“It’s getting ‘shilly’ out there!” That is my usual reaction when I glaze through my morning twitter breakfast buffet of gratuitous insults from pro-organic activists. I understand that being positive towards genetic engineering, agri-tech and conventional agriculture in Brussels is enough to justify name-calling and bullying (forget dialogue or discussion in today’s volatile policy landscape!). But I am always curious why people who think they are so good act so badly toward those who disagree with them.
I’m often told: David, rise above them! or: Don’t stoop to their levels! But I’ve seen these bullies before and as their desperation or frustration increases, so do their personal attacks.
- I have a hard time tolerating lies and deceitfulness;
- I have a hard time tolerating those who use fear and emotion to counter facts and reason;
- I have a hard time tolerating those who attack others rather than engage in dialogue;
- I have a hard time tolerating those who bully professionals who can’t fight back because of their ethical codes of conduct.
I have a hard time rising above these ethically challenged bullies … and I don’t have to.
But at the beginning of the summer, I was personally subjected to three campaigns that were excessively critical, negative and designed to alienate me. I consider that as good news – a sign that I have been successful in provoking them and forcing some reasonableness into the debate. It also means I kept these bullies from spending their time harassing other much more important people!
Importantly, as a communications professor and researcher, I used these three personal episodes as a means to test out some approaches on how to handle the increasing tendency for ad hominem attacks and collective bully swarms. While the ideologues and activists walked away from these uncomfortable situations feeling quite self-satisfied, I walked away from them with case studies for others to consider in the next activist swarm.
Before going into the three case studies, we should clarify what an “activist” actually means.
Definition of an activist
An “activist” is someone ideologically committed to making the world a better place, standing up to fight injustice and protect the weak and vulnerable. They are volunteers, ethically concerned and driven by passion. They couldn’t possibly bully others!
I have just defined an ideal of humanity. All people (hell, even the Risk-Monger) want to behave in this manner and those who lack these qualities deserve to be called “evil”. So let’s start off this discussion with the obvious: All people engaged in an issue want to make the world a better place; nobody willingly enjoys drowning kittens.
- Activists are ideologically pure, holding to a fundamentalist dogma they would rather fight for through campaigns than engage and listen to others through dialogue. They will likely accept contradictions before changing their minds.
- Activists tend to work for NGOs, surrounding themselves with like-minded, salaried ideologues in Monday-morning tribal aggression. Their belief system hence is influenced by pragmatic issues of fund-raising and measuring public campaign tolerance.
- Activists tend to believe they are morally superior to others (who disagree with them and are thus evil). I have written on the concept of zealot ethics – a willingness to behave unethically to answer to a higher standard of righteousness.
- Activists are happy to exclude or use the weak and the vulnerable to advance their campaign, either through running bogus fear campaigns or deflecting negative consequences (like increased food or energy prices).
- Activists have a single-minded aim: to change the world.
– They achieve this by rejecting current narratives and going through intellectual gymnastics to be critical of any positive human achievements that do not justify their ideology.
– They achieve this by forming networks of networks to work together and often provide an impression of a large popular voice (while essentially being a few non-transparent PR hacks in a room).
The problem is that when someone like that Risk-Monger bastard stands up to an activist, he unleashes a storm of Stupid that reveals the zealots’ true colours. Bullies drawn into a circle and forced to show their outrage reveal a lot about the nature of the beast. The following three case studies throw some light on activist bullies and how to manage them. As their frustration and anger make them more awful (has anyone read Paul Thacker recently?) and as social media gives them more influence, we need to have a discussion on how to handle the bully bullshit.
This is my contribution.
Episode One: You’re not qualified
For activists, the best way to win a debate is to exclude any dissenting voices. We have seen this with closed (over-subscribed) NGO events in the European Parliament, the pure-pedigree Monsanto Tribunal or the continual demands to exclude industry actors from panels, consultations and dialogues. Recently the organic lobby has moved to associate conventional farmers with industry, discredit plant biologists and undermine scientific institutions supplanting them with their own narrative-friendly actors (organic gardeners as the real farmers, litigation consultants as scientists and IARC as the only credible scientific agency). Pro-agri-tech science communicators were a threat to this strategy and needed to be disqualified.
One day an idle Risk-Monger comment on social media resulted in 12 well-known Antis joining in on a twitter swarm trying to discredit my background and humiliate me out of having a say in the debate. It was so well-structured, so immediately intense and so volatile as to peak my curiosity – this bully swarm did not just happen by accident. What was the motivation for this and how could I learn from them and their practices?
It went on over all time zones (from California to New Zealand to India to Europe to Washington) for ten days, and rather than backing down to their bully tactics or blocking them and just walking away, I poked them, provoked responses that no normal person could accept and tried to break up the pack. It was a fascinating exploration into the mindset of activist zealots, their value structures and their challenges. While they thought they were joyfully insulting me within their confirmation gang, I was studiously learning what made them tick.
I wondered how far these zealots would delve into despicableness to preserve the purity of their religion. Philli, an organic farmer, likened the suffering of poor farm workers pulling weeds to her treadmill workouts at a spa. In other words, she is OK with the consequences of banning herbicides … and those in the twitter swarm supported her.
Another activist scientist, a veterinarian, considered personal attacks on her as the same as being “intellectually raped by 10,000 Monsanto trolls”. How do you enter into a rational discussion with activists like this? I tried.
Most in this wolf-pack got shy when I tried to get their views on vaccines.
At one point, one of the nastier activists, Glyphosate=Cancer, published a screenshot of my LinkedIn account accidentally revealing his personal details. None of these activists use their real names and work to hide their true identities. Sure enough, I revealed that he was a corporate VP in a multinational who has been outed as a misogynist preying on women half his age. Would the others in the pack isolate him and agree (with a “Monsanto shill”) that moral rectitude was important for their cause? Apparently not. A few contacted me personally and removed themselves from the swarm, but many of the lead actors like Olivefarmer and Notorious KGB defended Kieran’s bad-ass history (Olivefarmer even crowed that the girls looked “old enough”). A wolf is only as strong as the pack and Glyphosate=Cancer had a value in the battle against “evil” (however horrible his history may be).
This confirmed my position on zealot ethics and the moral vacancy of such Machiavellianism.
Episode Two: Shill Report
Imagine waking up one morning to find that someone had published a 14-page exposé on you. The first thing I had thought was: “Me??? You can’t be serious! Who would pay someone to do that???” I had planned to start my morning with a cup of coffee; I had planned to spend a good part of that day grading papers. Instead I found myself, at the end of May, flipping through the story of my life written by some anonymous person with serious anger issues.
OK, communications professor, how should you handle such a situation?
Rule #1: Know your audience before crafting your message. People who knew me would find this report and the efforts to link me to Monsanto as, well, quite funny; those who didn’t know me had hoped to see my outrage explode in a fit of righteous indignation and emotional pain. So of course I decided to take the lead and have fun with it.
Before the “researcher” had a chance to communicate the report, I shared it on twitter and Facebook, defining the tone as ridiculous while mocking the people who wasted time and money trying to “expose” me. They were sad, ignorant hypocrites, but at least they were worth a chuckle.
The same band of Antis from the twitter swarm from the week before were right there, back at me, cooing over a report that essentially read through my CV (which I had published online twelve years ago). In the exchanges that ensued it became clear that the author of the report was someone who called himself a journalist by the name of Nico DaVinci. His real name (if transparency ever mattered to these charlatans) is Steffen Hocker who makes a living selling glyphosate pee test kits in Germany. Were the activists OK working with a hypocrite who was merely involved in the debate to profit from the fear they were peddling? Apparently, again, yes!
But this time, the pack of wolves in the twitter swarm took another turn, making it more personal. They started to generate memes with my face filtered in unflattering ways. (Activists seem to have a lot more time than professors!) They were all laughing and sharing these memes waiting for my expected blow of outrage. Instead I joined in and shared my views on the quality of their artwork. I even went so far as to use one of them (see image) as my twitter cover for a couple days (until I remembered that I was about to travel to North America). Within a minute, literally, of my changing my twitter home image, they dispersed. It seemed like some coordinator had sent out a “retreat” message.
At the end of the day, if I don’t take others seriously, I had better not dare take myself seriously either. Otherwise, I would play into their hands. I am not sure whether anyone has read this exposé or continues to give money to “(Dis)Qualify your Sources” to do more such reports. If I had taken the bait and expressed outrage at their unethical behaviour, certainly more would have.
What struck me is just how much the activists coordinate with each other offline (even for a twitter slam on a harmless professor in Brussels). We saw that with email chains run by GM Watch as well as how PAN, Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety coordinated the Berkeley 45 letter against the movie Food Evolution – both released by Stephan Neidenbach.
Episode Three: “Journalist” slander
When the “indefatigable” anti-chemicals activist, Stéphane Horel, contacted me for an interview for an article on glyphosate she was preparing, I thought to myself, “Oh sweet Jesus, not again!”. I have had a storied history with this little activist – none of our meetings being at all pleasant and none of them fact-based. I understood that if I did not respond, she would put lies in my mouth, but if I responded, she would twist my words to meet her biased prejudices. This was, in other words, a “no-win” situation.
So I agreed to participate on the condition that I would be able to publish my answers at the same time that Stéphane published her article. If you don’t trust someone, you need to take precaution. At the same time, I wrote my responses to this activist knowing full well that it would be fully public. This also put Horel in a difficult situation since she really could not use my information in the abusive way she had intended without making her and her little band of “Merry Men” I had focused on look dogmatically dubious.
I almost blushed when Horel’s article came out. It was supposed to be an attack on Monsanto but her fixation on me (consuming eight of 40 paragraphs) was almost pathological. How should one respond to such a situation? There is no point arguing with a jackass with a megaphone, but rather, I understood that many in Horel’s audience did not share her hostile view of the world or her paranoia. So on social media, I welcomed my new followers in French, with links to the French translation of the blog with the image she used. The message was clear to those who came to my page from LeMonde: I’m open and I welcome open debate. That day I received two donations on my PayPal account with warm personal messages in French.
During a twitter discussion, Horel and her Corporate Europe Observatory paymaster, Martin Pigeon, did not seem to understand that it is unacceptable for her to be paid by an activist organisation while still calling herself a journalist on subjects she is paid to write. Pigeon seemed to think all people are paid to express their views (wither activist passion?) and the only problem was that my “paymasters” have more money than his. People watching that discussion came back to me astonished by their vacant void of integrity. I was baffled by Pigeon’s cynicism and negativity that activists in his circle only did things they were paid to do. I’m happy I still have a soul!
Did Stéphane Horel succeed? I am sure she felt good about herself while writing her little tirade. I’m sure her small group of friends all cheered. Do LeMonde readers wake up every morning hating me? Quite simply she elevated my status while those who did not care moved on to the next story within a few minutes. In the newsprint generation, her diatribes would be lining the bottom of the birdcage within minutes while giving me the opportunity to open more discussions with French readers.
And as for those answers I had supplied following Horel’s original contact? That blog is still being shared and is now translated in French.
Eight Tips on How to Handle the Bully Bullshit
All three episodes, however momentarily unpleasant, were communications research opportunities. Here are eight take-home points I could draw from them:
- In the polarised Age of Stupid, shed your ego and develop thick skin. In the agri-tech debate, having a position makes you a target for abuse by those who think ad hominem attacks trump evidence.
- There is no longer the simple profession of a journalist today. Media organisations like LeMonde or The guardian run stories tied to campaigns they execute and the freelancers they contract have a bias they seek to confirm. Treat little terrors like Thacker, Horel, Gillam, Hakim and Foucart as threats to reason and science.
- Social media insults last for a few minutes and then these trolls wander on to graze on somebody else’s exposed carcass. Those “15 seconds of defamation” are quickly forgotten so don’t sweat insults from activists.
- Don’t take yourself seriously. A troll tries to insult and bully you with juvenile name-calling for a reason. If you don’t get upset, or better, if you can laugh with them, they will lose interest.
- Call the activists out on their hypocrisy and contradictions. At some level, especially with environmental activists, their bullying is based on a need to be accepted as good people (morally superior to the “shills”). Demonstrate the bumps on their moral high road. You might wake one up and ignite some integrity!
- Remember that your discussion is not with them, but with those watching the attacks. Many onlookers with mixed views saw the Antis defending a misogynist, a vindictive journalist going off-script and a pathetic attempt to smear a professor with a cheap exposé – after all of that, could they trust anything these activists would say afterwards? However noisy, they are a small percentage of the public.
- Understand that the activists leading attacks have a closed page where they discuss their strategies, call up trolls during swarms and compare experiences. Try to confuse and separate them with moral dilemmas: Should they be supporting the shady opportunists or misogynists among themselves?
- Accept, regrettably, that it is going to get uglier. As the science on agri-tech is becoming clear, the benefits more widely seen and the scientists more outspoken, the desperation of the organic lobby militants will force them to further cross boundaries of acceptability. Dig in for the long haul!
There are many who do not approve of my combative approach, and I get that. I believe there are many roles for different actors in this debate.
- I know that corporate representatives have ethical codes of conduct that prevent them from engaging in the mud-pit or retaliating to activist attacks and personal smear campaigns.
- I understand that certain scientists have reputations to defend and need to rise above the antics of the NGO campaigners.
- I get that conventional farmers need to keep good community relations and often share practices with organic farmers.
But at the same time, when the organic lobby continues to fund activists who lie and run baseless fear campaigns to scare vulnerable consumers, when they push cowardly policymakers over the edge of common sense, when they vilify good people … I firmly believe there is a need for individuals to grab these bullies by the horns.