Thursday, March 1, 2018

Fake news: A Russian agricultural disinformation campaign operates in parallel with local anti-GMO efforts and national Russian election interference

It turns out Russia hasn’t only been trying to undermine American politics, but American biotech agriculture as well.

Hawai`i has for a decade or so been a hotbed of anti-science, anti-biotech activism. Now it turns out that a Russian anti-GMO disinformation campaign has been operating in parallel, and also in parallel with Russian interfence in American elections.

A new review betrays the existence of a Russian disinformation conspiracy to undermine the West’s initiatives to use biotechnology to make food healthier, and to make agriculture more sustainable.

Researchers at Iowa State University conducted the probe into the Russian attack on agriculture.  Their paper is entitled “Sowing the seeds of skepticism: Russian state news and the anti-GMO movement.”

It turns out that many of the memes of the anti-GMO movement may be Russian plants. And the authors of the Iowa State paper pulled no punches: “Biotech news coverage in English-language Russian media fits the profile of the Russian information warfare strategy described in recent military reports.”

They suggested that the Russian anti-GMO program had one purely financial goal: to promote Russian agricultural products

 “Distinctive patterns in Russian news provide evidence that Russia is conducting a coordinated campaign to turn public opinion against genetically modified organisms. The recent branding of Russian agriculture as the ecologically clean alternative to genetically engineered foods is suggestive of an economic motive behind the information campaign against western biotechnologies,” the paper said.

Another goal is simply to weaken the United States by promoting divisiveness, said Carolyn Lawrence-Dill, an ISU associate professor and co-author of the paper.

Some American anti-GMO organizations were quick to attack the study, but by impugning the motives of the authors, rather than denying the validity of the study. Indeed, Henry Rowlands of the site Sustainable Pulse, doubled down. He said the Russian news organizations are just fine, and in fact more acceptable than American media on this topic.

“The ISU researchers failed to ask the question as to why the U.S. media does not cover the GMO issue regularly, despite a growing consumer interest in and backlash against the technology. It may seem unusual to some, but on this topic the Russian media has more freedom than the U.S. media,” Rowlands said in this article on the organization’s website.  

Rowlands challenged the fairness of the paper’s authors, on grounds that Iowa State gets money from the grain industry. But that’s a stretch. Iowa state is also a leading research institution on organics.

The disinformation campaign appears to operate out of two Russian news sites, RT News and Sputniknews. Between them they used the term GMO more often than the total of five U.S. news sites across the political spectrum: Huffington Post, Fox News, CNN, Breitbart News and MSNBC.

They were RT News scare stories about GMO mosquitoes: “GMO mosquitoes could be cause of Zika outbreak.”

And this: RT News: GMO corn “contains a startling level of toxic chemicals.”

Paradoxically, RT News also had the headline, “GMO crops not harming human health, but not boosting yields.”

And from Sputnik “GMO only causes problems,” and “Mass cultivation of genetically modified crops may damage biodiversity.”

The paper makes the point that the Russians aren’t alone in opposing biotech: “High profile individuals such as Dr. Oz and organizations like the Center for Food Safety, Right to Know, Greenpeace, and the Organic Consumers Association garner considerable attention as they actively oppose the creation and release of biotech animals and crops for agricultural production, promote product boycott movements, and calls for policymakers to enact both mandatory labeling laws and outright bans.”

The Iowa paper says Russian news sites use anti-GMO “click bait,” to link stories provocatively in ways that puts biotech in a bad light. For example, a story on birth defects in mothers infected with Zika was linked to the piece on GMO mosquitos being implicated in Zika.

“These campaigns are long marches, not short sprints. Intentional misinformation campaigns can provide emotional energy and additional attention to topics deemed important for guiding public opinion well into the future,” the Iowa State paper said.

It is no secret and the Russian news organizations don’t deny that Russia’s goal is to promote its own non-genetically engineered crops. RT News admitted as much when it published this piece: “Russia looks to become leading organic food exporter as Europe sees future in GMO.”  

The Iowa State paper concludes with the assessment that Russia’s effort has multiple purposes, and that another of them to undermine science in the West.

“The threat of Russia’s misinformation campaign is not limited to sowing seeds of division in the US and Europe and bolstering Russian economic power - there is also the potential to erode public trust in science, an institutionalized pillar of western intellectual tradition. Whether their anti-science campaign will gain measurable traction remains to be seen.”

The paper has only been out for a few days, but it has already gained significant attention.

“Russia wants you to hate GMOs,” says MIT Technology Review

“Anti-GMO articles tied to Russian sites,” said the DesMoines Register

“Iowa Researchers Find Negative GMO Reporting in Russian Press,” says

Fake news or disinformation, a translation of the Russian word dezinformatsiya, comes from the KGB’s propaganda playbook. And it is familiar to Americans now, given our increasing knowledge of Russian interference in elections and election campaigns.

The New York Times, in a 2016 article, said “disinformation is regarded as an important aspect of Russian military doctrine, and it is being directed at political debates in target countries with far greater sophistication and volume than in the past.” 

© Jan TenBruggencate 2018

No comments: