Researchers from Iowa State University are claiming that US versions of popular Russian-funded news media are littered with articles and links casting genetically modified organisms in a negative light. It’s an effort, say the researchers, to discredit American agricultural practices and to portray Russian crops as an “ecologically cleaner” alternative to GMOs.
ISU sociologist Shawn Dorius, along with Carolyn Lawrence-Dill, an associate professor at the university’s Department of Genetics, Development, and Cell Biology, shared their findings at Iowa State University Crop Bioengineering Center’s annual meeting. The study is still undergoing peer review, but it’s already starting to attract attention.
“Compared to a wide range of American news media, two Russian news agencies—RT and Sputnik—were more likely to report on GMOs and to cast GMOs in an explicitly or implicitly negative light,” Dorius told Gizmodo. “The evidence suggest that the difference between Russian news concerning GMOs and US news on the same topic is not random.”
Dorius and Lawrence-Dill were investigating how American media outlets portray genetic engineering and biotechnology when they decided to include US versions of RT and Sputnik in their analysis, both of which are funded by the Russian government. They found that RT and Sputnik produced more articles containing the word “GMO” than five other news outlets combined. GMOS are organisms, whether plants or animals, that have had their genetic material altered in a way that doesn’t occur naturally through the processes of Darwinian selection.
“RT accounted for 34% of the articles we scraped, followed by Sputnik (19%), Huffington Post (18%), Fox News (15%), CNN (8%), Breitbart News (6%), and MSNBC (<1%),” write the authors in the study.
After classifying the articles based on tone and bias, the researchers found that RT and Sputnik “overwhelmingly” cast genetic modification in a negative light. The Russian “misinformation attacks” covered a wide array of anti-GMO sentiments, including environmental concerns, health risks, nutritional deficiencies, political corruption, negative socioeconomic consequences for developing countries, and so on.
“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,” write the researchers in their study.
In addition to these heavily biased online posts, the researchers found that many tangentially related articles in the Russian publications contained “GMO click bait,” that is, embedded links to articles with a decidedly negative tone. For example, an article in RT about the Zika virus contained a link to a post titled, “GMO mosquitoes could be cause of Zika outbreak, critics say,” while another RT post 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.”
GMOs are unquestionably a contentious topic, with at least half of all Americans believing their safety is an unsettled issue, and just 14 percent correctly knowing that “almost all” scientists agree about the safety of GMO foods for human consumption. GMOs are currently banned in Russia and in three dozen other nations, but they’re lauded for their many potential benefits, such as conferring resistance to drought, insects, and herbicides, for their added nutrition, and for improving crop yields. In 2016, more than 100 Nobel Prize winners signed an open letter expressing their support for GMOs.
Back in 2014, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said “If the Americans like to eat GMO products, let them eat it then. We don’t need to do that; we have enough space and opportunities to produce organic food.” Medvedev may have been sincere, or he could have be covering for the fact that Russian science lags behind the US and other developers of GMOs. A recent article in the Des Moines Register quotes Dorius on this possibility:
Anti-GMO messaging is a wedge issue not only within the U.S. but also between the U.S. and its European allies, many of whom are deeply skeptical of GMOs. Stirring the anti-GMO pot would serve a great many of Russia’s political, economic and military objectives. 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. This is an area where U.S. science is strong worldwide — especially so, relative to Russia.”
More speculatively, it could be Russia’s way of lashing out at the US for imposing economic sanctions after it annexed Crimea and backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. Dorius agrees that it’s difficult to know Russia’s motives, or even if it’s behind these targeted misinformation campaigns, saying that requires a fair amount of speculation beyond what he and Lawrence-Dill observed in the data. Still, the situation looks fishy.
“Prior research that has looked at Russian information warfare and computational propaganda efforts asserts that a primary motive is to divide the US electorate and erode trust in the foundational institutions of western societies,” Dorius told Gizmodo. “Nothing we have seen in our data would lead us to reject such an interpretation. On the contrary, we are seeing some emerging patterns in our data, including negative portrayals of science, biotech industries, international trade agreements, and US governance and regulatory agencies.”
When asked if he contacted either of the Russian-funded publications to ask if their content was being guided from above, Dorius told Gizmodo, “we have not had communication with RT or Sputnik.”
Sustainable Pulse, an anti-GMO website, is skeptical of the ISU findings. In an article posted earlier today titled “Pro-GMO Researchers Attempt to Use Anti-Russian Sentiment to Attack Media,” the publication complains that Dorius and Lawrence-Dill work in a lab that’s partly funded by the “pro-GMO” US National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) and that the ISU researchers “sadly have a long history of receiving massive funding from the GMO industry and its supporters.” To Sustainable Pulse director Henry Rowlands, the question is not that Russian news media is covering GMOs in an unbalanced way—it’s that American publications aren’t covering the topic nearly enough. “It may seem unusual to some but on this topic the Russian media has more freedom than the US media,” he told his own publication.
Dorius suspects that many people, and publications like Sustainable Pulse, who have strong anti-GMO attitudes will be suspicious of his findings in the same way that many supporters of President Trump remain skeptical of Russian influence on US elections.
“I would hope our findings encourage a more expansive way of thinking about who should be allowed to exert influence on US public opinion,” he said. “Opinion polls indicate that most Americans are not keen on being the subject of foreign state propaganda campaigns. But the American public is exposed to other kinds of large-scale, sophisticated messaging campaigns on a daily basis.”
Dorius points to overt campaigns that rely on paid ads and branded marketing materials, and less overt campaigns involving bots, trolls, disinformation, and so on.
“How should Americans protect themselves against unwanted influence? Should we have a right to say no to propaganda exposure?” he asks. “Besides being interesting, these sorts of discussions will likely have real consequences for open societies such as ours.”
This latest, and still unpublished, research doesn’t prove that the Russian state is behind the plethora of anti-GMO articles in RT and Sputnik, nor does it show whether this content is actually swaying public opinion in the US. But regardless of one’s opinion on GMOs, the suggestion that another country is actively trying to sway the perspectives of US citizens in ways that are self-serving should be a cause for alarm.