The curious case of how activists are misleading people about Monsanto, Zika and microcephaly

By Robb Fraley, Monsanto Chief Technology Officer

In our digital-first world, many of us receive news via social media or news apps. Though we’re digital-first, a staple of the print industry’s method of grabbing your attention — the headline — is still important, if not the most important — way to grab your attention. This is especially true today, as our news feeds and apps on our phones and tablets are competing with millions of other sources for information.

The headlines attempt to draw us into stories. In print, the editors have a limited amount of space to get the point of the article across. On the internet, editors and writers can write longer headlines to cram in more details (and keywords for search engines). This can be a good thing — longer headlines can give the story more context.

It can also be a bad thing, as some online publications use the longer headline as clickbait — the practice of using sensational words or keywords to draw eyeballs to an article. Sometimes, clickbait can be misleading and deceptive.

Some agenda-driven online outlets know that adding certain words to headlines will drive traffic to the website. The Zika virus has been in the news quite a bit lately, as the devastating impacts of the mosquito-transmitted virus spread across South America and the Caribbean. Some scientists and organizations, including the WHO, believe that the virus may be a cause for increased cases of microcephaly, a birth defect that causes a baby to have a smaller-than-normal head and may cause abnormal brain development.

The stories about Zika and microcephaly are heart-breaking. I applaud the scientists around the world who are looking for ways to safely control further Zika outbreaks and to the doctors and researchers looking to find treatment options for families impacted by microcephaly.

If my headline enticed you to read this story and you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering why the Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto is writing about headline writing, clickbait, Zika and microcephaly.

It’s because some enterprising online websites decided to take the crises in South America and try to connect it to Monsanto. Last weekend, you may have seen headlines, such as:

As you might guess, I’m here to tell you Monsanto has played no role in the tragic Zika virus or microcephaly.

Here’s the background:

A group of Argentine doctors, Physicians in Crop-Sprayed Towns, an activist-oriented organization, released a report on Feb. 10 that claims, instead of the Zika virus, a product called pyriproxyfen — a larvicide added to drinking water to stop the development of mosquito larvae in drinking water tanks — has caused microcephaly. Outlets that reported on the claim also stated that the producer of pyriprozyfen, Sumitomo Chemical Company, is a subsidiary of Monsanto.

First, Monsanto does not own Sumitomo Chemical Company. We are business partners in the area of herbicides. We’ve had a business relationship with Sumitomo since 1997.

Second, Monsanto does not produce or sell larvicides. A simple search of our website would reveal that. For the conspiracy theorists out there, who may say, “So what? You can be hiding it!” we have an obligation to our shareowners to be transparent in our product portfolio.

So, taking in all of this information, if you’re an online publication with a specific agenda, especially one that doesn’t see eye-to-eye on the role of science in addressing complex global challenges, you have a nice recipe for a clickable headline: “Monsanto linked to (current event that people are talking about that will drive people to our website)”

Monsanto gets the blame, even though the article might include only one mention of Monsanto, and it doesn’t matter if that mention is true or not.

Importantly, for the sake of science, there’s also been no real data to suggest that larvicides are to blame or are unsafe.

Articles like these create unnecessary fear and derail meaningful conversation. I understand that the offending publications may not like my company. We’ve been working hard to earn trust, and that trust doesn’t come easy. We have to do a better job of engaging with people — friends and foes — in order to help find the solutions to feed our growing world. But using our company’s name and refusing to do due diligence to verify facts just to drive clicks is despicable.

Scientists and public health leaders around the world are focused on finding the solutions to stopping the spread of the Zika virus. They are researching better treatments for children born with microcephaly. It’s too bad that everyone does not share this view, and some groups would prefer to instead use a tragedy to drive their own private agendas.

We should be focused on finding the solutions to stopping the spread of the Zika virus and better treatments for children born with microcephaly, instead of using a tragedy to drive the private agendas of special interest groups.

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