Kevin Folta claims he’s withdrawn from the GMO debate but Jonathan Matthews warns about the continuing influence of his cult
The pro-GMO scientist Kevin Folta recently announced that he was “bowing out” of the GMO debate in order to concentrate on his university work.
The news caused consternation among his followers, some of whom put the blame for his departure squarely on the “bullies”, “psychopaths”, “whackjobs”, “assholes”, “fearmongers”, “charlatans”, “Taliban”, “evil social movements” and “fucking terrorists” who engaged in “harassment”, “threats”, “vicious smear campaigns”, and “horrible personal attacks.”
But with Kevin Folta it’s always worth remembering that what you see is not necessarily what you get. And just a few days later, in responding to one of his followers on Facebook, Folta confided that he was still hard at work behind the scenes: “I'm not abandoning this, I'm shifting out of the public view.” He added, “There are many levels to this... I'm not visible, but I'm working.”
Given Folta’s track record of subterfuge, some are bound to see his latest move as a cynical ploy aimed at taking the wind out of his critics’ sails while continuing his campaigning work below the level of public scrutiny.
Folta’s sudden disappearance from social media may also be intended to galvanize opposition to the apparent silencing of, as one of his admirers put it, “such a great public science advocate and educator”.
The real reason Folta needed to duck out of public sight is that the continuing exposure of his dubious antics has become a serious embarrassment to many GMO supporters. But his followers prefer to buy into Folta’s projection of himself as the saintly science communicator facing martyrdom at the hands of dangerous extremists.
As one lamented, “Of all the people to pick on... picking on Kevin Folta is like picking on Mr Rogers. He is the nicest guy on the planet.” Mr Rogers, for anyone who doesn’t know, was a gentle heart-warming American TV character for preschool children, who is said to be a “symbol of compassion, patience and morality”.
Another devoted follower posted an image with even greater symbolic power. It put Folta’s current travails on a par with those of Christ on the cross, under the banner: “When you teach peace, your enemies won’t stop.” Nearly a hundred people “liked” the image, while others complained that the “fictional Jesus” hardly bore comparison with “our Lord and Saviour Kevin Folta”.
But some of Folta’s online antics seem more suited to the king of the trolls than the prince of peace.
Send in the trolls
Social media is key to the relationship Folta has developed with his followers. For instance, when US Right To Know first filed public records requests to see his industry emails, Folta immediately took to his blog to urge his supporters to “go on offense”. He encouraged them to make USRTK’s attempt to “silence or harass scientists” known to the media. They should do this, he told them, not just via emails, but by posting comments on media Facebook pages and websites, and by including them in tweets. And he reminded his followers of how they had already overwhelmed an activist Facebook page by posting “over 1000” critical comments.
If Folta was hoping his campaign would create such a hostile media environment that the release of his emails would fail to attract coverage, then he was to be disappointed. And when the news broke about his “close ties” to the industry, several of Folta's more outspoken critics called him a “liar”, given his repeated public denials of any industry connections.
Over the next few weeks a pattern that looks very much like retaliation started to play out. In the case of Dr Ena Valikov, a California veterinarian who frequently spars with Folta on social media, then one of Folta’s closest acolytes tweeted a selfie taken outside Valikov’s clinic that seemed to send a clear message. Yvette D’Entremont’s tweet was subsequently deleted. The background to that tweet includes a long campaign of vilification and intimidation, as explained below.
Block the whack job
Ena Valikov originally got into dispute with Kevin Folta because she disliked the way he presented himself as a go-to expert on the safety of Roundup and GMOs. Dr Valikov doesn’t accept that being a plant scientist makes Folta any kind of expert on human and animal health. Indeed, as a qualified veterinarian who also has a degree in biochemistry, she feels she is far better placed than Folta to understand toxicology, animal studies and health issues.
When she first began to challenge Folta on his claims about GMO safety back in 2012, he responded positively, telling the readers of his blog that in her frequent comments, she “presents coherent arguments that elevate the discussion. She has a background in biochemistry so she speaks science well and can discuss the literature.”
Their contact at this point was generally cordial, and she says they had a civil email exchange that lasted right up until autumn 2014. Folta followed her on Twitter and even invited her out to lunch, meeting up with her out in California and visiting her Beach Vet Hospital, all in the hopes of overcoming her concerns about GMOs.
What she says soured their relationship was his realisation that she wasn’t going to back off challenging him over GMO safety, and her publication in October 2014 of an influential blog demolishing a study, which Folta (among others) had been busy hyping, purporting to show no harm had been caused to billions of animals by being fed GMOs.
It was not long after Valikov set out why she thought this study was “junk science” that Folta first invented the #blockthewhackjob hashtag that he used first against her, and later others. Folta coined it as a way of encouraging his followers not just to ignore what she had to say but to collectively block her. He also increasingly resorted to legal threats to try to silence her.
Dr Valikov believes that Folta’s repeated labelling of her as a “whackjob”, and the fact she persisted in challenging him, resulted in her becoming a focus of hatred for many of his followers. And it is this that led to a series of punitive and intimidatory actions against her.
These include criticisms of her and her veterinary business being posted on her Yelp business page as well as on her Facebook business and Google pages, including fake reviews saying she’s a terrible vet.
Dr Valikov allowed me access to the spate of bad reviews posted on her Beach Vet Hospital’s Facebook page. I found 40 negative 1-star reviews, none of which seemed to be by normal users of her clinic. Some reviews specifically referred to Folta as well as to GMOLOL, a pro-GMO forum that Monsanto’s Online Engagement Director helped establish, where Valikov says the attacks were hatched.
Here are some of the comments:
- “‘Dr.’ Ena is a psychotic bitch who will stalk you everywhere on social media... Do not let your pets get near this lunatic.”
- “Lady is insane and wildly inappropriate with pet owners... I wouldn’t trust this idiot with any of my own pets in a million years.”
- “I see you’re sticking your vindictive nose into someone’s personal career, where it doesn’t belong.” [It’s clear from the context that this “someone” is Folta.]
- “This woman is a science denying stalker. Save your pet by taking it to a vet when it’s sick, not a witch.”
- “I would never ever bring my animals to you. You DO REJECT ALL scientific evidence in favor of your own biased views that you push to line your own pockets. Disgusting. You are an animal abuser.”
I only came across one negative reviewer who actually claimed to have attended her clinic, and Dr Valikov says Beach Vet Hospital has no records that match this individual. Some of the negative reviewers didn’t even reside in the United States, let alone California.
But some Folta supporters are known to have gone to the trouble of visiting her workplace. As well as Yvette D’Entremont, who made her name by pressing home Folta’s attacks on the Food Babe, a pro-GM lobby group called Biofortified, of which Folta is part, posted a photograph of their “Franknfoode” mascot right outside Beach Vet Hospital.
According to Garrett Smith, who made a short video about what Dr Valikov has been subjected to, this is like saying: “I’m right here at your work. I own you... It’s just rubbing it right in her face. It’s very intimidatory. She’s just one person.”
Smith goes on, “The reason they're coming after Ena is that she has something intelligent to say... It’s another way... to put the pressure on and get her to stop... And that’s really what they want her to do. They want to shut her up.”
“I’m an expert, she’s a kook”
As soon as they got wind of Smith’s video, Biofortified protested that they had no intent to intimidate. Folta also quickly distanced himself from the campaign of harassment, telling his followers to take the “high road” and not “to try to harm her business”, although at the same time managing to imply that Valikov deserved “the grief”.
But although Folta claims Valikov brought the attacks on herself, she holds him responsible for his followers’ actions, believing it is his repeated labelling of her as a “whackjob” that made her such a target for those in groups like GMOLOL, where Folta has a big following. And certainly among the fake reviews posted on her business page, there is a notable recurrence of insults that tally with Folta’s “whackjob” designation: “nut job”, “insane”, “lunatic”, “insane old hag”, “seriously unhinged”, “psychotic bitch”, etc.
Thanks to Garrett Smith’s video, Folta stopped using the “whackjob” hashtag, but that didn’t stop the name calling. When he came under fire recently over his close relationship with industry, Folta issued a challenge to critics like Valikov to come and discuss their concerns on his Talking Biotech podcast. “None will accept,” he quickly declared, for fear “their crap is exposed”.
But when Dr Valikov said she’d be perfectly happy to get involved if there was a neutral moderator, and someone suggested the TV host David Pakman for the role, Folta suddenly backtracked, saying: “It creates false balance. This is not a debate. I’m an expert, she’s a kook.”
It’s not just Ena Valikov who has had to face retaliation from Folta and his supporters. Even well established journalists suffer a backlash when Folta objects to their reporting. For instance, Eric Lipton, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, found himself condemned by Yvette D’Entremont as the kind of “idiot” who would have participated in the Salem witch trials. Paul Thacker and Charles Seife even had an article retracted in highly controversial circumstances after Folta objected to it. And Brooke Borel, despite her solidly pro-GMO reporting, found herself facing a volley of criticism and abuse after Folta effectively labelled her a crank who was out to “harm a scientist”, because she dared to report on his use of a shady podcast alias.
But all that is as nothing compared to what went down after the celebrated Lebanese-American essayist, scholar, statistician, and risk analyst Nassim Taleb declared Folta not just a liar, but a shill and a “lowly” person. Folta responded in a variety of different ways, including legal threats, saying he’d just let Taleb “spew”, calling Taleb a “hateful man” who’d be “gone” if he were at Folta’s university, and saying he’d “love a pizza and a beer with Nassim”.
The most successful of these gambits was the pizza and beer. It lead to Folta being declared a “true gentleman” on Twitter, while Taleb, who rejected the offer by saying he wouldn’t break bread with such “a disgusting fellow”, earned a whole blog condemning him as a disgrace to science communication, with Folta serving as his foil.
This is more than ironic, given that Folta is a serial offender when it comes to insults and character assassination. But Folta is far more wily than Taleb. He is keen to charm where he can, and quick to generate blogs and tweets in his own defence, which he will then tactically edit or even delete if he comes under pressure. And if he is still called to account, then – unlike Taleb – he sometimes proffers an apology, even though, as Jack Heinemann has noted, “A recidivist of insult serially apologizing isn't contrition.”
Folta is also a past master at painting himself the victim. Thus when the harassment of Ena Valikov started coming to light, Folta not only immediately fired off a blog distancing himself from it, but he even tried to turn the tables on those who blamed him for the attacks by accusing them of inciting violence: “You guys are trying to get someone to firebomb my house or [get] my family harmed.”
Melodramatic claims of himself, his home, his family, his lab, or even his students, somehow being under serious threat is a favoured tactic of Folta’s when facing criticism, as we saw in the first part of this series. But despite all Folta’s inflammatory rhetoric, there seems to be very little evidence to back his claims up, and certainly no indication that any of these supposed “threats” have ever been judged credible by the police.
But playing the victim is an effective way of galvanizing his supporters into action against those he claims are persecuting – or even terrorizing – him.
We love GMOs and vendetta
Nassim Taleb’s insults played straight into Folta’s cult of victimhood. The price Taleb paid included not just a sea of Twitter hate but a petition calling on NYU to “Terminate” him, over 1200 emails to NYU complaining about him, and graphics comparing him to Adolf Hitler.
The Hitler graphics were put together by Stephan Neidenbach, a leading Folta defender whose Facebook profile used to show him and Folta with arms around each other.
Neidenbach is also someone Folta regularly thanks, telling him on one occasion, “You’re an evil genius. I’m flattered and grateful fo [sic] such support.”
Neidenbach’s anti-anti-GMO activism attracts significant endorsement. His Facebook group, "We Love GMOs and Vaccines", has received over 35,000 “likes”. And when he recently organized a counter-protest aimed at interrupting a Food Justice March in Washington DC, his collaborators included Michael Shellenberger, the President of the Breakthrough Institute, as well as Mark Lynas and the Cornell Alliance For Science. Neidenbach can be seen below with his arm around Lynas.
If Neidenbach is to be believed, he also enjoys industry support. Certainly, industry people are notable among his Twitter following. And in a tweet about tracking down Folta’s anonymous online critics, Neidenbach claimed, “We have some computer people Ketchum hired to help us out.”
Ketchum is the biotech industry's controversial PR agency, which brags about its ability to influence the GMO debate online and which ghostwrote for Kevin Folta. Ketchum also has a history of involvement in spying on groups concerned about GMOs. Neidenbach’s tweet was subsequently deleted.
Anyone who follows Neidenbach on Twitter, as all his collaborators seem to do, cannot fail to be aware of the extreme nature of his actions. For instance, not content with pairing Taleb with Adolf Hitler, Neidenbach put in a public records request for Taleb’s emails – even though he himself had compared such requests to “a McCarthy-style witch hunt” when Kevin Folta was the target.
And whereas USRTK framed their request narrowly, limiting it just to Folta's email exchanges with named agrichemical companies and their PR firms and front groups, Neidenbach demanded the University of Massachusetts hand over all Taleb's emails without exception, i.e. including ones containing purely personal or academic information. Given that Taleb stopped working at the University a decade ago and published nothing on GMOs while he was there, it is hard to see this as anything but a punitive fishing expedition – or, as Neidenbach told his followers, “Hopefully we find something fun.”
Another way Neidenbach found of having fun was to forge a tweet from Taleb by modifying what Taleb originally said so as to make “his” tweet appear ridiculous. And when another of Folta's critics, the systems biologist Joe Norman, took issue with this and with graphics Neidenbach was producing that attacked Norman himself, Neidenbach's response was revealing: “Joe Norman if you just apologize to Professor Folta, we can leave you out of this.”
On another occasion Neidenbach responded to Norman with what reads very much like a threat: “You have harassed biotech scientists far too much... We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.” His use of the tagline of the hacktivist group Anonymous ties in with his aping them in other ways, including using the V for Vendetta mask that has become their trademark as the profile picture for his own “We Love GMOs and Vaccines” group, as well as posting photographs of himself wearing the mask.
But while many people are willing to turn a blind eye to the vigilante aspect of Anonymous because of the group’s willingness to take on tyrannical governments, powerful corporations, belligerent despots and even the likes of ISIS and the KKK, groups like Neidenbach’s seem to be targeting for “vendetta” individuals that they feel have been overly critical of Kevin Folta and/or themselves.
How far this “vendetta” may be taken by some of Folta’s followers is hard to say, but while writing this article I came across people who were convinced that their email and social media accounts had been hacked, or who believed that they had been subjected, like Ena Valikov, to various forms of underhand retaliation, after criticizing Folta and/or some of his leading supporters. Tellingly, I also found even hardened activists anxious not to be referenced or quoted in any way, even though they were glad the issue was being raised. As one told me, “I don’t want to make myself any more of a target than I already am.”
Certainly, the threatening nature of some of the posts on "We Love GMOs and Vaccines" lacks any ambiguity. One recent poster referred to Ena Valikov and other critics as “scumbags”, “cunts” and “slanderous pieces of shit” that someone “oughta kneecap”.
Although the post was deleted, it wasn’t condemned or even criticized. Instead, We Love GMOs and Vaccines issued an alert to its followers that someone “was taking screenshots of people from this thread now”. They posted a screenshot of the kneecapping threat as evidence of this unreasonable behaviour.
“Mess with the bull and get the horns”
If any of this is suggestive of a cyber lynch mob, then that tallies with what someone who used to follow Kevin Folta, and was part of the online groups that support him, has to say. According to Sam Yang, by attacking Folta, Nassim Taleb got himself “into a fight with the internet mob.”
“I followed Kevin Folta before he became famous fighting Food Babe, along with other Facebook pages within that circle,” Yang wrote in a response to the blog that attacked Nassim Taleb for insulting Folta.
Those groups, according to Yang, “did the same things Nassim was doing, many took it further. I mean it was downright mean. I get not agreeing, but online mob mentality? Reminded me of old school street justice, just uncalled for... They don't have a face. It’s a collective, whereas Nassim has a face. He can only tweet so many insults, whereas that collective can bombard him... This article showed the tweets of Nassim being mean, and some cordial opposers. Why not the tweets attacking Nassim?”
And, of course, you don’t have to be as abrasive as Nassim Taleb to come under attack from Folta and his supporters. Activists who openly challenge Folta are an obvious target. GMO Free USA told me, “We are always dealing with trolls but the number increases exponentially when we post about Folta. It’s impossible to say how many trolls we have to ban as it’s hard for one person to keep up so we usually call out for help.”
The attacks are not limited to social media. This is from an email GMO Free USA got after criticizing Folta: “Holy shit. Did you get totally spanked today or what???? Mess with the bull and get the horns... Get a clue and don’t mess with Kevin or your page will be descended upon again.”
Stephan Neidenbach claims Folta has warned him to “knock it off with inflammatory memes”. But the memes Neidenbach gives graphic expression to almost invariably stem from Folta himself. So when Neidenbach posts images comparing Taleb to totalitarian mass murderers, he is merely following a meme of Folta’s, who responded to USRTK by comparing their actions to the Stalinist onslaught on the great Soviet botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov.
“Facts sometimes can be inconvenient to activist agendas, so they must eliminate or marginalize the teachers,” Folta blogged. “During the late 1930's in a roundup USRTK would be proud of, geneticists were arrested and tried. Many of them were murdered...”
Folta claims he’s not directly comparing himself to Vavilov but seeking “to compare where ideology violently overrules science.” In other words, he deliberately associates USRTK putting in public records requests with totalitarian terror.
It therefore makes perfect sense that a Neidenbach image that sandwiches Taleb between Hitler and Stalin also takes in USRTK’s co-director Gary Ruskin. The image also features another pet hate-figure of Folta and his supporters, the Food Babe – someone Folta has accused of “abject food terrorism” and of being intent on fomenting violence against him, even though Vani Hari appears to have suffered far uglier threats and abuse than he ever has.
Folta’s supporters parrot not just his memes but his language. When he announced he was “bowing out” of the GMO debate, many of his followers’ angry comments about the “whackjobs”, “charlatans”, and “terrorists” they held responsible were taken directly from Folta’s own lexicon of abuse. Someone even complained, “The terrorists have won”, which is exactly the phrase Folta used after his Monsanto grant got given away to a student food pantry.
The language of Folta and his followers is so overblown that at times it’s hard to believe they are not engaging in self-mockery: “It's just so damn disheartening to see the Taliban win. That's what this feels like. Shutting up intellectuals has been the first step in many evil social movements: Mao's cultural revolution, the Khmer Rouge, the Taliban, ISIS... and Food Babe.”
But the extreme rhetoric serves a serious purpose. Folta’s memes of martyrdom, terrorism and totalitarianism serve to stir up anger and hatred against his supposed persecutors, so encouraging his followers to engage in the kind of abusive behaviour he claims to be the victim of. This is the Alice in Wonderland world of Kevin Folta, where he complains of being vilified, marginalized, and silenced – yet those are the very tactics that he and his followers seem to adopt.
This behaviour seems so ingrained in some of his supporters that, even with Folta now operating largely behind the scenes, it looks set to remain a significant part of his legacy.
But there is an even more toxic aspect to Folta’s legacy than the stimulus it has given to trolling and other intimidatory behaviour. And that is the way he has discouraged his followers from looking critically at the issues they express such strong opinions about.
One of Folta’s most successful strategies in this regard has been to plug into a weakness in parts of the Skeptic movement, where true skepticism, or open-minded doubt, is replaced by dogmatic fervour and tribalism. Folta has fed these pseudo-skeptics with the lie that the safety of commercial products like GMO crops and Roundup is as much a given as, say, the theory of evolution. And by associating those who raise questions about them with skeptic bogeys like creationists, psychics or anti-vaccines campaigners, he has encouraged people to condemn out of hand such questioning, without investigating further.
A classic example of Folta making use of this kind of guilt by false association is his attack on a registered dietitian who supports GMO labelling as being akin to “a psychic, a UFO expert, or a moon-landing hoaxer, or a Holocaust Denier.” Similarly, as we have seen, he uses ad hominem attacks to dismiss scientists who entertain doubts about GMOs and Roundup as liars, manipulators, charlatans and morons.
Sam Yang, who used to follow Folta, captures the fundamentalist character of Folta’s fan base: “I followed these sites and joined these groups because our beliefs aligned most of the time, [but] the severity of their approach, their sanctimonious rhetoric, and their absolutism turned me off. I mean they often called themselves 'skeptics', yet skeptics aren't selective, they question and are skeptical of everything. Not skeptical of one thing and absolute about another. It was in its own way 'dogma', the same dogma they despised.”
Monsanto mon amour
Just as insidious is the way Folta has made being pro-GMO synonymous with being pro-Monsanto. Ena Valikov has repeatedly challenged him and his supporters to produce one example of Folta being critical of a Monsanto product or a Monsanto study, or in any other way “diverging from Monsanto's party line”. No convincing example has materialized.
In fact, Folta has gone to incredible lengths to defend the Monsanto product Roundup. He has not only repeatedly drunk Roundup in public to supposedly “demonstrate harmlessness” but he has even encouraged others to do the same. This dubious showmanship is a negation of science and is utterly irresponsible.
It’s revealing in this context that although Folta used to repeatedly maintain that he had “nothing to do with Monsanto”, in seeking to fire up his supporters to attack USRTK, he actually told them the exact opposite: “I’ll ALWAYS maintain relationships with these corporations and maybe someday I’ll be fortunate enough to talk Monsanto into sponsoring YOUR research” (double emphasis in original).
And not only can biotech industry personnel be found among his staunchest supporters, but some of his other leading defenders appear to wish they were working for the industry too. Stephan Neidenbach, for instance, seems to enjoy posing in a Monsanto T-shirt almost as much as a V for Vendetta mask.
Neidenbach has also openly encouraged Monsanto’s vice-president to get the company to hire him.
Another of Folta’s staunchest defenders, Yvette D’Entremont, worked until recently for the pesticide maker Amvac, which collaborates with Monsanto on its GMO-and-pesticides packages. D’Entremont, who styles herself the “SciBabe” and has over 140,000 followers on Facebook, tells her supporters that they can’t really be considered pro-GMO unless they also back Monsanto: “If you claim to be ‘pro-GMO but anti-@MonsantoCo,’ you're part of the problem.”
D’Entremont certainly can’t be accused of trying to maintain any critical distance from the company, gushing to Monsanto’s vice-president that she is a “Big fan of your work and your wonderful employees”, while asking him to help with the book she is writing.
For D’Entremont it is apparently unimaginable that a technology could be misused by a profit-driven multi-billion dollar industry. Yet the record of agrichemical giants like Monsanto hardly seems to justify giving corporate biotech a free pass.
This, then, is Kevin Folta’s legacy: a legion of uncritically GMO-supporting, Monsanto-loving devotees, ready to savage anyone who doesn’t sign up to their dogma.
The Kevin Folta fan club
Back (left to right):
Janice Person – Monsanto’s Online Engagement Director. Helped set up GMOLOL
Julie Kelly – pro-GMO blogger whose husband is a lobbyist for agribiz giant ADM
Front (left to right):
Anastasia Bodnar – a director at Biofortified. Kevin Folta is a co-director
Yvette D’Entrement – aka the SciBabe. Worked until recently for the pesticide maker and Monsanto collaborator Amvac
Cami Ryan – Monsanto’s Social Sciences Lead
Julie Gunlock – Senior Fellow at The Independent Women's Forum, an anti-feminist right-wing public policy group, which grew out of Women for Clarence Thomas. Thomas is an ultra-conservative member of the Supreme Court and a former Monsanto attorney.