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Fake citizens { May 14 2002 }

Subject: Misinformation

The fake persuaders

Corporations are inventing people to rubbish their opponents on the
internet

George Monbiot
Guardian

Tuesday May 14, 2002


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 work".

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, Brazil 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 "Mary Murphy" from the same
hotmail account 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 Group.

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 internet lobbying.

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 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.

"Sometimes," Bivings 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.

www.monbiot.com




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