Agrochemical giant Monsanto hired internet trolls to combat negative perceptions about their brand on social media and across the internet, according to a lawsuit filed by U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit organization “working for transparency and accountability” in the American food system. The company has also been accused of manufacturing scientific research to support their products.
The allegations come amid 50 lawsuits, filed in a U.S. district court in San Francisco, that claim “exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto covered up the risks,” as summarized by U.S. Right to Know in a press release.
In a court document dated April 24, the plaintiffs’ attorneys accused Monsanto of operating a program called “Let Nothing Go.” The program is allegedly intended “to leave nothing, not even facebook comments, unanswered; through a series of third parties, it employs individuals who appear to have no connection to the industry, who in turn post positive comments on news articles and Facebook posts, defending Monsanto, its chemicals, and GMOs.”
According to the document, this alleged program was revealed in the deposition of David Heering, who works in Monsanto’s U.S. technology development department.
The document also alleges that Monsanto hires think thanks to spread information favoring the company.
“Monsanto quietly funnels money to ‘think tanks’ such as the ‘Genetic Literacy Project’ and the ‘American Council on Science and Health,’ organizations intended to shame scientists and highlight information helpful to Monsanto and other chemical producers,” the filing claims.
The allegations regarding the Genetic Literacy Project have been somewhat confirmed by outside reporting, though it is unclear whether Monsanto funded the organization directly. Still, the company has indisputable ties to the organization and reportedly requested favorable coverage from scientists there. According to a 2015 investigation by Bloomberg titled “How Monsanto Mobilized Academics to Pen Articles Supporting GMOs”:
“The articles in question appeared on the Genetic Literacy Project’s website in a series called ‘GMO – Beyond the Science.’ Eric Sachs, who leads Monsanto’s scientific outreach, wrote to eight scientists [asking them] to pen a series of briefs aimed at influencing ‘public policy, GM crop regulation and consumer acceptance.’ Five of them obliged.”
Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord downplayed the significance of relationships like these. “Our goal is to elevate the public dialog and public policy discussion from its over-emphasis on perceived risks toward a broader understanding of the societal benefits of GM crops and needed improvement in policies,” Lord said in an e-mail at the time. “There is a lot of misinformation generated by groups who are opposed to agriculture and biotechnology.”
The lawsuit, however, cites an example of one study from the year 2000 that goes beyond spreading information and, if the plaintiffs’ claims are accurate, crosses the line into arguably fraudulent science. That study, led by Dr. Gary Williams, found there were no health risks associated with Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, but as the court document claims, it “has now been cited by 555 sources since its publication, and by the EPA many times, and is but one of many ghostwritten ‘science’ pieces by Monsanto.” The study’s conclusions have since been invalidated by other research.
In a 2015 email presented in the current lawsuit, William Heydens, a Monsanto scientist, seemed to acknowledge the alleged practice of ghost-writing, referring back to the 2000 study as an example of how to do it in the future with other researchers.
“An option would be to add Greim and Kier or Kirkland to have their names on the publication, but we would be keeping the cost down by us doing the writing and they would just edit & sign their names so to speak. Recall that is how we handled Williams Kroes & Munro, 2000,” Heydens wrote in an email to another scientist.
Though this portion of the email appears to be a smoking gun, Monsanto has accused the plaintiffs of “taking a single comment in a single email out of context to attempt to mischaracterize” Dr. Heydens’s words. New York Medical College, which employs Williams, conducted an investigation into the plaintiffs’ ghostwriting claims and found no evidence of misconduct. Nevertheless, Science magazine detailed another instance of Monsanto attempting to control the outcomes of scientific research.
Either way, pro-industry ‘research’ has been used to justify the use of dangerous pesticides. In 2015, The Intercept reported on the EPA’s use of industry studies to conclude that Roundup is not an endocrine disruptor:
“Twenty-seven out of 32 studies that looked at glyphosate’s effect on hormones and were cited in the June review — most of which are not publicly available and were obtained by The Intercept through a Freedom of Information Act request — were either conducted or funded by industry. Most of the studies were sponsored by Monsanto or an industry group called the Joint Glyphosate Task Force.”
This example demonstrates that the reach of industry-funded or backed research extends beyond the reach of internet trolls attempting to bolster the brand’s public image, a dubious effort in and of itself.
The recent court document citing these alleged transgressions also criticizes Monsanto for repeatedly withholding information, a claim partially addressed in a March 13th ruling that forced the company to reveal some documents, which are now listed on U.S. Right to Know’s website.