The fake persuaders
Corporations are inventing people to rubbish their opponents on the
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
technique called "viral marketing". Last month, the viruses appear
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,
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
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,
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
executive from Monsanto is quoted on the Bivings site thanking the
firm for its "outstanding work".
On November 29 last year, two researchers at the
claimed that native maize in
vast distances, by GM pollen. The paper was a disaster for the
biotech companies seeking to persuade
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
research post if he withheld his paper, then told him that he knew
where to find his children. In the
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
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
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
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
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
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
that my message to her did not mention biotechnology. I told her
that I was researching an article about internet lobbying.
Smetacek has, on different occasions, given her address as "
credit card records in both
"Andura Smetacek". Her name appears only on AgBioWorld and a few
other listservers, on which she has posted scores of messages
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.