World Wide Web of Deceit
excerpt from "The Covert Biotech War"
The battle to put a corporate GM padlock on our foodchain is being fought on the net
Tuesday 19 Nov, 2002, The Guardian
Six months ago, this column revealed that a fake citizen called Mary Murphy had been bombarding internet listservers with messages denouncing the scientists and environmentalists who were critical of GM crops. The computer from which some of these messages were sent belongs to a public relations company called Bivings, which works for Monsanto. The boss of Bivings wrote to the Guardian, fiercely denying that his company had been running covert campaigns. His head of online PR, however, admitted to the BBC's Newsnight that one of the messages came from someone "working for Bivings" or "clients using our services". But Bivings denies any knowledge of the use of its computer for such a campaign.
This admission prompted the researcher Jonathan Matthews, who first uncovered the story, to take another look at some of the emails which had attracted his attention. He had become particularly interested in a series of vituperative messages sent to the most prominent biotech listservers on the net, by someone called Andura Smetacek. Smetacek first began writing in 2000. She or he repeatedly accused the critics of GM of terrorism. When one of her letters, asserting that Greenpeace was deliberately spreading unfounded fears about GM foods in order to further its own financial interests, was reprinted in the Glasgow Herald, Greenpeace successfully sued the paper for libel.
Smetacek claimed, in different messages, first to live in London, then in New York. Jonathan Matthews checked every available public record and found that no person of that name appeared to exist in either city. But last month his techie friends discovered something interesting. Three of these messages, including the first one Smetacek sent, arrived with the internet protocol address 188.8.131.52. This is the address assigned to the server gatekeeper2.monsanto.com. It belongs to the Monsanto corporation.
In 1999, after the company nearly collapsed as a result of its disastrous attempt to thrust GM food into the European market, Monsanto's communications director, Philip Angell, explained to the Wall Street Journal: "Maybe we weren't aggressive enough... When you fight a forest fire, sometimes you have to light another fire." The company identified the internet as the medium which had helped protest to "mushroom".
At the end of last year, Jay Byrne, formerly the company's director of internet outreach, explained to a number of other firms the tactics he had used at Monsanto. He showed how, before he got to work, the top GM sites listed by an internet search engine were all critical of the technology. Following his intervention, the top sites were all supportive ones (four of them established by Monsanto's PR firm Bivings). He told them to "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".
While he was working for Monsanto, Byrne told
the internet newsletter Wow that he "spends his time and effort participating"
in web discussions about biotech. He singled out the site AgBioWorld, where
he "ensures his company gets proper play". AgBioWorld is the site on which
Smetacek launched her campaign.
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