When GMO Scare Stories Go Viral

By Keith Kloor | June 25, 2012 11:06 am

Anyone familiar with sensationalist media coverage of science knows that many stories need to be taken with a big dose of skepticism.  Thus, people increasingly shake their heads at screaming headlines on the latest autism/red wine/exercise/gay parenting/climate change study.

When it comes to GMOs (genetically modified organisms), however, plenty of people are also prepared, it seems, to believe the worst.

Consider, for instance, what happened on Twitter this weekend after a CBS affiliate in Texas ran a story with this headline:

Genetically modified grass linked to cattle deaths

According to the online report:

Preliminary tests revealed the Tifton 85 grass, which has been here for years, had suddenly started producing cyanide gas, poisoning the cattle.

The story turned out to be incorrect, and a number of folks were pretty quick to point that out. But not quick enough to head off the insta-reaction on Twitter, where the faulty story shot around like a pinball. Let’s look at a few examples.

On hearing the news, @Rivenhomewood tweeted:

This is totally terrifying. Waiting for some more info from scientific sources.

She didn’t wait long before retweeting this from @unhealthytruth:

The grass is a genetically-modified form of Bermuda known as Tifton 85 which has been growing here for 15 years, feeding Abel’s 18 head of Corriente cattle. Corriente are used for team roping because of their small size and horns.

Incidentally, that one from @unhealthytruth was good for 77 retweets. (She also didn’t bother tweeting a correction, which, as we’ll see in a moment, @Rivenhomewood and others did.) But here’s how it works, because via the @Rivenhomewood follower chain, the story gets picked up by respected science journalist Steve Silberman, who asks:

Did an unexpected mutation in GM grass kill a whole herd of cattle? http://goo.gl/fUxEI  [via@rivenhomewood]

For that, he later gets rapped by biologist David Tribe in a blog post titled, “GM grass linked to Texas cattle deaths by fact-free reporting.”

Tribe is referring to the botched CBS story, but clearly he’s also irked at Silberman for giving it juice, even if it was in the form of a question.

I happened to come across the story in my Twitter feed from University of Minnesota earth scientist Jon Foley, another highly reputable source in the science sphere, who, upon receiving the news (from where?) tweeted:

Whoa! How? “GM grass linked to Texas cattle deaths; Tests show genetically-modified grass began producing cyanide gas http://cbsn.ws/LIh8CL “

Now, to Foley’s credit, he retweeted the stream of corrections that was soon sent to him by various people, and he also said this:

Turns out CBS News story about “GM Grass Killing Cows” has a major flaw: it’s NOT a GMO. It’s a traditionally bred grass. #sloppy

So good for him, and others, such as Silberman and @rivenhomewood, each who also made sure to alert their followers to the big error in the story. (For more information on the flawed piece, see here.)

But I can’t help wondering why the story didn’t seem to register on Foley’s (and Silberman’s) finely tuned BS radar, which ordinarily detects hyped/flawed science coverage. True, they didn’t swallow the story whole but they also appeared quick on the trigger to tweet it.

Why was that? Is it because they were inclined to believe it? Or am I being unfair to them by reading into their motivation? [Please see UPDATES below for gracious responses from Foley and Silberman.]

I don’t know. But it does raise an issue discussed on Poynter last year in an article titled, “Should journalists confirm information before passing it along on Twitter?” (Foley, of course, is not a journalist, but he is a trusted information broker.)

For me, seeing trusted information brokers on science tweet the incorrect CBS story raises an issue that was implied by my recent post on Marion Nestle’s acceptance of a deeply flawed report on GMOs.

Anyway, the more I pay attention to how smart, educated people discuss GMOs, the more it becomes apparent that much of this discussion is shaped not by science, but by cultural worldviews. Here’s a particularly depressing example recently demonstrated on Bill Maher’s HBO show.

UPDATE: On Twitter, Steve Silberman responds:

@keithkloor, to answer your Q, I assumed @CBS wouldn’t make that big an error. But my work in autism should have taught me otherwise.

UPDATE: Jon Foley has a similar response:

I’m really stunned that CBS (not a small time operation) made such a blunder! I “trusted” they did homework.

Foley adds:  “I think we all need to be very careful with these things. Lesson to be learned here.”

 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: GMOs, science
MORE ABOUT: GMOs, science
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  • Mary

    They might have well as printed it on electronic flypaper. It drew every opponent of modern agriculture, and a wealth of conspiracy theorists. It somehow also turned huge number of the population into plant scientists with degrees from Google U. It was astounding to watch–in a horrifying way.

    And as far as I’m concerned, CBS and that local affiliate should be in the basement of hell with Andrew Wakefield. This has further consequences (besides completely screwing up the issue of agriculture): wrong information could cause more animal deaths.

    Unfathomable that the news agencies did so much damage.

  • http://watersecurity.wordpress.com Pat

    Great post! I’m quick on the Twitter trigger sometimes, so its good to be reminded that there is an obligation on the part of a retweeter to do some homework.

    On a sidenote, I usually like Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, etc. but Nick Gillespie gets shouted down here for talking (sanely) about risk, specifically where the responsibility lies for understanding risk exposure – whether there is a duty to inform the consumer (on the part of a large company) or the duty to inform thyself (on the part of the consumer). If there is no risk of harm presented by a product (which is the case with GMOs, after lots and lots of formal & informal testing), then should there be a regulatory requirement for labels to indicate that there are no GMOs in the food? I doubt it. If consumers want to know this, then they should do the research, find the brands they like that provide this resource, and be happy with their GMO free purchases.

    In the absence of any actual harm inflicted on people I find this type of uninformed scaremongering really unhelpful. Its also frustrating to have talking heads (like Rachel Maddow) “explain” what genetically modified food is, when frankly they have no business assuming the mantle of a scientist. Throwing up simplified explanations of genetic engineering is intellectually dishonest, and its frustrating when policy advocates who normally tout evidence-based policies, fall prey to fear-based policies.

  • Doubtful News

    Doubtful News spotted the problem with this story right away. Even the commenters on it were noting its inaccuracies. That’s what we are trying to do – provide a critical eye for questionable news reporting. It’s obvious that is a needed service.

  • Tom Scharf

    Since cyanide is a “naturally” occurring chemical, and not man-made, I can’t imagine why environmentalists would be upset about it.  Gaia made it,  so it is automatic on the approved list, right?

  • Mary

    In fact, Tom, it was probably selected by the earliest farmers because it worked so well against herbivores: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9431670

    I’m finding that people aren’t enjoying being told that. Not you of course–you know who I mean :)

  • Matt B

    Maher doesn’t disappoint, as usual (Monsanto is “the seat of all evil”? Bill clearly doesn’t respect Zimbabwe’s efforts in this competition…..) There was one section where Maddow was saying that there should be labeling of GMO foods (I agree with her & she actually seems somewhat informed on the issue) and she made the comment about labeling GMO’s (and I’m paraphrasing) the solution is not to avoid labeling, but to convince me it’s safe. Who can disagree with that? But, just like in all these discussions, what would it take to convince her tribe that GMO’s were as safe as other agriculture practices? Can the anti-GMO crowd get that defined, or do demagogues like Maher calling them “frankenfoods” win the day?   

  • Menth

    @7 If there is no proof that GMOs are harmful why should sellers be forced to declare their products contain them? Wouldn’t this send an unfair signal to consumers of implied danger where there is none? 

  • Joshua

    Here’s some political context for the concerns about extremist environmentalism:

    http://vimeo.com/43687872Check out at around 1:35 in particular.

    This curriculum is being taught at charter schools that receive Louisiana State funding.

  • Joshua

    Let’s try that link again:

    http://vimeo.com/43687872

  • http://www.r343l.com RachaelLudwick

    I do think there is a place for non-experts to explain science related topics (I say this as a non-scientist) but only if they can be reasonably accurate, careful and not misleading. Most importantly, they have to be willing to accept correction. If you’re not an expert, you have to accept you might be wrong and take correction graciously, even while you try to inform others about something you find interesting or important.

    But sometimes non-scientists (or non-experts) are the best at explaining science in a clear way. They’ve had to figure out the meaning of it without the benefit of the education and enculturation that a scientist might assume (and have a hard time mixing into their explanation in the right way). Sadly, it doesn’t sound like Maddow is a good example of that kind of communication.

    The news events of the past weeks reminds me strongly how careful I need to be in my own communication — fairness and accuracy must rule. I find a lot of things interesting and I feel strongly about some topics. I’m not an expert and shouldn’t pretend to be one, but that doesn’t mean I can’t try to add some clarity to the noise.

  • Matt B

    @8 Menth,

    Hey in the Land of the Free & Home of the Brave we have all sorts of stupid information on products (i.e. Harry Potter toy broomsticks that tell you “this broom does not actually fly”) & people still buy the stuff anyways. I agree with you that there is no proven (or likely) GMO threat but I also think the Ag industry could handle this pretty readily without exorbitant cost, & we would find how much people really care about the GMO issue vs food cost.

    It would also raise an interesting question about organic foods; if the GMO’s have to be labelled, shouldn’t organic veggies have to say something like “may be grown with animal feces fertilizers that may contain hazardous E-Coli bacteria”? That is an absolutely known & real health risk; what do you say Bill Maher?

  • Ian Blanchard

    You’d have thought that the mainstream media might have learnt to be a little less trigger-happy on Twitter and blogs after the Gleick fakegate incident – both the BBC (Richard Black) and the Grauniad (Goldberg?) got burned by claiming it was a leak of entirely genuine documents. Revkin gets a pass here because he held back and waited for better confirmation.

    In this case, it doesn’t take very long or a degree in biology to understand that the Tifton 85 grass is a conventional F1 hybrid rather than a Frankenfood (for cows).

    It appears that some journalists and commentators are so strongly wedded to their preconceptions that fact checking comes a very distant second to getting the story out, as long as it fits the expected narrative (in this case GMOs = evil).

  • MarkB

    Those ‘updates’ certainly are some weak tea. “I read it at CBS, so it couldn’t possibly be wrong?” Pathetic. They passed it on because they wanted it to be true. If CBS reported “Blacks Biologically Inferior to Whites,” do you think they would have claimed the same assumption? It’s not like the NY Times ever reported that Iraq definitely did have WMDs.

  • Menth

    @Matt BHah, I agree with your prescription for organic food labeling, especially in light of what happened in Germany last year. My concern with forced labeling is the unfair advantage it would give so called “organics”.  This is no doubt the reason the organic food industry is heartily lobbying the government to require it. 

  • harrywr2

    #13 Ian BlanchardIt appears that some journalists and commentators are so strongly wedded
    to their preconceptions that fact checking comes a very distant second
    to getting the story out

    IMHO and the opinion of my 80+ year old journalist mother ‘scoop journalism’ is the primary downfall of ‘modern journalism’. The first journalist to ‘break the story’ on genetically modified grass killing cows would get some sort of award.

    Just as the first scientist to discover something gets rewarded or the first engineer to build a better mousetrap gets rewarded.TV Journalism and for the most part daily newspapers are the ‘first rough draft of history’….the emphasis should always be placed on ‘rough’.

    The problem is those that pretend that TV journalism and daily newspaper journalism isn’t ‘rough’.

  • Leo G
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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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