The practice of hiring “shills,” or individuals who act as agitators to instigate or encourage others, has become widely popular as political parties learn they must first win the heart of internet users if they want candidates to get elected. But in the business world, the practice is also widely used. Now, biotechnology giant Monsanto is being accused of doing just that.
Currently, there are more than 50 lawsuits pending in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco alleging Monsanto's Roundup herbicide has exposed them or loved ones to health-related risks, causing them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The lawsuits also claim the company failed to disclose the risks, using paid shills or internet “trolls” to discredit any critics of the biotechnology company.
Since documents presented by plaintiffs hadn't been unveiled to the public promptly, news organizations didn't have access to what the injured parties were alleging. That all changed on March 13, when U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria ruled that the documents could finally be unsealed.
In order to give the public more information concerning these lawsuits and the potential links between Monsanto products and health risks, the food-safety organization U.S. Right to Know gathered these unsealed documents on its website.
One of these documents released in late April is especially concerning as it shows the company initiated a program known as “Let Nothing Go,” hiring third-party shills to monitor and fight negative comments and criticism online.
The program, the document alleges, “[leaves] nothing, not even Facebook comments, unanswered; through a series of third parties, it employs individuals who appear to have no connection to the industry, who in turn post positive comments on news articles and Facebook posts, defending Monsanto, its chemicals, and GMOs.”
The document also states that Monsanto also “quietly funnels money to 'think tanks' such as the 'Genetic Literacy Project' and the 'American Council on Science and Health,' organizations intended to shame scientists and highlight information helpful to Monsanto and other chemical producers.”
Backing their claims with a series of emails presented to the court as part of their evidence against the biotechnology giant, plaintiffs show that Monsanto's toxicology manager ghostwrote parts of the text used in a 2013 scientific report published under the names of independent scientists. The same had allegedly happened in 2000, when another employee ghostwrote parts of another report.
This information is important, plaintiffs claim, because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used both of these reports to allow Monsanto to continue using glyphosate, an ingredient in Roundup.
In one email used as evidence, a Monsanto executive proposes ghostwriting the 2013 report, citing budgetary concerns as a justification.
While researchers “would just edit [and] sign their names” to the ghostwritten piece, the email proposes, the company would “be keeping the cost down” as a result.
Reuters reported in March that while a Monsanto spokesperson didn't address the 2013 report, she denied any involvement with the 2000 report.
Although these lawsuits are still pending, the fact the company's dirty tricks were finally unveiled could help the public to make better-informed decisions as to what products they will use from now on. After all, if Monsanto relies on internet trolls to boost the image of its signature product, that means the company isn't ready to compete fairly.