In Defense of Open Dialogue

Originally published on the Genetic Literacy Project on 4 August 2016
See Stephan Neidenbach’s reflection on how the site was closed

On August 2, the Facebook page for We Love GMOs and Vaccines suffered yet another activist swarm attack where anti-vaxxers and campaigners against GM technology coordinated a large number of complaints in order get Facebook to shut the page down. The best way, it seems, for someone to stop dialogue and avoid facts is to silence the critics. Facebook was duped by a band of cunning zealots and needs to fix this trick that can be exploited to take any site down.

While operatives like Joseph Mercola or Gary Ruskin may feel their standing, book sales and sponsorship agreements are threatened by people who disagree with them and their narrow-minded worldviews, I feel that willingly shutting down contrarian sites and social media pages is far from democratic. Do we really want to live in a world where we are all forced to listen to their views, and only them?

I myself have no problem with the antis wanting to believe in the mystical power of ginger, medieval farming practices and that the pharmaceutical industry is actively trying to cause diseases. I understand that it is fair game for them to make innocent people share these fears and give them their money and that it is up to people who trust science and industry to therefore do a better job communicating a clear message. But where I have a serious problem is when these people band together to deceptively shut down the dialogue tools and censor others from sharing information, data and opposing positions.

How can a group of activist zealots get FB to declare a pro-science site as unsafe? Facebook needs to fix this fast!

Censoring other views and closing debate is fascism and does a disservice to the green/organic movement that funds and supports such activity. I know that most individuals who follow these activists are good people and would not knowingly tolerate such behavior. Something must be done to instill a more ethical approach to how the debate is conducted. The people hiding behind this latest abuse of the dialogue process are shameless – they lack any moral compass – and leaders in the organic food industry lobby must themselves speak out against them.

David Zaruk
The Risk-Monger

What follows are some reactions from other science communicators. We stand together in declaring that this unethical behavior is intolerable.

Kevin Folta, Professor, University of Florida

We see scientific information suppressed with two main tactics. First by attacking or discrediting the messenger rather than the evidence. If that fails, opponents find a way to stop the public from seeing the evidence in the first place. It is sad to see any voices silenced, but especially those that are presenting a message consistent with the scientific consensus. The voices of science and reason must never implement these tactics.

Hank Campbell, President of American Council on Science and Health, Founder of Science 2.0.

We’ve all been victims of anti-science groups engaging in libel, fraud, smear campaigns and cyber-terrorism. Pro-science groups, including the corporations activists demonize, don’t engage in that kind of behavior because no one that unethical can get hired in the private sector, or in reputable non-profits.

Marcel Kuntz, Director of Research at CNRS (France).

I condemn this attitude against scientific debate and open thinking.

Mark Lynas, Visiting Fellow, Cornell Alliance for Science

If it is true that this is a deliberate attack in order to take We Love GMOs and Vaccines off Facebook, this can only have come about as a coordinated attack by those who feel threatened by Stephan’s message. It is particularly ironic because both aspects of the Facebook page will upset some of the same people: many of the loudest voices against GMOs also campaign against vaccines, such as the Organic Consumers Association, which opposes vaccines and claims that vitamin remedies can cure Ebola. The anti-science memes are proliferating on the internet, and we badly need corrective, evidence-led voices, such as from We Love GMOs and Vaccines.

Jenny Splitter, Writer, Contributor: 

The We Love GMOs and Vaccines page has been an important voice for science advocacy — sparking debate and rich conversation with its 70K followers. Now it seems that a group of anti-science, pro-censorship activists want to take down Stephan Neidenbach and the entire WLGV page. Facts, evidence and science are threatening to their echo chamber, so they’ve decided to target the page over and over again, effectively censoring the page’s pro-science content from Facebook. Stephan and the other contributors at We Love GMOs and Vaccines work so hard to promote science, debunk myths and support the work of scientists, science advocates and writers like me. So it’s unfair — heck, it’s just plain ridiculous that a small group of people can get a page banned from Facebook simply because they disagree with the content. It’s especially ridiculous when you consider that the “objectionable” content IS JUST SCIENCE! Science is objectionable? Science is offensive? The people who hate GMOs and vaccines are welcome to disagree with the page and shout it from the rooftops, but they shouldn’t have the power to remove content from Facebook. Facebook should have a better mechanism for dealing with these anti-science crusaders.

James Gurney, Microbiologist and science advocate (The League of Nerds)

Advocating for science is now more important than ever. Research is becoming evermore complex and the public has a right to understand what science and scientists are doing. At the same time it is part of our duty to make sure misinformation and lies are directly challenged. Advocacy groups like We love GMOs and Vaccines are increasingly coming under fire against a small minority of activists who have bought into fraudulent ideals. Ideals that give them permission to harass and endanger lives. Although in this case a flaw in Facebook’s reporting system was taken advantage of, there have been serious cases of public researchers threatened with letter bombs and their personal lives invaded. This largely stems from the same place, we as scientists and advocates need to do more to convince people of how wonderful and bright science has made our future. We should not be the enemy, the only fight science should be involved in is the fight against ignorance.

Susanne Günther, Writer:

Regulation of the contents on Facebook should be based on a serious review. It should never be possible that crowds of organized attacks can silence a respected site.

L. Val Giddings, Ph.D. (Genetics)

Suppression of disfavored viewpoints is one of the classic techniques of totalitarians that has no place in free and democratic societies. The kind of targeted harassment and libelous assaults to which Mr. Neidenbach has been subjected, with the heedless collusion of Facebook, is corrosive to the essential values of freedom. Facebook needs immediately to restore his pages, and sanction the accounts from which the attacks emanated. Facebook also needs to step up their game to preempt and prevent such intolerable subversion of the values of an open society. Too much is at stake for them to do any less.

Ludger Wess, Science writer

People with a scaremongering agenda – whether they are trying to sell products and cures or collect donations and votes –  don’t like evidence-based facts and are trying to evade critical questions and discussions. A long-standing social media tactic therefore has been accusing critical users of being „paid shills“ by science-based industries and by blocking them so that they cannot comment on the lobbyists’ Twitter and Facebook sites. This habit already is common for numerous Green party European parliamentarians.
However this does not remove the evidence from the web. The new tactic therefore is trying to silence researchers and groups advocating science. In the U.S., this is done via „Freedom-of-Information“ requests filed by NGOs against researchers who do not share the NGOs’ views (be it climate science, GMOs, pesticides, agriculture, animal experiments, or fishery). These requests consume a lot of time and tax money. In parallel, anti-science activists have now started using carefully orchestrated swarming tactics which exploit social media algorithms to silence social media sites viewed as dangerously interfering with the lobbyists’ agendas.
All these approaches are being justified as serving the „greater good“ of the environment, the planet, and life in general. However, it dangerously undermines freedom of speech as well as science and research; it’s censorship and dictatorship and the road towards eco-fascism. It is already costing lives, e.g. by scaring people into avoiding life-saving treatments and preventive measures such as vaccinations, and by denying Third-world farmers access to technologies that would otherwise boost their productivity and allow them to feed more people. We need to stop this development.

Michael Robin, Science writer

So the purple cow is once again in the activist crosshairs. Once again, the mob has managed to take the We Love GMOs and Vaccines Facebook page offline, this time possibly for good. Folks, these tactics are childish. Seriously, mobbing a Facebook page and getting it shut down? In terms of public debate, these actions are at a level comparable to sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling “nah, nah, nah, I can’t hear you!” It’s giving your opponent a wedgie to try to bully him into shutting up, instead of actually listening to his arguments and trying to counter with some of your own. Yes, we all know, cognitive dissonance is a painful thing. It’s not easy to listen to, much less consider, ideas that run counter to our cherished beliefs. But listen we must. To do otherwise is to surrender to fear. And fear, whether it be personal or societal, is a poor and dangerous ruler.

Chow Babe, Food Science blogger

The removal of Stephan Neidenbach’s page We Love GMOs and Vaccines (WLGV) should frighten us all. It wasn’t simply about disagreeing with his ideas on science, GMOs, and vaccines, it was about silencing his views on those ideas so no one else could hear them. Unlike other pages, my page is neither a skeptic page nor a science page. I do not “science”. Still, I appreciate science and the science community, and have the ability to recognize the futility of alkaline, gluten-free water when I see it. Stephan is one of the people I go to when I want to science. There are calls to retaliate against pseudoscience pages by reporting them off of Facebook. It’s tempting but it would be a mistake. In the battle for the vast middle of people who haven’t made up their minds about the causes for which we fight everyday, I’ve found that humor, satire, and, occasionally, mockery of extremely ludicrous positions is far more effective. There is woo everywhere and removing a Facebook page or group in retaliation isn’t going to convince anyone of anything. People will just seek woo elsewhere. The most effective thing we can do in response to WLGV being removed is to have fun, share from other science pages, and advocate for reform of the dreaded Facebook algorithm so that it isn’t so easily abused.

Steve Savage, Agricultural scientist

I am disappointed and somewhat surprised that Facebook allowed itself to be manipulated.  That social media platform is a major source of disinformation sharing so it would be logical to actively protect speech that is in line with the consensus of the scientific community.  I am not surprised that this sort of attack would come from those opposed to vaccinations and modern biotechnology.  Fear and emotional manipulation have consistently been their tactics and their agenda is most threatened by people having access to good information, facts, perspective etc.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. John Tsouris says:

    Facebook drop down menu —> report a problem —-> something isn’t working ——> product = pages ——> Leave comment about how the page was removed, and also your professional credentials if you have them.


    1. riskmonger says:

      Thanks John – we have been doing this by the 100s, but the anti’s were complaining by the 100,000s. It is hard to fight “Stupid” – there are just too many of them!


  2. Reblogged this on schillipaeppa and commented:
    Die Mechanismen und Kriterien, nach denen facebook Inhalte löscht, sind intransparent. Offenbar reicht es, massenhaft Meldungen einzureichen, um eine ganze Seite zu schließen. Das sollte geändert werden. Jetzt wurde die Wissenschaftsseite “We love GMOs und Vaccines” von Aktivisten zum Schweigen gebracht. David Zaruk beschreibt Hintergründe sowie den öffentlichen Protest dagegen.


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