Russia is experienced at employing surrogates and agents of various stripes to further its agendas. The indictments instigated by independent special counsel Robert Mueller and handed down in February against three Russian entities and 13 individuals for activities related to meddling in our 2016 election shows what they are capable of: With relatively little investment and few personnel, Russian provocateurs — many in "troll factories" — were able to manipulate the platforms of some of the world's largest and most sophisticated social-media and internet companies, including Facebook, Google and Twitter.
But the activities described in the indictments are only the tip of a very large and dangerous iceberg. On March 15, the Trump administration accused Russia of being behind cyberattacks that targeted American and European nuclear power plants and water systems and electric grids. Private computer security specialists warned of the gravity of this revelation. "We now have evidence they're sitting on the machines, connected to industrial control infrastructure, that allow them to effectively turn the power off or effect sabotage," according to Eric Chien, a security technology director at Symantec, a digital security firm, as quoted in The New York Times. "They have the ability to shut the power off. All that's missing is some political motivation," he warned.
Cyber-hacking is not Russia's only method of attacking the United States, and the political motivation is not lacking. Russia is also using updated variations of classic agitprop: Via news outlets and hired trolls and agents, the Russian government is surreptitiously influencing not only Americans' views of political candidates, but many other aspects of our lives, including race relations and attitudes toward immigration, technology and even certain kinds of foods. An ongoing example is TV "news channel" station RT (formerly Russia Today), the Kremlin's English-language propaganda arm, the mouthpiece for Russia President Vladimir Putin's agenda.
Dr. Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health has described how RT subtly undermines the United States' technology and economic growth. 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 year the House Science Committee sent a statement from Chairman Lamar Smith to the Wall Street Journal's "Best of the Web" column, which included this:
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.
Genetic engineering in agriculture is another sector that holds intense interest for the Russians. Their expertise and R&D in modern genetic engineering are virtually nil, and there is a ban on genetically engineered organisms from abroad entering the country, so they've 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.
And that brings us to the U.S. home-grown anti-genetic engineering movement, which is well-coordinated and well-financed. It's unclear whether it is directly supported by Russia; or it may 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 (GE) plants;
- genetic engineering applied to agriculture is the most rapidly adopted agricultural technology in history;
- organic agriculture strictly bans GE plants;
- recent advances in GE 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 U.S. 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 ran on 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 that, among other things, "Sweden Bans Mandatory Vaccinations Over 'Serious Health Concerns'" (untrue); and the arrest for "treason" of a "former Hillary Clinton employee" (untrue).
Moreover, much of the Melania Trump article, including 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, is 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 activists 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. It also looked at more than 1,500 news reports, marketing materials, advocacy propaganda, speeches, etc., generated between 1988 and 2014 about organic foods.
Their analysis found that "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. But in the same way that we must defend the integrity of our elections, we need also to prevent foreign powers and pernicious domestic interests from undermining American science and technological innovation.
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. Please follow him on Twitter at @henryimiller.
This op-ed is a timely update of a previous op-ed from summer 2017 in light of current events.