The agricultural giant Monsanto—which the German pharmaceutical corporation Bayer acquired in 2018—created an “intelligence fusion center” in order to “monitor and discredit” journalists and activists, Sam Levin reported for the Guardian in August 2019.
Levin wrote that Monsanto “adopted a multi-pronged strategy” to target Carey Gillam, a Reuters journalist who had reported on the likelihood of Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer causing cancer. Monsanto also monitored a nonprofit organization focused on the food industry, US Right to Know, and the Twitter account of musician Neil Young, a prominent critic of Monsanto. An ongoing legal case over the dangers of Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer led to disclosure of the internal documents. As Levin reported, company communications “add fuel to the ongoing claims that Monsanto has ‘bullied’ critics and scientists and worked to conceal the dangers of glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide.”
Monsanto’s internal communications documented how the company planned a series of “actions” to attack the credibility of Gillam’s 2017 book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, by providing “talking points” for “third parties” and explaining to “industry and farmer customers” how to post negative book reviews; how the company paid Google to promote search results for “Monsanto Glyphosate Carey Gillam” that criticized her work; and how it considered placing pressure on Reuters, where Gillam had worked for seventeen years, to “push back on her editors” in hopes that she would be “reassigned.”
After musician Neil Young released a 2015 album titled The Monsanto Years, Monsanto’s fusion center also produced reports on Young’s public criticism of the company, and the center evaluated the album’s lyrics “to develop a list of 20+ potential topics he may target.”
The revealed documents show that Monsanto considered legal action against Young.
According to the LinkedIn page of one person identified as a manager of Monsanto’s “global intelligence and investigations,” the fusion center included a team “responsible for the collection and analysis of criminal, activist/extremist, geo-political and terrorist activities affecting company operations across 160 countries,” the Guardian reported.
Noting that government-run fusion centers have “increasingly raised privacy concerns surrounding the way law enforcement agencies collect data, surveil citizens and share information,” the Guardian quoted Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who distinguished between corporations monitoring legitimate criminal threats, such as cyberattacks, and “corporations levering their money to investigate people who are engaging in their first amendment rights.”
A Bayer spokesperson, Christopher Loder, told the Guardian that Monsanto’s activities were “intended to ensure there was a fair, accurate and science-based dialogue about the company and its products in response to significant misinformation.”
As the Guardian reported, Bayer “has continued to assert that glyphosate is safe,” but three US court cases, in 2018 and 2019, resulted in verdicts against Monsanto, holding the company liable for plaintiffs’ non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a blood cancer. [See, for example, Sam Levin and Patrick Greenfield, “Monsanto Ordered to Pay $289m as Jury Rules Weedkiller Caused Man’s Cancer,” The Guardian, August 11, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/aug/10/monsanto-trial-cancer-dewayne-johnson-ruling. In March 2019, a federal jury found Monsanto liable in a third case, ruling that Roundup was to blame for another California man’s cancer and ordering the company to pay $80 million in damages. See Sam Levin, “Monsanto Found Liable for California Man’s Cancer and Ordered to Pay $80m in Damages,” The Guardian, March 27, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/mar/27/monsanto-trial-verdict-cancer-jury.] In August 2019, The Hill reported that, in response to more than 18,000 people having filed suit against Monsanto, alleging cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma caused by exposure to Roundup, Bayer was offering $8 billion to settle all outstanding claims.
Monsanto’s campaign to monitor and discredit journalists and other critics has received almost no corporate news coverage. In June 2019, ABC News reported that Monsanto had “started contacting journalists, politicians and activists it was keeping tabs on and documenting via ‘watch lists,’” according to Monsanto’s parent company, Bayer. ABC’s coverage was noteworthy—not only as a rare instance of corporate news coverage on this topic, but also for how it consistently emphasized the perspective of Monsanto and Bayer. ABC quoted a statement made by the PR firm FleishmanHillard that sought to normalize Monsanto’s actions and its own business relationship with Monsanto: “Corporations, NGOs and other clients rightfully expect our firm to help them understand diverse perspectives before they engage. To do so, we and every other professional communications agency gather relevant information from publicly available sources.” These planning documents, FleishmanHillard asserted, “help our clients best engage in the dialogue relevant to their business and societal objectives.” Other than the PR firm FleishmanHillard, the ABC News report quoted only Bayer officials, including the company’s head of corporate communications and its chairman of the board of management.
In September 2019, HuffPost published a substantial article on Monsanto’s history of using “shady tactics to attack critics and influence the media.” Paul D. Thacker’s report included a summary of the Guardian’s August 2019 report as “the latest example of Monsanto’s efforts to track journalists,” and it provided additional detail about how Monsanto avoided undertaking direct responses to its critics by engaging a network of third-party supporters, including the Genetic Literacy Project and the American Council on Science and Health.
Sam Levin, “Revealed: How Monsanto’s ‘Intelligence Center’ Targeted Journalists and Activists,” The Guardian, August 8, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/aug/07/monsanto-fusion-center-journalists-roundup-neil-young.
Student Researcher: Sarah Ghiorso (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kyla Walters (Sonoma State University)