See the French translation
The EU glyphosate debate has become absurd and beyond any rational perspective. I keep having to remind myself of some basic points:
- Glyphosate is a useful herbicide with a very low level of human toxicity
- Monsanto is a mid-sized seed and pesticide company
- Seeds modified to be herbicide-resistant are not sold in the EU
- The alternatives for farmers post-glyphosate ban are unthinkable and unsustainable
But in the Age of Stupid, with the power of social media fear campaigns, glyphosate represents a battle between corporate dominance and the little person; between a poisonous industrial agriculture and safe organic farming; between captured regulatory science and the brave independent scientist fighting the bought system; between a food industry peddling cheap poisons and the gurus protecting the health and wellness of humanity.
Sorry Mr Monger, it is not simply a useful herbicide! This glyphosate debate is symbolic of the battle between good and evil.
Somehow a substance with a toxicity level below that of ingredients found in biscuits, chocolate and coffee is responsible not only for the potential risk of a rare type of cancer to farmers applying glyphosate, but it is now unanimously declared to be the main cause of autism, cancer, obesity, leaky gut, celiac and any allergy consumers may be suffering from. Exposure levels (detected in the part per trillion range) of this almost non-toxic herbicide do not matter when an IT researcher from MIT draws correlations. Glyphosate has become an emotional battle for humanity’s soul.
How did this happen in less than three short years?
Welcome to the Age of Stupid
We are living in the Age of Stupid. Social media has built walls around communities of shared ideals (tribes) that confirm people’s thinking and attack, ban or systematically repudiate people with differing ideas. Surrounded in our echo-chambers, our tribal gurus disconnect us from dialogue, raise emotional arguments to the point where anecdote serves as evidence and build trust by elevating fears and vulnerabilities their herd is designed to defend against. It is not that others are stupid, but as I surround myself only with people who think like me and confirm my bias, how would I ever be sure that I am not the Stupid one?
The Age of Stupid allows individuals with no budget to reach out directly to tribes (to breach their inner trust linings) – saying what needs to be heard in small, insulated communities of confirmation bias where emotional stories are personally shared and passionately internalised. Cat lovers can find other cat lovers, Neo-Nazis find Klansmen and they find the courage in their community to take the hoods off, and people afraid find others who understand (and exploit) their vulnerabilities. Social media is not simply a place to find friends – it is a tool to manipulate opinions and build walls around dialogue. It has been used and abused to get unpresidential people elected, radicalised kids into jihad and as we’ll see, to turn a useful, safe herbicide into an issue of good versus evil.
The Gang of 50
Social media allows little people to pretend to be big movements, amplify little researchers into inspired titans of science and convert fake news into known facts. If you repeat something 500 times, no matter how ridiculous, people will start to believe it; if you delete all of the negative comments on your Amazon book reviews and highlight what your friends and colleagues say, the ignorant will buy it; if you pretend that your Facebook page is a “Network” or “Watch”-dog, a cabal of clickivists and bots will like your page and then ignore you. Social media allows for Stupid to become believable.
In the 30 months I have been involved in the glyphosate debate, I think I know most of the actors. There are no more than 50 people who have invested time and money into stopping glyphosate. That seems like a lot, but the entire ban glyphosate movement could fit in my living room for tea. Many of these are activists for NGOs, small social media upstarts, Green Party members, people paid by the organic food industry lobby to write books, documentaries or work with litigation firms. Just 50 people!
- 50 people have been able to mobilise networks of activists to sign a one-million plus petition.
- 50 people have been able to get the media and policymakers to overlook the views of their entire regulatory science community.
- 50 people have been able to sway public opinion to put pressure on weak political leaders.
- 50 people have been able to threaten the way of life of twelve million EU farmers.
- 50 people have been able to build a lie, raise funds (often for personal gain), gain notoriety and express power against a system that offends them.
50 people have been able to pull off this scam in less than three years!
Who are these people? Some are activists who have morphed into the role of journalists (but once this issue has passed, if they aren’t excited about the next big health “crisis” chemical, they’ll just stop writing). Many of them are political operatives able to manipulate networks of passionate populists and opportunistic gurus – these 9-to-5 activists have the tools, the skills and the audacity to upend the policy process, but clock off at the end of the afternoon to enjoy a drink and a cigarette. Many are American carpetbaggers coming to Brussels to ban a substance widely used in the US in combination with GMOs (banned in the EU) – they have no interest in EU farmers but rather in exploiting the weak European regulatory structures to bring a “victory” back to Washington.
Of course there are the “slimy ones” like the American personal injury class action lawyers (who fly cancer victims to Brussels), the “journalists” with pseudonyms who sell glyphosate urine test kits to people they have frightened, the scientists with the lucrative litigation consulting contracts, the marketing managers peddling organic food or detox programmes – these bottom-feeders come and go when the opportunities arise and add volume but no commitment to the “cause”.
There are more hypocrites than fundamentalist zealots in the ban-glyphosate movement, militants raised to hate rather than putting forward an ideology, people with chips on their shoulders (perhaps they were fired, criticised by their peers …). Glyphosate is not simply a useful herbicide – it is a tool to vent rage and frustration.
Come on Mr Monger, you cannot be serious! You are trying to tell me that the entire regulatory mess Brussels is in, one that will likely tear apart the European comitology process and leave EU regulatory risk assessment agencies in tatters, the amount of news and discussions, the number of scientific studies are all due to around 50 angry subversives with self-esteem issues? It is just not possible.
Well … 50 is actually a big number with the social media tools and networks we now have. We should be asking how just one person, working out of his dusty basement with no budget, could have such an influence on the debate?
The Risk-Monger is a Big Fat Fraud
How did I become a central player in this debate? In the last few months I have been described as the principle lobbyist and glyphosate supporter in the EU, there have been three feature articles against me in Le Monde and L’Obs, elaborate exposés have been written on me and I am so tied to Monsanto that my blog last week was dubbed Monsanto’s last-ditch attempt to save Roundup (they apparently performed a vicious smear campaign on some poor scientist). They were so angry at me in Le Monde that they could not even mention me by name. As I stared into my computer screen in my dusty basement in the unfashionable part of a village next to the Brussels Airport, I thought to myself: Well, this is interesting.
My only interest in this debate is curiosity (and a deep respect for European farmers – good hardworking people poorly represented in these debates). As an academic researching the shift in our communications model towards one driven by social media communities (tribes) and the influence such revolutions have on our chief societal institutions, I got pulled into this debate as a living lab.
Three years ago (following BeeGate, endocrine and Séralini), I was working on developing the concept of activist science – how small groups of renegade or disaffected tier-three scientists could team up with activist organisations and run social media campaigns to influence policy debates and undermine traditional scientific risk assessments and methodologies. I was also looking at how the hazard-based approach provided the precautionary prescription needed to ban any chemical substance at will.
I was still trying to finish my “How to Deal with Stupid” series when IARC published their glyphosate monograph. I recognised a live case study in activist science, so I investigated, and as I pulled back layers at IARC, it was getting “curiouser and curiouser”. I suppose it was due to the Monsanto Effect, nobody else paid much attention back in 2015 to what was happening (except some alarmed scientists and farmers). And I looked around, and I looked some more. Where were these other people, this huge lobby campaign to defend glyphosate? Where were those millions being spent by the corporate lobby? It’s no joke – in the Parliament sessions I had time to attend, I seemed to be the only person standing up to grill poor Pavel Poc (I don’t think he likes me anymore).
Age of Stupid Tools to Deal with that Pesky Risk-Monger
To be honest, I got a little pissed off having to watch this Gang of 50 lie and profit from the false fears they were generating for their interest groups. I could see the long-term damage these little shits were causing to EU decision-making processes and how they were manipulating the public perception of science and science-based policy, so I decided to get back into the game (not for fees this time, but for my students).
As a communications research experiment, I started to play with this debate to demonstrate how one person (let alone a Gang of 50) using and abusing social media tools can have an inordinate amount of influence on an issue that affects so many. Earlier this year, this living lab I was working on became quite laborious. As the debate turned and there was a vacuum of evil in Brussels, I decided to poke the bear and put myself forward as their persecution piñata.
I became the target of militants and mercenaries, of cranks who needed to have a face to their evil, playing up ridiculous unflattering reports that were researched and written about me, inflating the perception of my influence to the point where I became, I wish I were making this up, one of the leading lobbyists in Brussels defending glyphosate. Some poor Brussels-based journalist even believed I managed to trick the entire EPP party to try to ban NGOs in the European Union. Guilty as charged!
They talked about the thousands of well-paid lobbyists lurking in the dark alleys of Brussels (I never saw any of them and surely these scoundrels would be seeking the Risk-Monger out) but I played into their game. I was the only one that journalists could find who would talk to them, so talk I did (I even wore a red tie!). All of this was total bullshit, but by the third feature article against me in Le Monde and L’Obs, my students were discovering how social media could be abused. They were loving the show and learning a lot.
It is as if the EU glyphosate saga were scripted from the British TV series, Black Mirror!
The great sucker-punch (or sucker for punishment?)
As the personal campaigns against me escalated, with denial of service attacks on my email accounts, the conflation of me as THE Monsanto shill (I even did a meme where I stood with them), I abstracted myself into a communications experiment. What could I do next with this character I had created? By letting people present me as a threat to human health, the environment and civilisation as we know it, I was busily studying how this small angry Gang of 50 used and abused their social media networks. I was timing their attacks, seeing where the coordination was coming from, how their finances, budgets and supporters moved around, trying to track the bots and the fake accounts (students with better IT technical skills were helping me).
People in my Facebook and twitter tribe were starting to see what was happening and helped share their own experiences and data (they also provided emotional support). My children were getting worried about me. I studied every activist tweet, provoked outrage back at them and endured their swarms on me as I tracked their methodology, even sharing some of my research. These people were nasty and hateful, but also cunning and connected. There was a lot to learn about their manipulative madness. I even went to their little Monsanto Tribunal stunt in The Hague (but, sadly, they dragged me out).
A fair fight?
In the Age of Stupid, we found, on one side, a group of NGOs, gurus, Green Party members and actors from the organic food industry lobby running big budget communications campaigns to get glyphosate banned, and on the other side, a professor with no budget tapping away on the keys of an eight-year old computer from his dusty basement. How much could he do in a couple months to upset their little organic apple cart?
Well … quite a bit it seems.
Blog after blog, I provoked the cranks, the pseudo-journalists and the seriously conflicted. Taunting them on twitter, I had them give chase and show others more of their dark side. After I managed to trap some of the lead agitators like Corporate Europe Observatory’s Martin Pigeon and Le Monde’s Stéphane Foucart or that nasty person at GM Watch and have them literally waste days of valuable campaign time dealing with me and my little exposé, I realised they had bought into my influence game. These schizophrenes tracked everything I said and did. Rather than being offended or afraid, I was measuring how deep their unhealthy obsessive compulsive nature ran. Deep indeed.
I created a hypocrite hypothesis to test my zealot ethics theory that the righteous could never accept not being right and would lose all perspective at such a proposition put at them by a “heretic”. It worked and even though these activists knew I was winding them up, they still couldn’t help themselves – cranks like Pigeon and Foucart have been programmed to fight and to continually attack. I thought to myself: Well, this is interesting … a weak spot.
The big problem about these little activists
The problem comes down to this: The Gang of 50 has been able to exert an unreasonable amount of influence into a simple scientific renewal process of a basic, safe herbicide by exploiting our main social media communications tools in the Age of Stupid. They have made fools of European regulators who fell into their traps and believed their barefaced lies coordinated with cunning constructions.
Our political leaders are not equipped to handle the Age of Stupid onslaught from social media (just ask the twelve candidates to the US Republican primary process) and our European leaders now look ridiculous and weak as they struggle (18 months on) to get through a simple committee vote. These 50 malcontents with no evident ethical principles but a lot of relentless idealism can upset a simple policy process and even threaten an entire regulatory system. In less than three years, the fundamentalist zealots have managed to destroy the public trust in science. If you find this absurd, imagine how a professor, working out of his dusty basement, can do exactly the same thing (but conscious of how he is abusing the system).
And what I have been able to do in a few months, with absolutely no budget and a small following on social media, scares the living shit out me … since that means any jackass can do the same.
How did we get so Stupid, so fast?
My students are curious about the topic of Professor Zaruk’s lecture next week! So am I!