Feb 27 2018

GMOs and the Revenge of Lysenko

A recent study finds that Russia is using its social media propaganda methods to stir up controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Why would Russia want to do this? This partly goes back to Lysenko.

But perhaps the real story here is the mechanism that Russia is using to stir the anti-GMO pot – weaponizing the free flow of information and ideas.

The Revenge of Lysenko

If you recall from my previous article, Lysenko was essentially a crank scientist who used his political influence to decimate the Soviet agricultural industry. It is a great historical example of the triumph of ideology over science, and an important cautionary tale.

To this day Russia’s agricultural and genetics science has not caught up with the developed world, and its agricultural industry also continues to lag.

Russia, however, figured out how to partly turn a negative into an advantage. Capitalizing on anti-GMO sentiments, Russia is one of 38 countries that ban or restrict the cultivation or importation of GMOs. They have positioned themselves as a “natural” alternative to industrial farming.

Dmitry Medvedev, prime minister of Russia, is quoted as saying:

“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.”

This quote shows not only their brand marketing, but also their recognition that America is their major competitor. They cannot compete with the US scientifically, so they are competing ideologically.

This follows a more general pattern – in the countries that have banned or restricted GMOs, such restrictions were mainly about competition, branding, and market forces, not a genuine concern for the safety of their citizens.

There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that GMOs currently available are all perfectly safe for human or animal consumption. They are essentially equivalent to their non-GMO counterparts. This is why, in the countries that have banned GMOs, they have done so over the science-based objections of their own scientists and experts.

This is also a reflection of the fact that on the question of GMOs, there is the largest disconnect between scientific and public opinion. This is mostly due to an anti-GMO propaganda campaign largely funded by the organic lobby.

In a way, Russia is learning from the organic lobby – attacking a competitor by fearmongering about their products and offering themselves as a “safe” alternative.

The researchers of the current study, finding that Russia is using their social media and news outlets infrastructure to attack GMOs, point out that agriculture is the second largest industry in Russia after petroleum. They therefore have a strategic interest in harming America’s agricultural industry by turning Americans more anti-GMO. That would take away a huge scientific and technical advantage that we have.

Russia also seems to have an interest in simply stoking divisions within the US. They have discovered a vulnerability and how to exploit it. Their actions are nothing less than an attack on our nation.

Weaponizing Information

This brings us to perhaps the more concerning aspect of this story. It is, of course, alarming that there are forces such as Russia trying to undermine our biotech industry by amplifying the voices of pseudoscience. But that represents just one specific strategic goal. The bigger picture is more alarming.

What Russia is doing is posting anti-GMO articles (an order of magnitude more than even the most lefty and science-challenged US-based outlets, such as the HuffPo) on their propaganda news outlets, such as RT (short for Russia Today). They are also embedding anti-GMO click bait on other websites.

This behavior worsens what is already a challenging problem of the new information age in which we find ourselves.  The democratization of information production and dissemination has many positive consequences, but it also has negative effects. Specifically it removes the traditional mechanisms of quality control and fact-checking from information outlets. There is also the problem of algorithm-based curation of information that leads to progressively more isolated echochambers and greater polarization and extremism.

Additionally there is the click-bait problem, which is really a new manifestation of an old problem – market forces will tend to favor catering to the lowest common denominator. Sensational news will tend to predominate over sober but high quality news.

It takes a culture of quality and excellence, a dedication to journalistic standards in the abstract, to favor quality over clicks.

These imperatives have always been in conflict, and the natural ebb and flow of market forces has worked it out. This is still largely the case, with natural psychological and cultural forces determining which memes go viral, which news gets spread, etc.

But now there are new forces at work – the mechanisms of information curation and spread have been hijacked by agents with specific political, strategic, and ideological agendas. Russia is perhaps just the most notable case at this time.

They essentially have found that for very little infrastructure investment, they can push and prod the flow of information through American society to stoke divisions and move public opinion in a direction that serves their interests.

They can fight us on a thousand fronts at once, and even if a small number works out their way it will be worth the investment by many orders of magnitude.

Of course, the elephant in the room is that this strategy has already worked out in their favor with the election of Donald Trump. It is now entirely clear that Russia used this social media infiltration campaign to move public opinion in Trump’s favor. It is impossible to say if their efforts affected the ultimate outcome of the election, but neither can that be ruled out.

To be clear, I am not saying that just because Russia is in favor of a certain position, that position is necessarily wrong. (That is the fallacy of poisoning the well.) But, we should be wary of any foreign power with a clearly adversarial agenda hijacking our information infrastructure to pursue their own ends.

Further, it seems clear at this point they partly want to simply destabilize America by magnifying divisions, poisoning public debate and conversations, and causing confusion. We, unfortunately, are making it easy on them.

We are also at a vulnerable time. Our democracy depends on the free flow of information. The structure of that flow has recently radically changed due to disruptive information technologies. We have not yet adapted to this new information ecosystem, and while we are trying to find our way they are exploiting our vulnerability.

This is an asymmetrical war. Totalitarian countries who have strong control over the flow of information can destabilize democracies in a way that will not work against them.

I don’t know what the solution to all this is. Certainly understanding the nature of the threat and taking it seriously is the first step. This is a real threat to our democracy (not just our biotech industry) and we should be dedicating appropriate resources to preparing for what might be the primary method of warfare in the 21st century.

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