"Tell people something they
know already and they will thank you for it. Tell them something new and they will hate you
The Fake Persuaders
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 a technique called "viral marketing".
Last month, the viruses appear to have murdered their host. One of the world's foremost
scientific journals was persuaded to do something it has 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, disseminating
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 seen 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 organization 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, it 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 senior executive from Monsanto is quoted on the Bivings
site, thanking the PR firm for its "outstanding work".
On 29 November last year, two researchers at the University of California, Berkeley published
a paper in Nature magazine, which claimed that native maize in Mexico had been contaminated,
across vast distances, by GM pollen. The paper was a disaster for the biotech companies
seeking to persuade Mexico, Brazil and the European 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
glittering research post if he withheld his paper, then told him that he knew where to find
his children. In the US, Chapela's opponents have chosen a different form of assassination.
On the day the paper was published, messages started to appear on a biotechnology listsever
used by more than 3000 scientists, called AgBioWorld. The first came from a correspondent
named "Mary Murphy". Chapela is on the board of directors of the Pesticide Action Network,
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 the list, "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 Berkeley. AgBioWorld launched a petition pointing to the paper's "fundamental
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,
in 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 "Andura Smetacek"?
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 address 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 is that my message to her did
not mention biotechnology. I told her only that I was researching an article about internet
Smetacek has, on different occasions, given her address as "London" and "New York". But the
electoral rolls, telephone directories and credit card records in both London and the entire
United States reveal no "Andura Smetacek". Her name appears only on AgBioWorld and a few
other listservers, on which she has posted scores of messages falsely 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 Center For Food and
Agricultural Research". The center 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.