Putin is Mounting Sly, Self Serving Attacks on American Science

On Sunday, CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a segment on the propaganda role of Russian news network RT , or Russia Today .

When asked about meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, RT ’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan responded, "There's nothing illegal that we did...nothing murky.”

She went on to dismiss the U.S. intelligence reports that accused the network of using the Internet and social media to conduct “strategic messaging for the Russian government” and that its programming is “aimed at undermining viewers’ trust of U.S. democratic procedures.”

The truth is that much of what they do is murky. And worse.

Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, is experienced at employing surrogates and agents of various stripes and talents to further its agendas.

A typical example was a “trending topic” story on Facebook about the Las Vegas concert shooting published by Sputnik , a news agency controlled by the Russian government. The item claimed, inaccurately, that the FBI had found a connection between the shooter and ISIS.

RT , the Kremlin’s primary English-language propaganda arm, is the mouthpiece for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agenda. Fake news is its stock in trade, as illustrated by its blatant disinformation attacks on the reporting of news by respected media outlets like the BBC.

Russia’s targets are not limited to politics. Dr. Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health has described how RT subtly undermines the technology and economic growth of the United States.

GettyImages-480337041 Pump jacks in an oil field over the Monterey Shale formation where gas and oil extraction using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is on the verge of a boom on March 24, 2014 near Lost Hills, California. David McNew/Getty

One example: The report released by the Director of National Intelligence on Russia’s interference in the U.S. election concluded that RT is spouting anti-fracking propaganda as a way to undermine the natural gas industry in the United States.

Why? Because fracking lowers the prices of fossil fuels, which severely harms Russia’s economy.

To underscore how seriously this is being taken by congressional leaders, last July the House Science Committee sent this statement from Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to the Wall Street Journal ’s “ Best of the Web ” column:

If you connect the dots, it is clear that Russia is funding U.S. environmental groups in an effort to suppress our domestic oil and gas industry, specifically hydraulic fracking. They have established an elaborate scheme that funnels money through shell companies in Bermuda.

This scheme may violate federal law and certainly distorts the U.S. energy market.

Russia’s targets are not limited to politics, as Dr. Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health has pointed out. He described how RT subtly undermines the technology and economic growth of the United States.

Genetic engineering in agriculture is a sector that holds intense interest for the Russians. Harking back to the Lysenkoism catastrophe for Soviet agriculture in the Soviet Union, their research and development expertise in that area is virtually nil, and the government has a long-standing ban on genetically engineered organisms from abroad from entering the country, so the Russians have adopted a strategy of trying to inhibit its development elsewhere.

As Dr. Berezow pointed out:

RT has never been fond of GMOs [genetically modified organisms], which are largely the result of American innovation. In a 2015 article , RT reported on Russia’s decision to ban GMO food production in Russia. Tellingly, one of the protesters shown in the report is holding a sign that reads, “Goodbye America!” The anti-GMO stance is not based on science or health concerns; instead, it’s based entirely on hurting U.S. agricultural companies.

That brings us to the United States and its home-grown anti-genetic engineering movement, which is well coordinated and well financed. It’s unclear whether anti-GMO activists are directly supported by Russia. There exists what a New York Times news article called “a particularly murky aspect of Russia’s influence strategy: freelance activists who promote its agenda abroad, but get their backing from Russian tycoons and others close to the Kremlin, not the Russian state itself.”

Or it may simply be that, as one of my colleagues, a prominent Russia expert, speculated, “Whatever stirs up trouble in the U.S., Russia is ready to help make it worse.”  

This syllogism explains the synergistic strategy of all the bad-actors, here and abroad:

  • the United States is by far the world’s leader in both the development and cultivation of genetically engineered plants;

  • genetic engineering applied to agriculture is the most rapidly adopted agricultural technology in history;

  • organic agriculture strictly bans genetically engineered plants;

  • recent advances in genetically engineered plants–higher yields, pest- and disease resistance, drought- and flood-tolerance, improvements in sustainability, traits with appeal to consumers, etc.–are making conventional (i.e., non-organic) agriculture ever-more efficient and superior to organic’s pathetic performance;

  • there is virtually no development or cultivation of genetically engineered plants in Russia;

  • therefore, genetic engineering must be prevented from expanding and succeeding elsewhere.

An example of the lengths to which Russian trolling in the United States will go to discredit genetic engineering was a wire-service story claiming that Melania Trump has banned genetically engineered foods from the White House and favors organic products. It appeared May 30 on Your News Wire , which is widely considered to be a fake news source linked to Russian interference with the 2016 presidential elections.

The author of the article, “Baxter Dmitry,” had previously penned articles alleging, among other things, “Sweden Bans Mandatory Vaccinations Over ‘Serious Health Concerns’” (untrue) and the arrest for “treason” of a “former Hillary Clinton employee” (also untrue).   

Moreover, much of the Melania Trump article, including even some of the quotes attributed to the first lady, are cribbed verbatim from a 2010 article in Yes! Magazine that had nothing whatever to do with her.

One of the memes commonly employed by Russian trolls is the accusation that their targets are drug dealers or otherwise involved with illegal drugs. An odd coincidence, then, was this bizarre accusation in a comment on a Wall Street Journal article of mine: “He is presently working with the Sinaloa cartel on a campaign to put heroin back in CocaCola [sic].” (I assume he meant cocaine—which was present in trace amounts in Coke in the original 19th century formulation—rather than heroin.) More fake news.

The Russian agenda gets plenty of support from inside the United States. For decades the U.S. organic industry’s propaganda campaign has been trolling and dispensing the same sorts of disinformation to discredit the competition (that is, genetic engineering).

Academics Review, a reliable, science-oriented nonprofit organization of academic experts, performed an extensive review of hundreds of published academic, industry, and government research reports concerned with consumers’ views of organic products. The group also looked at more than 1,500 news reports, marketing materials, advocacy propaganda, speeches, etc., generated between 1988 and 2014 about organic foods.

Its analysis found “consumers have spent hundreds of billion dollars purchasing premium-priced organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition and health attributes,” and that this is due to “a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and paid advocacy.”

Because of genetic engineering’s prodigious scientific, economic and humanitarian successes, history is on the side of the scientists and science-communicators in the biotechnology community.

In the words of Dickinson College philosophy professor Crispin Sartwell, “The power of the Russian intelligence services. . . is considerable, but it does not include the ability to bend the fabric of reality.”  

Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA.