. The origin of the story? A press release about an undergraduate research project at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. 

Experts debunked the press release almost immediately, citing methodological flaws. Outlets from Vice to The Washington Post ran stories within days, explaining why the claims made by the press release—titled, “Student-faculty research shows Oreos are just as addictive as drugs in lab rats”—were misleading, to say the least. However, today, if you Google “are Oreos as addictive as cocaine,” the front page returns a resounding, “Yes.”

Oreos are not actually as addictive as cocaine, but thanks to reporting based on a press release—at a glance—it sure appears that they are.

Is this the future that psychedelic advocates want to live in when it comes to psychedelic research?

Psychedelic Science by Press Release: A Case Study of “Non-Toxic” Alphabetamines 

In a recent Lucid News story entitled, “Mindset Pharma Reports Positive Results of Synthetic Psilocybin-Inspired Compounds,” Mindset appears to attempt to erode confidence in psilocybin, by exaggerating claims of potential danger, while suggesting its own untested novel psychoactive substances will be safer. Unfortunately, Lucid News faithfully repeats—despite very little evidence—Mindset’s claim that it is improving on the safety of psilocybin, even though centuries of human use and a litany of peer-reviewed papers demonstrate the relative safety of psilocybin. Lucid’s story offers an opportunity to examine the intersection of science by press release dynamics and the emerging corporadelic landscape. 

First, the headline is pure public relations: a company (Mindset Pharma) has reported positive results for its own product. Is that really newsworthy? Suggesting that a company has a vested interest in self-reporting positive tests of its own products should be uncontroversial and, as already demonstrated, there are no scientific standards or criteria for publishing a press release. So, while it may be accurate to report that a company is claiming that its products have “positive results,” that claim should be understood as biased from the outset.

Second, while failing to provide specifics (beyond the company’s own claims) about the alleged “positive results” of Mindset’s compounds, the story includes a number of self-promotional assertions, such as, “Mindset aims to develop next-generation psychedelic compounds that are pharmacologically optimized to treat neuropsychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder.” 

But how exactly does a company whose team consists largely of former mining, financial, and gaming executives plan on “pharmacologically optimizing” psychedelics to treat a myriad of diverse “neuropsychiatric conditions?” The story fails to offer even the faintest glimmer of insight. Considering that the mechanisms for treating the listed illnesses are varied and currently under research, such vague claims must be treated with skepticism by journalists who report on them. 

Oftentimes, corporations use press releases to attract investors and increase shareholder value. When media organizations disseminate the contents of these statements as though they are meaningful—without vetting or verifying the claims—they are essentially functioning as corporate megaphones, while presenting themselves as independent and impartial actors. 

Third, Lucid’s coverage claims, “It has been thought by some that psilocybin mushrooms contain metabolites that produce cardiotoxic effects,” citing a single questionable paper in the journal Acta Toxicologica, which labels naturally-occurring hallucinogens “addict agents” and the consumption of psilocybin-containing mushrooms as a “form of addiction.” The Acta Toxicologica paper discusses supposed cardiotoxicity among rats who received 10 μg/kg injections of psilocin every second day for 12 weeks. Setting aside questions about the efficacy of microdosing or the likelihood of humans adopting such dosing regimens, the fact is that many animal studies don’t translate to humans very well.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that psilocybin is one of the safest drugs on the planet. So why is psilocybin-induced cardiotoxicity being discussed as if it’s a problem to be solved through the creation of novel (proprietary) “psilocybin-inspired” compounds with unknown safety profiles? Perhaps this is a case of a (proprietary) “solution” in need of a problem.

Lucid’s discussion of psilocybin-induced cardiotoxicity opens with Mindset’s Vice President of Corporate Development, Jason Atkinson, claiming that Mindset’s compounds “have been pharmacologically optimized to help address some of the known shortfalls of psilocybin.” Subsequent (non-rat-related) claims about cardiotoxicity are attributed solely to Mindset (“Mindset is addressing its potential cardiotoxicity…”) and Atkinson (“Mindset’s goal with our novel compounds is…minimizing any negative side effects like cardiotoxicity”). 

This whole framing seems rather premature, as the press release mentions only successful “functional assays,” with future in vivo tests (tests on whole, living organisms) planned. The press release makes no mention of clinical trials whatsoever.  

When it comes to functional assays, the Encyclopedia of Psychopharmacology offers the following explanation:

“Stated simply, a drug binds to a receptor and then ‘does something.’ It is the purpose of functional assays to measure and quantitate that ‘something,’ with the choice and design of assay being highly dependent upon the type of receptor (i.e., GPCR or ion channel), as well as the effect being studied (agonism, antagonism, inverse agonism, or allosteric modulation).”

However, there are gaps in understanding which cellular changes correlate with desired therapeutic effects. As such, a functional assay may not measure the proper mechanism, as demonstrated by a recent study of psychedelic anti-inflammatories. 

Additionally, Lucid’s story does not acknowledge that the only source it cites for its claims of psilocybin-induced cardiotoxicity is a questionable study where investigators injected rats 42 times with 10 micrograms per kilogram of psilocin (the active metabolite of psilocybin) over a 12-week period. There are no additional citations or references attributed to Mindset or Atkinson for their mentions of cardiotoxicity. In fact, the broader scientific literature does not contain any peer-reviewed, controlled human studies on psilocybin-induced cardiotoxicity from microdosing psilocybin (or otherwise). 

The hypothetical “solutions” offered by Mindset’s experimental compounds with unknown safety profiles raise more questions than they answer. There is a well-established human-safety profile for psilocybin, and a clear lack of evidence regarding psilocybin-induced cardiotoxicity. But, Mindset is creating and testing “novel compounds” to minimize “any negative side effects like cardiotoxicity.” Why? Wouldn’t it make more sense to investigate the supposed cardiotoxicity (or other suggested “negative side effects”) of psilocybin before playing corporate Shulginite with proprietary alphabetamines of unknown safety? Perhaps not, if the goal is to create proprietary compounds for shareholder-enrichment, rather than addressing an unmet pharmacological need.

It appears that Lucid News is repeating unverified claims, advancing questionable and disingenuous information regarding the safety of psilocybin, and ultimately amplifying a message of questionable accuracy that serves a profit-motivated corporation, rather than the larger field of psychedelic science. While this brand of reporting doesn’t appear to be sponsored content, as commonly understood, the end result is remarkably similar: a seemingly authentic “news story” is framed as offering “objective reporting,” but instead it functions to disseminate camouflaged corporate public relations statements rather than offering insight into published, peer-reviewed science. 

This is what mainstreaming looks like as non-cooperative actors try to cash in on the “mush rush.” Skyrocketing numbers of press releases from psychedelic pharmaceutical start-ups, unfounded claims about the superiority of proprietary “psychedelic-inspired medicines,” and a variety of other questionable practices aimed at increasing shareholder value. This is the present reality, but psychedelic media outlets who participate in these dynamics are choosing to do so. They can (and should) make the choice to stop.

Let’s Talk About Adversarial and “Objective” Journalism

While some in the media may claim “objectivity” in pursuit of credibility and in defense of regurgitating corporate statements with little-to-no vetting, the above case study highlights the importance of adversarial journalism. Journalist and editor Frank Hartzell defines an adversarial approach as, “When a reporter, a newspaper or on rare occasions, a blog, stands up on behalf of the public to those in power. Spin and public relations are rejected…and reporters challenge every story based on its merits.” 

Adversarial approaches can help safeguard against “false balance,” a media bias in which “both sides” of an issue are treated as equally valid, irrespective of the evidence. Such approaches can also highlight important areas of inquiry when there’s only one “side” at hand, as is the case with corporate press releases. In the case of Lucid News and Mindset, wouldn’t it have been more “objective” to cross-reference corporate claims, rather than just “objectively” reporting what the company said as though it’s true? 

Claims of neutral “objectivity” obscure the fundamentally subjective nature of the human beings involved in any endeavor, whether journalistic or otherwise. Furthermore, “objective” reporting (for example, airing the president’s lies or presenting climate change as a “debate”), frequently fails to effectively interrogate the veracity of the claims covered by such reporting, and has contributed significantly to constructing and maintaining an increasingly post-truth world. 

A relatively fresh psychedelic pundit, who tends to run PR statements with more frequency and less scrutiny than seems prudent, nonetheless offered an insightful observation back in June, noting, “The actual value of a company is inversely related to the frequency of press releases.” Those in the media who struggle to acknowledge the myth of objectivity would do well to consider the implications of their approaches. Are they really advancing psychedelic science, discourse, and understandings? Or are they playing into the hands of pharmaceutical corporations, whether wittingly or unwittingly?

As longtime journalist and former lecturer at Sheffield University, Jonathan Foster, noted with regards to the responsibility of the press, “If someone says it’s raining, and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the fucking window and find out which is true.” 

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David Nickles


David Nickles is Managing Editor of Psymposia, underground researcher, and harm reduction advocate. He has presented social critiques and commentary on psychedelic culture and radical politics, as well as novel phytochemical data from the DMT-Nexus, at venues around the world.

David’s work focuses on the social and cultural implications of psychoactive substances, utilizing critical theory and structural analysis to examine the intersections of drugs and society. He is a vocal opponent of the mainstreaming and commodification of psychedelic compounds and rituals, believing that such approaches inherently obscure the liberatory potential of psychedelic experiences.