The 2016 US presidential campaign. The Black Lives Matter movement. Mass shootings. Russian disinformation campaigns and troll factories have been accused of stirring up distrust, anger and confusion around all of these hot-button topics. Now it seems genetically modified organisms, popularly known as GMOs, can be added to the list.
New research from Iowa State University (ISU) found that Russia is actively attempting to turn US public opinion against genetically modified organisms. And this time, causing rifts among Americans may not be the only goal. According to the researchers, Russia is trying to position itself as “the ecologically clean alternative” to the US agricultural industry, where some 90 percent of the farmers grow crops genetically modified to resist insects and drought and withstand herbicides during weed control.
In interviews with the Alliance for Science, the co-authors of the research, Shawn Dorius and Carolyn Lawrence-Dill, both stressed that they did not look into the motives behind the Russian anti-GMO campaign. They strongly suspect, however, that economics and a desire to exploit a controversial issue in order to sow division both play key roles.
“Certainly the ‘wedge issue’ hypothesis is one that lines up with related findings about the kinds of social and political issues that can be exploited to inflame passions and divide the electorate,” Dorius, an ISU assistant sociology professor, said.
“But unlike some of the other issues identified in prior research, debates about GMOs are deeply connected with international trade, environmental and food policy, and the strategically important issue of food security,” he continued. “That we are seeing a pattern of contrast between the US model of agriculture, and what Russian news frames as a cleaner, alternative agriculture system, suggests that there may be different, or additional motivations.”
Russian state media all-in on anti-GMO message
The discovery that Russia is acting “as a central, if largely unknown, purveyor of anti-GMO information” was almost accidental. Dorius and Lawrence-Dill had initially set out to try to learn more about American opinions on genetic modification by reviewing the comments sections on GMO articles published on the websites of Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, Breitbart and Huffington Post — media selected to represent the full ideological spectrum.
“When we started this investigation, our goal was to try to figure out more about the pro- and anti-GMO sentiment,” Lawrence-Dill, an ISU associate professor of agronomy and genetics, said. “We thought that if we could figure out where the sentiment derives from, perhaps we could put information out there to make people better understand GMOs and then that fear might go away.”
As they started their research, however, the topic of Russian meddling in the US election and reports of Russian troll farms were inescapable. Acting “on a strange lark,” Lawrence-Dill said they decided to look into how GMOs were portrayed on the English-language editions of Sputnik and RT, two news sites funded by the Russian government.
They immediately realized they were on to something. Their analysis found that RT and Sputnik published more articles containing the word “GMO” than the five American news organizations combined. Not only were there more articles, the two outlets also overwhelmingly portrayed GMOs negatively in contrast to the more balanced approach of the US outlets.
“Russian misinformation attacks reflected the full spectrum of anti-GMO attitudes, covering, for example, environmental concerns (cross-pollination, species loss, chemical pollution), health risks (a cause of cancer, Zika), nutritional deficiencies, political corruption, negative social and economic consequences for developing countries (suicide of Indian farmers), corporate malfeasance (manipulation of facts by Monsanto), and corruption of federal regulatory agencies,” the researchers wrote. “The extensive nature of Russian News portrayal of GMOs reflects a deep understanding of the psychological antecedents of public distrust in bioengineering and an intent to more firmly link these antecedents in the public consciousness.”
There was also something “very different” about the GMO articles published on RT and Sputnik, Lawrence-Dill said.
“There was this weird thing where you would see the GMO issue purposely inserted into articles that had nothing to do with the topic,” she said. “The article would be about something most people would find abhorrent, like child pornography, or at least controversial, like abortion, and then you’d get to the bottom of them and see a link about GMOs. By then, the reader’s mind is already in this very negative place and so by extension, GMOs must be negative too.”
The researchers said these types of insertions “were designed to create latent associations between GMOs and negative emotions.” According to Lawrence-Dill, the strategy was clearly intentional and “too complex to be the work of automated bots.”
As a whole, the GMO misinformation campaign coming from Russia “fits the profile of the Russian information warfare strategy described in recent military reports,” the researchers said.
Shared messaging with American anti-GMO groups
The anti-GMO content of RT and Sputnik often closely mirrored the messages of anti-GMO groups like US Right to Know, Center for Food Safety and Greenpeace. Dorius stressed however that nothing indicates that those groups are in any way linked to the Russian campaign.
“Many of the arguments, news articles and common tropes that have been circulated among anti-GMO organizations also appear in Russian news coverage. In that respect, we are seeing a consistent portrayal of GMOs in English-language Russian news that broadly agrees with those of organizations that oppose GMOs,” he said.
“The messages of organizations such as GM Watch and US Right To Know appear to have been amplified by Russian news in the same way that anti-fracking, pro-Trump, and Black Lives Matter messages were also amplified by a Russian influence campaign,” Dorius continued. “Having your beliefs and policy positions systematically amplified does not make them any more or less true, but it can certainly make them more visible.”
The researchers are careful to say that they simply do not know if some of the comments made on popular anti-GMO platforms may actually be coming from Russian trolls, but they have their suspicions.
“While our work is still ongoing, we are detecting some patterns and anomalies that lead us to believe that not all of the commenting around GMOs are the manifestation of ‘organic’ conversations among ordinary people. Rather, we see evidence of troll-like actors that reflect systematic efforts to influence perceptions,” Dorius said.
One “interesting trope” that Dorius said was found in both the Russian GMO articles and amongst the comment sections of popular anti-GMO platforms is the notion that agribusiness companies or industry groups have hired an army of trolls to promote genetic engineering in comments sections. Accusations along those lines can also be found in comments left on the Alliance for Science website and social media channels.
It is perhaps then not surprising that when this new ISU research was first published in the Des Moines Register, it led to accusations that the study had been funded by the agriculture industry. Lawrence-Dill said she received one angry message demanding to know the source of her funding and threatening to issue a FOIA request. For the record, the project was funded by the ISU Crop Bioengineering Center and the ISU Plant Sciences Institute Faculty Scholars. “Both sources of funding solely are state dollars provided to the university,” Dorius said.
The research paper “Sowing the seeds of skepticism: Russian state news and the anti-GMO movement” is in preparation for peer review at GM Crops and Food. A preprint manuscript, along with a link to the supporting data, can be found here.