Sowing Seeds of Doubt
April 20, 2018
Written By Adam Buckallew
Researchers Accuse Russia of Spreading Anti-GMO Propaganda
Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has been confirmed by the Trump Administration and U.S. intelligence agencies, but politics is far from the only arena where Russia has sought to shape international opinion. A recent review of Russian-funded media outlets conducted by researchers at Iowa State University reveals Moscow is seeking to influence public perception of crop biotechnology with anti-GMO propaganda.
“Distinctive patterns in Russian news provide evidence that Russia is conducting a coordinated campaign to turn public opinion against genetically modified organisms,” the ISU researchers write in their study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed.
The findings from sociologist Shawn Dorius and biologist Carolyn Lawrence-Dill show Kremlin-controlled news outlets Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik News published more English language articles mentioning GMOs in 2016 than the Huffington Post, Fox News, CNN, Breitbart News and MSNBC combined.
RT accounted for 34 percent of GMO-related articles among the seven sites; Sputnik articles made up 19 percent.
“In contrast to the U.S. news sources we were tracking (where GMO coverage could be favorable, unfavorable or neutral), GMOs were almost always presented negatively by RT and Sputnik,” the researchers write.
The Russian articles consistently touched on many of the same concerns which can be found in the comments sections of U.S.-based news organizations (e.g., opposition to multinational firms, skepticism of elected officials and regulatory agencies), suggesting a sophisticated understanding of public opinions about GMOs. However, many of the RT articles containing the term “GMO” “had little to do with genetic engineering,” the researchers write. “Instead, the topic of GMOs was injected in a tangential way (at best) or as clear non-sequitur (at worst).”
Both websites appear to have used the topic of GMOs many times as click-bait and inserted the term in articles that most people would find negative or distasteful. For example, one RT article about the Zika virus contained a link to a post titled, “GMO mosquitoes could be cause of Zika outbreak, critics say,” while another RT story about Disney and Facebook had a link to “Reports of Facebook using its power to block anti-GMO content and criticisms of the Trans-Pacific Partnership suggest an inconsistent approach to censorship and free speech.”
RT and Sputnik were recently singled out by defense agencies as central actors in Russian influence campaigns. Indeed, the US version of RT was recently directed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a post-World War II law aiming to keep foreign influence from affecting U.S. policy, to register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent, and Twitter recently banned RT and Sputnik from purchasing advertisements on their network.
GMO Disinformation Benefits Russia
It’s no coincidence Russia is attempting to muddy the public’s already cloudy perception of GMOs through its state-run media outlets. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a national security strategy banning the cultivation, breeding and importation of biotech crops in 2016. In an address to the Russian parliament, Putin announced his goal of making Russia “the world’s largest supplier of healthy, ecologically clean and high-quality food.” Agriculture is the second-largest sector of the Russian economy, trailing only the oil and gas sector.
For years, Russian operatives have orchestrated both covert and overt campaigns to create a favorable environment for advancing Moscow’s views and international objectives worldwide.
One of the Russian intelligence community’s preferred tactics is spreading disinformation, or as they call it, “Dezinformatsiya,” to confuse, befuddle and distract. The practice is especially effective against polarizing issues such as GMOs. By sowing doubt and division through “weaponized” information, Russia blurs the lines of fact and fiction to drive wedges between pre-existing factions. The shadowy practice traces its origins to World War I and grew significantly during the Cold War, which saw more than 10,000 individual Soviet bloc disinformation operations.
The Russian disinformation playbook is simple, but effective, says Thomas Boghardt, a military and intelligence historian at the U.S. Army Center for Military History.
“Identify internal strife, point to inconsistencies and ambiguities in the news, fill them with meaning and repeat, repeat, repeat,” Boghardt said in a recent interview with The New York Times.
“Throw enough dirt, and some will stick. This is what they’ve internalized. It didn’t win them the Cold War, but it did undermine the credibility of the West and American institutions.”
The ISU researchers say the anti-GMO messaging “fits the profile of the Russian information warfare strategy described in recent military reports.”
“Anti-GMO messaging is a wedge issue not only within the United States, but also between the U.S. and its European allies, many of whom are deeply skeptical of GMOs,” the paper states. “In short, stirring the anti-GMO pot would serve a great many of Russia’s political, economic, and military objectives.”
Although the U.S. government; scientific institutions such as the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences; and hundreds of studies have concluded GMO foods are safe, public doubt remains. High-profile individuals such as TV personality Dr. Oz and organizations like the Center for Food Safety, Right to Know and the Organic Consumers Association have raised questions about GMO food safety, calling for mandatory labeling laws and outright bans.
More than 93 percent of U.S. corn and soybean plantings are genetically modified in some way, and the United States is the world leader in both the development and cultivation of genetically engineered crops. Recent advancements in GMO crops have brought higher yields, greater pest and disease resistance, drought and flood tolerance, and traits with appeal to consumer preferences.
Dorius and Lawrence-Dill told the Des Moines Register it makes sense for Russia to attack the U.S. in areas in which America is strong and Russia is weak.
“The idea in an asymmetrical war, you look at where you’re weak and your opponent is strong, and you’re really trying to undermine their strength,” Dorius says. “(Biotech crop production) is an area where U.S. science is strong worldwide—especially so, relative to Russia.”
“The threat of Russia’s misinformation campaign is not limited to sowing seeds of division in the United States 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.”