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In an article about the Mexican maize controversy, the journal Science described how 'widely circulating anonymous e-mails' had accused researchers at UC Berkeley of 'conflicts of interest and other misdeeds'. Those e-mails surfaced first on AgBioView - the listserve of AgBioWorld - which prominently circulated emails from a 'Mary Murphy' and an 'Andura Smetacek' that claimed the researchers were primarily activists, not scientists. Murphy and Smetacek's inflammatory attacks initiated and fueled a powerful campaign of denigration of the researchers and pressure on the journal Nature to retract their paper.
In July 2000 a Mary Murphy posted a fake Associated Press article on the message board of foxbghsuit.com, a website dedicated to a legal case connected to Monsanto's genetically engineered cattle drug rBGH. The Hotmail reply address given matches that of the attacker of the Berkeley researchers - firstname.lastname@example.org; however, other identifying details are shown in brackets on the site:
Posted by Mary Murphy (bw6.bivwood.com)
ACTIVISTS CHANGE STANCE ON GMOs AFTER SCIENTISTS GENETICALLY ALTER MARIJUANA (AP)
June 9, 2000
This is not the only evidence as to Murphy's true identity. After making a passing defence of DDT on the AgBioView listserv, Murphy was drawn into correspondence off-list with another subscriber. The technical headers on these e-mails also show Murphy's mails as originating from bw6.bivwood.com - the domain name of The Bivings Group, an internet PR company that, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune, 'has developed "Internet advocacy" campaigns for corporate America since 1996'. The article notes, 'biotechnology giant Monsanto' is 'among the Bivings clients who have discovered how to make the Internet work for them.' The technical headers of a number of Andura Smetacek e-mails show the Internet Protocol address 126.96.36.199 - numbers assigned to Monsanto's headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri.
Between April and May 2002, the British publications The Big Issue, The Ecologist and The Guardian published a series of articles alleging that AgBioView was used as part of a corporate smear campaign against the researchers by Bivings. In a letter published in The Guardian on Wednesday 12 June 2002, Gary Bivings, the President of The Bivings Group, states that, 'The allegations made against the Bivings Group in two recent columns (The fake persuaders, May 14, and Corporate phantoms , May 29) are completely untrue.' Gary Bivings goes on to claim that, 'the Bivings Group has no knowledge of either Mary Murphy or Andura Smetacek'.
However, before Gary Bivings' letter of denial had even been published, Bivings' head of online PR, Todd Zeigler, had confided to the BBC that one of the e-mails in question was sent by someone 'working for Bivings' or 'clients using our services'. The admission, made to BBC TV's news and current affairs programme, Newsnight, was included in their report on the Mexican maize scandal broadcast on 7th June 2002 (see the programme transcript).
The way in which the attacks on the Berkeley researchers was initiated and directed also needs to be understood in the context of a much longer-running internet-based PR campaign aimed at destroying the reputation of anyone seen as adversely affecting the interests of the biotechnology industry. Smetacek and Murphy between them posted 60 or more pieces that CS Prakash published, often prominently, on the AgBioView list. Murphy also posted material onto other lists and message boards. Murphy also appears to have lobbied organisations critical of GM crops to change their stance, to judge by a letter published in July 2000 by the American Chiropractic Association. In it Murphy tells the ACA: 'Your press release about the dangers of GM food is so ridiculous that I don't even know where to begin. How can you pass on such rubbish and at the same time expect to be taken seriously as scientists/ medical practitioners? ... over 2,000 scientists have signed a petition supporting the safety and benefits of GM crops (see http://www.agbioworld.org). If you want to be taken seriously, you should not make ridiculous claims and you should show respect for the scientists who are developing this important technology.'
Murphy's attacks, like Smetacek's, were often vitriolic. This is Murphy to AgBioView on the Indian physicist and environmentalist, Dr Vandana Shiva:
Date: 8 Nov 2001 12:24:03 -0000
From: Mary Murphy <email@example.com>
Subject: Liar, Liar [excerpt]
Vandana Shiva's done it again. Lying about technology and lying about Monsanto to foment more violence and unrest in India.
Murphy, like Smetacek, also targets support for organic agriculture: 'Organic agriculture is lower yielding and thus more expensive; it uses dangerous chemicals... and it offers no extra nutritional benefits. However, since fools are free to do whatever they want with their money, I have never had a problem with people who buy organic food.' (EU green group urges tax breaks for organic foods, Date: Thu, 14 Feb 2002 11:20:44-0500)