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Biotech-The Fake Persuaders

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Corporate phantoms
The web of deceit over GM food has now drawn in the PM's speechwriters
By George Monbiot
The Guardian (UK), Wednesday May 29, 2002

Tony Blair's speech to the Royal Society last Thursday was a wonderful
jumble of misconceptions and logical elisions. He managed to confuse
science with its technological products. GM crops are no more "science"
than cars, computers or washing machines, and those opposing them are no
more "anti-science" than people who don't like the Millennium Dome are
"anti-architecture".

He suggested that in the poor world people welcome genetic engineering.
It was unfortunate that the example he chose was the biotech industry in
Bangalore in south-west India. Bangalore happens to be the centre of the
world's most effective protests against GM crops, the capital of a state
in which anti-GM campaigners outnumber those in the UK by 1,000 to one.
Like most biotech enthusiasts, he ignored the key concern of the
activists: the corporate takeover of the food chain, and its devastating
consequences for food security.

But it would be wrong to blame Blair alone for these misconstructions.
The prime minister was simply repeating a suite of arguments formulated
elsewhere. Over the past month, activists have slowly been discovering
where that "elsewhere" may be.

Two weeks ago, this column showed how the Bivings Group, a PR company
contracted to Monsanto, had invented fake citizens to post messages on
internet listservers. These phantoms had launched a campaign to force
Nature magazine to retract a paper it had published, alleging that
native corn in Mexico had been contaminated with GM pollen. But this, it
now seems, is just one of hundreds of critical interventions with which
PR companies hired by big business have secretly guided the biotech
debate over the past few years.

While I was writing the last piece, Bivings sent me an email fiercely
denying that it had anything to do with the fake correspondents "Mary
Murphy" and "Andura Smetacek", who started the smear campaign against
the Nature paper. Last week I checked the email's technical properties.
They contained the identity tag "bw6.bivwood.com". The message came from
the same computer terminal that "Mary Murphy" has used. New research
coordinated by the campaigner Jonathan Matthews appears to have unmasked
the fake persuaders: "Mary Murphy" is being posted by a Bivings web
designer, writing from both the office and his home computer in
Hyattsville, Maryland; while "Andura Smetacek" appears to be the
company's chief internet marketer.

Not long ago, the website slashdot.com organised a competition for
hackers: if they could successfully break into a particular server, they
got to keep it. Several experienced hackers tested their skills. One of
them was one using a computer identified as bw6.bivwood.com.

Though someone in the Bivings office appears to possess hacking skills,
there is no evidence that Bivings has ever made use of them. But other
biotech lobbyists do appear to have launched hacker attacks. Just before
the paper in Nature was publicly challenged, the server hosting the
accounts used by its authors was disabled by a particularly effective
attack which crippled their capacity to fight back. The culprit has yet
to be identified.

Bivings is the secret author of several of the websites and bogus
citizens' movements which have been coordinating campaigns against
environmentalists. One is a fake scientific institute called the "Centre
for Food and Agricultural Research". Bivings has also set up the
"Alliance for Environmental Technology", a chlorine industry lobby
group. Most importantly, Bivings appears to be connected with
AgBioWorld, the genuine website run by CS Prakash, a plant geneticist at
Tuskegee University, Alabama.

AgBioWorld is perhaps the most influential biotech site on the web.
Every day it carries new postings about how GM crops will feed the
world, new denunciations of the science which casts doubt on them and
new attacks on environmentalists. It was here that the fake persuaders
invented by Bivings launched their assault on the Nature paper.
AgBioWorld then drew up a petition to have the paper retracted.

Prakash claims to have no links with Bivings but, as the previous
article showed, an error message on his site suggests that it is or was
using the main server of the Bivings Group. Jonathan Matthews, who found
the message, commissioned a full technical audit of AgBioWorld. His web
expert has now found 11 distinctive technical fingerprints shared by
AgBioWorld and Bivings' Alliance for Environmental Technology site. The
sites appear, he concludes, to have been created by the same programmer.

Though he lives and works in the United States, CS Prakash claims to
represent the people of the third world. He set up AgBioWorld with Greg
Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the far-right libertarian
lobby group funded by such companies as Philip Morris, Pfizer and Dow
Chemical. Conko has collaborated with Matthew Metz, one of the authors
of the scientific letters to Nature seeking to demolish the maize paper,
to produce a highly partisan guide to biotechnology on the AgBioWorld
site.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute boasts that it "played a key role
in the creation" of a petition of scientists supporting biotech
(ostensibly to feed the third world) launched by Prakash. Unaware that
it had been devised by a corporate lobby group, 3,000 scientists, three
Nobel laureates among them, signed up.

Bivings is just one of several public relations agencies secretly
building a parallel world on the web. Another US company, Berman & Co,
runs a fake public interest site called ActivistCash.com, which seeks to
persuade the foundations giving money to campaigners to desist. Berman
also runs the "Centre for Consumer Freedom", which looks like a
citizens' group but lobbies against smoking bans, alcohol restrictions
and health warnings on behalf of tobacco, drinks and fast food
companies. The marketing firm Nichols Dezenhall set up a site called
StopEcoViolence, another "citizens' initiative", demonising activists.
In March, Nichols Dezenhall linked up with Prakash's collaborator, the
Competitive Enterprise Institute, to sponsor a conference for
journalists and corporate executives on "eco-extremism".

What is fascinating about these websites, fake groups and phantom
citizens is that they have either smelted or honed all the key weapons
currently used by the world's biotech enthusiasts: the conflation of
activists with terrorists, the attempts to undermine hostile research,
the ever more nuanced claims that those who resist GM crops are
anti-science and opposed to the interests of the poor. The hatred
directed at activists over the past few years is, in other words,
nothing of the kind. In truth, we have been confronted by the crafted
response of an industry without emotional attachment.

Tony Blair was correct when he observed on Thursday that "there is only
a small band of people... who genuinely want to stifle informed debate".
But he was wrong to identify this small group as those opposed to GM
crops. Though he didn't know it, the people seeking to stifle the debate
are the ones who wrote his speech; not in the days before he delivered
it, but in the years in which the arguments he used were incubated.
---
See also:
The Fake Persuaders by George Monbiot
Columnists/Column/0,5673,715158,00.html
And for multiple items on this topic
http://ngin.tripod.com/deceit_index.html


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