When Bad Science gets Good Legs: online activism and impacts for food security

May 23, 2011

We are dealing with a whole new kind of anti-GM advocacy ‘animal’ these days… made stronger, faster with a wider scope of influence due, in large part, to the internet.

A study conducted by the Pew Institute in 2008 showed, at that point, that some 40% of survey respondents get most of their news from the Internet. This number was up almost 24% from the previous year. This trend in technological uptake is rising as TV and traditional newspapers as sources of news and information are on a steady decline (Pew Research Centre 2008). Between 2000 and 2010, internet usage grew, on average, 400+% worldwide (World Internet Users / Population Stats 2011).

Why does this matter? Well, anti-GM groups have changed their ‘modus operandi’. Once, interest groups would lobby or demonstrate or, in some extreme cases, resort to vandalizing field trials (twenty eights acts of vandalism were reported between January 1999 and April 2003 at the John Innes Institute and the Scottish Crop Research Institute (Galbraith 2003)). But now, a whole new generation of activism has evolved. Interest groups are rapidly adopting social media as a way to influence public opinion and to disparage modern plant biotechnology and associated practices. Given the Internet’s capacity to hyperlink across geographic boundaries and the relative low-cost of access to the Web and affiliated tools, it is used as a primary “organizing tool” for many non-government organizations (activists, civil society organizations, etc). As more and more advocacy activities move online, the need for off-line staffing and memberships to support these organizations dwindles. Thus, even the smallest of interest groups can greatly impact public opinion on a subject with a well-executed online campaign strategy. They can quickly build coalitions and mobilize the public around specific issues of interest at relatively low marginal costs (Ryan 2010).

This is the new reality or the ‘new legs’ of activism. Anti-GM sentiments and information – inaccurate and lacking accountability mechanisms – circulate like wildfire, technologically enabled by the interconnected, fast-moving ‘trains’ of Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools. According to Paarlberg and Pray (2008), the claims of these anti-GMO activist organizations “…often gain quick acceptance …and on occasion they do have direct impacts on government policy…”

Complicating all this is the fact that scientists have been slow in terms of taking up social media as communication tools. According to Lackes, et al. (2009), very few scientists use social media tools, significantly lagging the adoption rates for both business and personal use. VALGEN (Value Addition through Genomics http://www.valgen.ca/) conducted a poll of its principal investigators and researchers at the annual VALGEN meetings in Banff in January 2010. Of the 28 scientists in the room, only 15 stated that they used social media tools and only a third of THOSE used social media for professional purposes (professional networking, recruitment, sharing/accessing knowledge) (VALGEN 2010). It seems that very few scientists are equipped to respond to the anti-GM movement in the context of the Internet.

The adoption of social media tools and online activism shows no signs of stopping. It makes dealing with the outcomes of ‘bad science’ particularly problematic. Years ago, The Lancet published an article on a study that linked the administration of vaccines with Autism. The results of this study – which stood on incredibly shaky methodological legs – still managed to impact society as it circulated through the media and was endorsed by the power of ‘the celebrity’. The article was eventually retracted but the damage had long-since been done. Immunization rates had declined and incidences of childhood disease had increased (with, often, fatal results).

Another study, standing on similarly shaky methodological legs, also turned into a media frenzy when the lead researcher, Arpad Putsztai, claimed that GM potatoes caused damage to the digestive and immune systems of rats. The study results were only published in letter format in The Lancet but genetic engineering, plant biotechnology and the agriculture industry – overall – took a huge hit. Yet one more feather in the ‘anti-GM movement’ cap.

These are only a couple of several historical examples of how ‘bad science’ (improperly executed and poorly peer-reviewed) can potentially lead to undesirable outcomes and, arguably, social deficits. The difference between then and now is that social media has further empowered the anti-GM agenda to more quickly circulate inaccurate information ‘unchecked’. Take, for example, the recent headlines regarding the results of a study done in Quebec (published in Reproductive Toxicology)… “GM food toxins found in the blood of 93% of unborn babies”. This headline, or some version of it, has circulated through Twitter and Facebook and other social media platforms. If you Google key search words, pages upon pages are generated that refer to this study. The study’s methodology and its results, again, are questionable at best (see my previous blog for more on this: http://doccami.posterous.com/gmos-toxins-and-unborn-babies-a-deeper-examin). But the average reader or ‘Joe’ or ‘Jane Public’ doesn’t know that.

What we have here is a ‘perfect storm’ of factors that, in combination, could very well spell disaster for food security: First, an anti-GM agenda gaining traction via the Internet, through social media tools and fuelled by the influence of ‘the celebrity’. Second, the lack of uptake of social media as a communication tool by scientists and science-advocates and; finally, the politics (and failings) of the peer review process.

It is evident that in order to address these failings, we can no longer rest on our laurels. We cannot continue to do what we have always done. Leadership is needed. En masse response from science and science advocates is required.


Galbraith, K. (2003). “Vandalism Devastates Britain’s Genetically Altered Crops.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Available online at: http://chronicle.com/article/Vandalism-Devastates-Britains/14207/

Internet World Stats (2011). “Internet Usage Statistics: The Internet Big Picture.” Available online at: http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm

Paarlberg, R. and C. Pray. (2008). “Political Actors on the Landscape.” AgBioForum. Volumen 10, Number 3, Article 3. Available online at:http://www.agbioforum.org/v10n3/v10n3a03-paarlberg.htm

Pew Research Centre (2008). “Internet Overtakes Newspapers as News Outlet.” Available online at: http://people-press.org/2008/12/23/internet-overtakes-newspapers-as-news-outlet/

Ryan, Camille D. (2010). “Framing, Exploring and Understanding Online Anti-Technology Advocacy Networks.” Working Paper. Available online at: http://doccami.posterous.com/online-anti-technology-advocacy-networks-netw

VALGEN. (2010). “Genome Canada ABC Integration Workshop.” Banff, Canada. January 28-29. Available online at: http://www.valgen.ca/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/VALGEN-Banff-Workshop-Final-Report.pdf


4 thoughts on “When Bad Science gets Good Legs: online activism and impacts for food security

  1. It really is frustrating. On a major US political blog I hang out on, there’s a very popular poster who repeatedly lies about many things. One time she demanded that her followers call their Senators to stop the Global Food Security bill because it used the word “biotechnology”. She lied to claim that it meant developing country farmers would be required–forced–to plant GMOs.The particularly sad part of that was that the funding would have aided academic agricultural institutions with training in many tools of modern science. If they really grokked that, none of the followers would have wanted to prevent that. But I was shouted down because they wanted to believe the lies. I don’t know how to counter that. I try with science and data, evidence from the lawmakers who wrote the bill, I get no traction.

  2. Some things change, some things remain the same. Over the centuries, scientists have been preoccupied with science. After all, that’s what they do. Over the centuries, activists have been preoccupied with, well, the political flavor of the day. What will it take to get these two groups to trade places? Beats me, but I’d say it’s nearly impossible. But if scientists learn how to use social media to get grant money (like the activists already do), there will be a sea change. Over the centuries, prostitution has remained a viable business model.

  3. The antiscience and anti farmer activists never miss a chance to spread falsehood and lies. In India they avail the services of cine stars and muscians who have no knowledge about farming and the science behind it to appeal to the people not to use GM Crops.The medias are more interested in carrying spicy news which these activists cater. Perhaps Geneticaly Engineered crop is the only subject that can be commented and criticised by any one without the need to substantiate their allegations scientifically.The scientific community should raise up to the occassion and use the electronic and print media besides the social networking in creating the awareness about GM Crop.The public must be made aware of the various regulatory measures and safey aspects which these GM Crop trials undergo before they are commercialy made available. The only way to garner the support of the general public is to educate them and dispel the myths cast in their minds by the anti science activists through the media by launching an awareness campaign.The scientists,the biotech companies,seed industries and farmers must unite and expose the true images of these activists through the very same media they misused against science and technology. VKV.RAVICHANDRAN, FARMER T.NADU,INDIA

  4. Pingback: I smell a rat. « Cami Ryan

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