The "Mexican Maize" Controversy: How Monsanto Censored Biotech Critics at UC Berkeley
This essay is an excerpt of the chapter “Cybersurveillance and Online Covert Strategy” from Evelyn Lubbers’ Secret Manoeuvres in the Dark (Pluto Press 2012).
Cipactli, the Aztec earth deity, sprouting ears of corn
The Bivings Group
Transnational corporations have become increasingly sophisticated in their use of the web. This section explores the wide-ranging attempts of Monsanto and its online PR consultant Bivings to shape discourse and opinion. It involves the use of fake identities, exclusively existing on the internet, to influence and manipulate online discussions critical of genetic engineering.
The Bivings Group specializes in online PR. The company’s slogan used to be: ‘Wired engagement. Global reach. Lasting impact.’ Until mid-2006 the more compact version ‘wired.global.impact’ was part of the company’s logo (Bivings Group, 2006). The company was founded in 1993, and was originally known as Bivings-Woodell Inc. It has developed internet advocacy campaigns for corporate America since 1996 and serves a number of Fortune 100 clients in the biotechnology, chemical, financial, food, consumer products and telecommunications industries. Among the notable clients are Dow Chemicals, Kraft Foods, Phillip Morris, BP Amoco, the Chlorine Chemistry Council and Crop Life International (Bivings Group, 2009). Many of those clients have been targeted by campaigners for their environmental, labour and consumer records.
The biotechnology industry was a particularly visible target. As a response to marketing and regulatory problems in the late 1990s, Monsanto hired Bivings to develop a wide-ranging internet strategy. In 2002, Bivings had more than a dozen Monsanto companies as clients and it ran the main Monsanto website, as well as some of their European sites. Bivings also designed several sophisticated campaigns for the company to influence the debate on the risks of GM (Rowell, 2003: 158, fn. 42).
Bivings’ work for Monsanto was widely praised for its transparency. The company received the Advocacy Award from the New Statesman which described its work as: ‘[o]penness in the face of controversy’ (Holmes Report, 1999). According to a PR industry’s trade report ‘[t]he sites provide a wealth of information on GM foods and engage the company’s critics in a non-confrontational discussion of the issues’ (ibid.).
The PR professionals’ magazine Inside PR praised Bivings’ work for Monsanto for ‘addressing consumer concerns about genetically modified foods in a calm and rational way, even providing access to opposing viewpoints so that consumers can be better informed’ (Inside PR, 1999). Open, calm and rational were the buzz-words, but the following case shows that Bivings and Monsanto had other ways of dealing with life science industry critics.
The Mexican Maize Controversy
The strategy Bivings and Monsanto developed to influence discussion on the safety of genetically manipulated (GM) crops became evident from examining their role in what has become known as the Mexican maize controversy. This started when two researchers from the University of California in Berkeley published a paper in the journal Nature (Quist and Chapela, 2001). The authors claimed that native maize in Mexico had been contaminated, across vast distances, by GM pollen. Cross-pollination was then an important argument against GM crops. This issue involved much more than reputational risk for the GM industry, because verified cases would lead to renewed regulatory action based on the precautionary principle. The principle implies that there is a responsibility to intervene and protect the public from exposure to harm where scientific investigation discovers a plausible risk.
Recourse to the precautionary principle presupposes that potentially dangerous effects deriving from a phenomenon, product or process have been identified, and that scientific evaluation does not allow the risk to be determined with sufficient certainty. (European Commission, 2000)
The Nature 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 sensitive. One of the authors, Ignacio Chapela, had been talking to Mexican government officials even though it was preliminary research. At one meeting, the aide to the Biosafety Commissioner, Fernando Ortiz Monasterio, privately told Chapela that he was creating a really serious problem and he was going to pay for it. Monasterio said Chapela could be part of the solution;
He proceeded to invite me to be part of a secret scientific team [with two scientists from Monsanto and two from DuPont] that was going to show the world what the reality of GM was all about. (Chapela, cited in Rowell, 2003: 152)
When Chapela refused, Monasterio told him he knew where to find his children (ibid.). Monasterio acknowledged meeting Chapela, but denied threatening him in any way (BBC Radio 4, 2003: see also Rowell, 2003: 153).
To minimize the impact of the paper in Nature, Monsanto and Bivings tried to influence its discussion amongst scientists. Together they created fake identities purposely for a covert counterstrategy to discredit the authors of the paper. The forum of choice to interfere in the discussion was the biotechnology list server AgBioView. It was discovered that two regular posters, called ‘Mary Murphy’ and Andura Smetacek , did not exist. Jonathan Matthews and Andy Rowell revealed how the two ‘women’ acted as allegedly independent third parties actively engaging in the discussion on the Mexican maize paper. On the day Nature published the paper, messages questioning the authors’ credibility started to appear on AgBioView. The first message, opening the issue of the Newsletter that day, was signed by ‘Mary Murphy’. Because Chapela was on the board of directors of the Pesticide Action Network, she wrote, he is ‘not exactly what you’d call an unbiased writer (Murphy, 2001). Subsequently, ‘Andura Smetacek’ claimed that Chapela’s paper had not been peer-reviewed. This was untrue. She also wrote that he was ‘first and foremost an activist’, and that the research had been published in collusion with environmentalists (Smetacek, 2001a). The next day, another email from ‘Smetacek’ implied the Berkeley scientist was on the activists’ pay list: how much money does Chapela take in speaking fees, travel reimbursements and other donations […] for his help in misleading fear-based marketing campaigns?’ (Smetacek, 2001b).
Together Smetacek and Murphy posted around 60 messages, which stimulated hundreds of others, some of which repeated the accusations they had made. Several biotechnologists called for Chapela to be sacked from Berkeley - see for instance the posting from Trewavas (2002) of the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology, University of Edinburgh. For other postings, see the Mexican Maize Resource Library at the AgBioWorld website (AgBioWorld, 2009d) and the AgBioView Archives from 2001 and onwards (AgBioWorld, 2009b); also see Monbiot (2002a).
Nature eventually gave in to the pressure and retracted the article - an unprecedented decision in its 133-year history. Nature (2002) wrote: ‘Because of several criticisms of the paper. Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper.’ Just a few days before crucial negotiations at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity held in The Hague from 7 to 19 April 2002, the Nature climb-down was an important trump card for the GM lobby . However, at the conference, Jorge Soberon, the executive secretary of Mexico’s National Commission on Biodiversity, confirmed that according to research by the Mexican government the level of contamination was far worse than initially reported (Brown, 2002; Clover, 2002).
Who were ‘Mary Murphy’ and ‘Andura Smetacek’? Campaigner Jonathan Matthews (2002, 2003) has been monitoring the GM expert community for a long time and noticed these new names on the discussion forum and the ferocity of their messages. ‘Mary Murphy’ used a hotmail account for posting messages to AgBioWorld: [email protected] Anyone can create a hotmail account, with any given name. However, this specific hotmail address had a history. In July 2000, a Mary Murphy posted a fake Associated Press article satirizing the opponents of biotech (Murphy, 2000). It was posted on the message board of foxbghsuit.com, a website dedicated to a legal case connected to Monsanto’s genetically engineered cattle drug rBGH. The hotmail reply address was identical, but the message board showed additional identifying details in the headers: ‘Posted by Mary Murphy (bwfi.bivwood.com)’ (ibid.). Bivwood.com is the property of Bivings Woodell, the previous name of the Bivings Group (Networksolutions.com, 2009a). This meant that ‘Mary Murphy’s’ hotmail emails were sent from a Bivings computer.^^ The last mail signed by Murphy was posted to AgBioWorld on 8 April 2002, and after that, she completely disappeared from the internet. Rowell (2002a: 158) suggested that the impending exposure inspired the sudden disappearance.
‘Andura Smetacek’ was harder to trace. Her name appeared only on AgBioWorld and a few related list servers, but nowhere else on the internet. Issues concerning her alleged residency eventually provided some clues. Smetacek refused to verify a land address or to provide an employer, despite numerous requests by the Ecologist, nor did she respond to emails from other journalists in the UK and the US (Rowell, 2003:157; Monbiot, 2002a; Platoni, 2002). In her emails, she claimed to live in London and in New York. Matthews checked every available public record, but found no person of that name in either city. Further research revealed that ‘Smetacek’ was indeed connected to Monsanto. In her first email to the AgBioView list, she presented herself as a concerned observer of the GM debate writing from London (Smetacek, 2000). However, this email (and two of her earlier emails to the list) arrived with the internet protocol address 22.214.171.124.^° This was - and still is - the address assigned to the server gatekeeper2.monsanto.com, belonging to the Monsanto headquarters in St Louis, in the United States (Networksolutions. com, 2009b). So, from her email address, it seems that Andura Smetacek writing from London never actually existed: ‘“she” was a virtual person whose role was to direct debates on the web and denigrate the opposition’ (Rowell, 2003: 159). Smetacek also disappeared just before exposure (also see PowerBase, 2009a).
The third key-player in this affair was Dr C.S. Prakash, the founder and moderator of the AgBioView mailing list, where the fake emails were posted. With several associates, Prakash established the AgBioWorld Foundation in January 2000 as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. AgBioWorld presents itself as a niainstream science campaign ‘that has emerged from academic roots and values’. Prakash claimed he received no funding or assistance for the Foundation and denied working with any PR company (Rowell, 2003:158). However, a connection to Bivings was established when an error message appeared while searching the AgBioView online archives: ‘can’t connect to MySQL server on apollo.bivings.com’  (PowerBase, 2009b, 2009c; also see Monbiot, 2002a). The error message revealed that the AgBioView archives were stored on a Bivings’ computer. Apollo.bivings.com was — and still is — one of the three servers of the Bivings Group (Networksolutions.com, 2009c). Although the foundation carefully eschewed corporate support, it was set up in close cooperation withthe Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a conservative lobby group with a multimillion dollar budget. Its sponsors include Monsanto, Philip Morris and Dow Chemicals. The cooperation is most evident through the involvement of Gregory Conko, one of the original founders of AgBioWorld in 2000, who has since become vice-president of the Foundation and a member of the Board of Directors (CEI, 2009). At the time, Conko was Director of Food Safety Policy at CEI, and in 2009 he became a senior fellow at the Institute. The book he co-authored, The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution (Miller and Conko, 2004), reflected his particular interest ‘in the debate over the safety of biotechnology and bioengineered foods, as well as the application of the Precautionary Principle to domestic and international environmental and safety regulations’ (CEI, 2009).
Further collaboration was marked by the launch of the so-called Declaration of Scientists in Support of Agricultural Biotechnology. CEI was proud to take an active part in the fight against what they call ‘death by regulation’ - regulatory policies that threaten people s health and safety. The battle over biotechnology was foremost in this fight, according to the CEI Annual Report 2000. The Institute ‘played a key role in the creation of the Declaration , the president and founder of the Institute Fred L. Smith claimed in his foreword (in CEI, 2001:1). Yet the Declaration was hosted on the AgBioWorld website, and Prakash presented it as an initiative of his organization (AgBioWorld, 2000) and one of his own achievements (AgBioWorld, 2009c).
Although Conko and Prakash were the two founders, the involvement of CEI was not mentioned on the AgBioWorld website at the time of the Mexican maize controversy. It was not until a few years later, in 2005, that Greg Conko was first introduced at the AgBioWorld website as its vice-president. Archive.org documents, the first appearance on 17 August 2005 (AgBioWorld, 2005). The web page offering his biography provided an exact copy of his information at the CEI site (CEI, 2009).
Rowell (2002a) and Matthews (2002) published their findings in the Big Issue and in the Ecologist respectively. Subsequently, George Monbiot devoted two columns in the Guardian to the research (Monbiot, 2002a; 2002b). Bivings and Monsanto chose a strategy of straight denial. The PR company issued a statement on the Ecologist story, saying:
This author and publication have a long history of making these types of baseless claims. The claims made in the Ecologist story, and the subsequent story that appeared in the Guardian, are false. From our perspective, this piece merits no further discussion. (Bivings Group, 2002a)
Monbiot’s articles received a carefully worded response from the cornpany’s president, Gary F. Bivings. The allegations made against the Bivings Group were completely untrue, he said. The fake persuaders’ mentioned were ‘not employees or contractors or aliases of contractors of the Bivings Group’. In fact, he claimed, the Bivings Group had ‘no knowledge of either Mary Murphy or Andura Smetacek’ (Bivings, 2002a).
However, before Bivings’ letter to the editor was printed, the company’s head of online PR, Todd Zeigler, appeared on the BBC current affairs programme Newsnight. In the interview, Zeigler admitted that ‘at least one of the emails’ came from someone ‘working for Bivings’ or ‘clients using our services’ (Newsnight, 2002; see also Monbiot, 2002c). Gary Bivings later tried to disavow the words of his head of PR. He said the company had ‘never made any statements to this effect’, and claimed that Newsnight had been ‘wrong’ about the origin of the emails (Bivings, 2002b).
Bivings’ categorical denials backfired completely when it transpired that he had sent his letter to the Guardian by email. The technical properties revealed that the director’s message came from bw6.bivwood.com, the same computer server that ‘Mary Murphy’ had used (Monbiot, 2002b).
In his dissertation ‘Pathways of scientific dissent in agricultural biotechnology’, Jason Delborne explored several controversies surrounding agricultural biotechnology. One of the case studies analysed was the Mexican maize controversy. He notes:
Regardless of the degree of coordination of the campaign, the discourse emerging online to discredit Chapela and the discovery of the questionable identities of two of the key contributors to that conversation [Murphy and Smetacek] suggest an important pattern of resistance with central themes of credibility and power. (Delborne, 2005: 229)
The attack on Chapela and Quist relied upon an attack on the character of the scientists rather than on the scientific research. ‘The accusations of being an “activist” and associating closely with activist groups implied that such character qualities and affiliations polluted their scientific claims’ (ibid.). Apparently the association with activists diminishes a scientist’s credibility.
The AgBioWorld forum allowed false rumours (for instance that the Quist and Chapela article was not peer-reviewed) and speculation (that Chapela had coordinated his research with activist NGOs) to circulate. Delborne concludes that the mailing list served as an incubator for an intense campaign, with enough momentum eventually to develop into a stronger and more technical critique that could reach and influence a wider audience. The fact that AgBioWorld allowed this to happen is less surprising given that the forum itself is part of a larger strategy to promote the interests of the GM industry.
In hindsight, the Mexican maize controversy brought together several, interlinked issues of major importance in one heated debate. First, the possibility of cross-pollination, which at that time was seen as closely related to the safety and thereby the future of genetically engineered food production and its regulation was disputed. Second, the influence of large corporations at universities was called into question. Chapela was an outspoken critic of the long-running multimillion-dollar collaborative research agreements between Berkeley and the Swiss pharmaceutical and biotech company Novartis (now Syngenta) (see, for instance, California Monthly, 2002). This placed Chapela in the arena of political debates on genetic engineering, and made it relatively easy to link his critical position to the question of academic integrity in general. Or, as Prakash put it: ‘since the dogged and relentless pursuit of truth is the ultimate goal of science, should Quist and Chapela have been allowed to publish such obviously flawed findings?’ (AgBioWorld, 2009d).
This question is closely related to the third and final major issue, the value of peer reviewing in general, and the quality of publications in Nature. The reputation of the highly respected journal was at stake as its scientific independence was brought into question. The apparent flaws in the Mexican maize research - flaws that could have been corrected had the researchers been given the chance - had escaped the eye of the reviewers. Chapela and Quist were allowed to provide further data on their research; however, the details were published in the same issue of Nature that retracted their original paper. The question was raised whether the decision to retract was based purely on issues with the peer review system, or whether it was influenced by the pressure of the GM industry. Or, in other words, was it ‘due process or double standard’? (Salleh, 2002). Nature’s editor Philip Campbell (2002) insisted that the journal’s turnaround had nothing to do with the fact that the paper was about genetic modification. ‘It must have been Murphy’s law that ensured that our technical oversight, embarrassing in itself, was in relation to a paper about one of the most hotly debated technologies of our time.’
Untangling these still ongoing debates is almost impossible. However, the role of the GM industry and their PR advisers in influencing these debates usually remains under-exposed.
The Bivings Group (then Bivings Woodell) started developing covert strategy long before the Mexican maize controversy, and even before 1999, the year that Monsanto nearly collapsed as a result of the failure to introduce GM food on the European market. Reflecting on the PR debacle, Monsanto’s communications director Philip Angell told the Wall Street Journal: ‘Maybe we were not aggressive enough […] When you fight a forest fire, sometimes you have to light another fire’ (Kilmann and Cooper, 1999).
In October 1999, the New York Times highlighted the emerging industry among consultants specializing in spinning online discussions on behalf of clients. Bivings was among the firms admitting to adopting pseudonyms and participating in online discussions on behalf of some clients. ‘If participated in properly,’ Matthew Benson, senior director at Bivings, told the paper, ‘these can be vehicles for shaping emerging issues’. Moreover, some firms ‘recruit scientists and other experts to voice clients’ perspectives in on-line discussions’ (Raney, 1999).
To understand a group or an issue requires long-term monitoring, as online researchers ‘have to develop a cultural memory for the issues they’re following’ (ibid.). Benson and other consultants claimed to approach online forums cautiously:
When deciding whether to intervene in a discussion, Mr Benson said, they weigh a number of factors: How serious a forum is it? Do influential people frequent the discussion? How much reach does the forum have outside its own boundaries? Are the critics considered influential by the group, or are they merely considered annoying? (ibid.)
For instance, the site of the Organic Consumers Association, dedicated to informing the public about food safety, organic farming and genetic engineering, did not attract enough visitors to be seen as a real threat. Monsanto’s director of internet outreach. Jay Byrne, used the Organic Consumers site as an example when explaining in the Monthly Newsletter for Web Professionals about his job in 2000. Instead, he preferred to spend ‘his time and effort participating in even-handed online discussions about the industry’ (Ragan Interactive Public Relations, 2000). To illustrate this, Byrne singled out the AgBio World website run by Professor C.S. Prakash. As a list providing information to scientists, policy-makers, journalists and the general public on how agricultural biotechnology can help sustain development, AgBioWorld fitted Bivings’ above-cited criteria for intervention. ‘Byrne subscribes and offers advice and information when relevant and ensures his company gets proper play’ (ibid.). At least that is what he told the Monthly Newsletter for Web Professionals. The archives of the AgBio View list, however, show no entry signed by him under his own name. Moreover, as detailed above, Bivings is closely connected to this list. Byrne is fond of telling professional peers: ‘Think of the internet as a weapon on the table. Either you pick it up or your competitor does - but somebody is going to get killed’ (Byrne, 2001, 2002, 2003; see also PowerBase, 2009d). Byrne (2001) attributed the quote to Michael S. Dell, founder and CEO of Dell Computer Corporation.
Bivings calls covert methods to influence online discussions viral marketing: using word-of-mouth strategy to disseminate clients’ views online. Andrew Dimock, head of online marketing and promotions, explained the concept of viral marketing on the Bivings website. The original version was published in November 2001 as Thebivingsreport.com (Dimock, 2002a). However, following the Mexican maize controversy. Dimock’s piece was amended to eliminate the following quotation:
There are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization 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, (ibid.)
The current version now online advises just the opposite: ‘Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make relevant postings to these outlets that openly present your identity and position’ (Dimock, 2002b, emphasis added). And the word ‘anonymously’ has been strategically removed from this sentence: ‘Message boards, chat rooms, and listservs are a great way to anonymously monitor what is being said’ (ibid.). Bivings had obviously learned a lesson, as the following warning was added: ‘You should be as transparent in your efforts as possible - even innocuous promotions can anger people if they somehow feel that they are being misled’ (ibid.).
The covert corporate strategy using Murphy and Smetacek as ‘fake persuaders’ reveals a particular relationship between credibility and power. Delborne emphasizes that it ‘suggested the potential for enormous disconnect between the face of resistance (personal emails) and the sources of power that support those faces (PR and biotech firms)’ (Delborne, 2005:229). The hidden and coordinated support behind people acting as independent individuals makes them harder to oppose. Simultaneously, powerful interests can also participate through covert representation in controversy. Such covert campaigns and the lack of transparency render the business interests extremely difficult to counter (unless they are uncovered) (ibid.).
The issues profiled in this chapter illustrate the variety of opportunities the internet offers to gather intelligence and to carry out counterstrategy. Online monitoring agencies provided client companies with practical advice in countering the campaign groups under surveillance. The IT industry received advice to curtail funding of campaigning groups, which is an example of restricting a movement’s resources and limiting its facilities. Specialist technical knowledge allowed Bivings and Monsanto to introduce virtual identities aimed specifically at manipulating online discussions about genetic engineering. The digital identities encouraged a mudslinging campaign against two scientists critical of GE techniques that can be understood as a serious attempt of character assassination. The affair caused lasting work-related problems for the scientists. The eWatch case showed how people were fired because of their alleged role in industrial action, an example of counterstrategy imperilling employment (Marx, 1979). The stories indicate that on the internet too, monitoring what is said and done is only part of the story. The information was processed, analysed and used to develop covert corporate strategy to counter critics. In short, the cases in this chapter contain the essential elements that fit with ideas of theory of intelligence according to Gill (2009: 85): surveillance, power, knowledge, secrecy and resistance. The chapter illustrates the flipside to the idealized accounts of the internet such as that of Castells (2003).
Furthermore, these experiences show that the shift towards privatized intelligence instigates similar shifts on the internet. Corporations hire private firms to manage critics and opponents online. The risks to the privacy of citizens and the fundamental rights of activists, workers and other people should not be underestimated, and urgently need to be incorporated in future research agendas. Like the other companies investigated for this book, the online intelligence agencies had taken measures to prevent disclosure of their activities. Bivings created digital personalities to discredit scientists critical of biotechnology, trusting that they would be next to impossible to trace on the internet. Even in the face of incontrovertible evidence, denial was used in attenipts at damage control. Infonic, eWatch and Biving refused to admit their involvement in covert operations undermining activists. The spokesperson of eWatch tried both straight denial and blaming the messenger, while at the same time distancing the company from the Cybersleuth service it provided. The founder of Infonic chose a softer focus and used reasonable arguments and persuasion. As its director, Biving himself wrote several letters to editors to deny the claims made against his company. These attempts to cover up are part of a wider culture of secrecy. Covert corporate strategy online undermines the space for open debate, accountability and transparency - in short, it endangers universal rights to communicate (Hamelink, 1994).
The online strategies, like the strategies in most other case studies in this book, were made visible through research by dedicated activists and investigative journalists. Research on the internet, however, requires specific technical skills to identify the origin of emails, to recover links that have been removed, and to interpret web statistics. Technologies have progressed rapidly and the possibilities of acting anonymously on the internet have increased, which may add to the temptation to choose this as a covert strategy. At the same time, such strategies are implemented by people, and people make mistakes or might be willing to talk, or to leak. In other words, these increased possibilities on the internet might also offer an avenue of opportunities for research and investigation.
The cases underscore the need for research on the field of cybersurveillance, the political economy of agencies specializing in online monitoring and strategy as well as investigations into the specific techniques used in covert operations.