Monsanto's GE Corn PR Blitz
George Monbiot Tuesday May 14, 2002, The Guardian (UK)
Persuasion works best when it's invisible. The most
effective marketing worms its way into our consciousness, leaving
intact the perception that we have reached our opinions and made our
choices independently. As old as humankind itself,
over the past few years this approach has been refined, with the help
of the internet, into a technique called "viral marketing".
Last month, the viruses appear to have murdered their host. One of
the world's foremost scientific journals was persuaded to do something
it had never done before, and retract a paper it had published.
While, in the past, companies have created fake citizens'
groups to campaign in favour of trashing
forests or polluting rivers, now they create fake citizens. Messages
purporting to come from disinterested punters are planted on listservers
at critical moments, disseminating misleading information in the hope
of recruiting real people to the cause. Detective work by the campaigner
Jonathan Matthews and the freelance journalist Andy Rowell shows how
a PR firm contracted to the biotech company Monsanto appears to have
played a crucial but invisible role in shaping scientific discourse.
Monsanto knows better than any other corporation
the costs of visibility. Its clumsy attempts, in 1997, to persuade
people that they wanted to eat GM food all but destroyed the market
for its crops. Determined never to make that mistake again, it has
engaged the services of a firm which knows how to persuade without
being seen to persuade. The Bivings Group
specialises in internet lobbying.
An article on its website, entitled Viral Marketing:
How to Infect the World, warns that "there are some campaigns
where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience
know that your organisation is directly involved... it simply is not an intelligent
PR move. In cases such as this, it is important to first 'listen'
to what is being said online... Once you are plugged into this world,
it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your
position as an uninvolved third party... Perhaps the greatest advantage
of viral marketing is that your message is placed into a context where
it is more likely to be considered seriously." A senior executive
from Monsanto is quoted on the Bivings site thanking the PR firm for its "outstanding
On November 29 last year, two researchers at the
University of California,
Berkeley published a paper
in Nature magazine, which claimed that native maize in Mexico
had been contaminated, across vast distances, by GM pollen. The paper
was a disaster for the biotech companies seeking to persuade Mexico,
and the European Union to lift their embargos on GM crops.
Even before publication, the researchers knew their
work was hazardous. One of them, Ignacio Chapela,
was approached by the director of a Mexican corporation, who first
offered him a glittering research post if he withheld his paper, then
told him that he knew where to find his children. In the US,
Chapela's opponents have chosen a different
form of assassination.
On the day the paper was published, messages started
to appear on a biotechnology listserver
used by more than 3,000 scientists, called AgBioWorld.
The first came from a correspondent named "Mary Murphy".
Chapela is on the board of directors of
the Pesticide Action Network, and therefore, she claimed, "not
exactly what you'd call an unbiased writer". Her posting was
followed by a message from an "Andura
Smetacek", claiming, falsely, that
Chapela's paper had not been peer-reviewed, that he was "first
and foremost an activist" and that the research had been published
in collusion with environmentalists. The next day, another email from
"Smetacek" asked "how much
money does Chapela take in speaking fees, travel reimbursements and other
donations... for his help in misleading fear-based marketing campaigns?"
The messages from Murphy and Smetacek
stimulated hundreds of others, some of which repeated or embellished
the accusations they had made. Senior biotechnologists called for
Chapela to be sacked from Berkeley.
AgBioWorld launched a petition pointing
to the paper's "fundamental flaws".
There do appear to be methodological problems with
the research Chapela and his colleague David
Quist had published, but this is hardly unprecedented in a
scientific journal. All science is, and should be, subject to challenge
and disproof. But in this case the pressure on Nature was so severe
that its editor did something unparalleled in its 133-year history:
last month he published, alongside two papers challenging Quist
and Chapela's, a retraction in which he wrote that their research
should never have been published.
So the campaign against the researchers was extraordinarily
successful; but who precisely started it? Who are "Mary Murphy"
and "Andura Smetacek"?
Both claim to be ordinary citizens, without any corporate
links. The Bivings Group says it has "no
knowledge of them". "Mary Murphy" uses a hotmail account
for posting messages to AgBioWorld. But
a message satirising the opponents of biotech, sent by a "Mary
Murphy" to another server two years ago contains the identification
bw6.bivwood.com. Bivwood.com is the property of Bivings
Woodell, which is part of the Bivings
When I wrote to her to ask whether she was employed
by Bivings and whether Mary Murphy was her real name, she replied
that she had "no ties to industry". But she refused to answer
my questions on the grounds that "I can see by your articles
that you made your mind up long ago about biotech". The interesting
thing about this response is that my message to her did not mention
biotechnology. I told her only that I was researching an article about
Smetacek has, on different
occasions, given her address as "London"
and "New York".
But the electoral rolls, telephone directories and credit card records
in both London and the
entire US reveal no "Andura Smetacek". Her name appears only on AgBioWorld and a few other listservers,
on which she has posted scores of messages falsely accusing groups
such as Greenpeace of terrorism. My letters to her have elicited no
response. But a clue to her possible identity is suggested by her
constant promotion of "the Centre For
Food and Agricultural Research". The centre appears not to exist,
except as a website, which repeatedly accuses greens of plotting violence.
Cffar.org is registered to someone called Manuel Theodorov. Manuel Theodorov
[aka Emmanuel Theodorou] is the "director
of associations" at Bivings Woodell.
Even the website on which the campaign against the
paper in Nature was launched has attracted suspicion. Its moderator,
the biotech enthusiast Professor CS Prakash,
claims to have no connection to the Bivings
Group. But when Jonathan Matthews was searching the site's archives
he received the following error message: "can't connect to MySQL
server on apollo.bivings.com". Apollo.bivings.com is the main
server of the Bivings Group.
boasts, "we win awards. Sometimes only the client knows the precise
role we played." Sometimes, in other words, real people have
no idea that they are being managed by fake ones.
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WEB OF DECEIT: http://ngin.tripod.com/deceit_index.html