A peek behind the scenes in the $289M Monsanto verdict

Both sides in a similar Monsanto lawsuit tried to bend Wikipedia to their will

Image by Tori Rector, licensed CC BY-SA

On August 10, a jury hit Monsanto with a $289 million verdict, the latest in a string of lawsuits linking the agrochemical giant’s products and byproducts to cancer.

You may have heard that much; but you probably don’t know that, in the buildup this series of lawsuits, representatives of both the plaintiffs and the defendant worked to change Wikipedia content to favor their respective positions. The Wikipedia articles they worked on — non-Hodgkin lymphoma and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) — are viewed upwards of 75,000 times a month.

By the time a communications firm representing plaintiffs suing Monsanto sought advice from my business, Wiki Strategies, in 2014, they were entangled in a slow-moving “edit war” on Wikipedia. On the opposing side of the edit war: a Wikipedia user who asserted he was the social media team lead for Monsanto.

The central issue in that case was whether or not PCBs cause cancer. It’s exactly the kind of thing Wikipedia editors want to get right; people often turn to Wikipedia for scientific information, and despite Wikipedia editors encouraging readers to go to the sources before forming strong opinions, we know that they sometimes take Wikipedia’s word at face value. After advising our prospective client that we could not guarantee a favorable result, and that our goal must be to ensure that Wikipedia’s content adhered better to the scientific consensus on the matter (regardless of how well that matched the plaintiffs’ position), we gladly took on this new client, confident that the project would have a positive impact on Wikipedia.

At our project’s outset, the articles’ coverage of the PCB-cancer link was a mess. They contained references to a number of scientific studies, but little guidance — especially for a non-scientist audience — as to how to evaluate the studies’ varying methods and conclusions. The statements were accurate, but emphasized the lack of total certainty that PCBs cause cancer. Lack of certainty is a trait of most scientific research; scientific evidence is rarely, if ever, 100% conclusive. So emphasizing that point in this one particular case, we agreed, constituted a bit of editorializing, which Wikipedia is not supposed to do. My client had been mostly unsuccessful in his efforts to improve the articles, and both he and his rival were earning increasingly testy comments from veteran Wikipedia editors, for editing while having a conflict of interest.

Both the Monsanto representative and our client had already disclosed their conflict of interest, to some degree. Neither had fully followed Wikipedia’s best practices, but they hadn’t been intentionally deceptive, either. Each had been advocating for detailed changes, full of complex scientific concepts, and our client had been less successful than his rival.

Our client had to fundamentally change his approach. The discussion among Wikipedia editors had become focused on his behavior, and that of his rival at Monsanto; but the accuracy of the information in the Wikipedia article is what really counts. To get the focus where it belonged, we advised him to stop pushing for specific changes, and to place his trust in more experienced, and less conflicted, Wikipedia editors. We advised him to stop seeking specific wording, or insisting on citing specific scientific studies, and instead, to solicit Wikipedia editors with a background in science, urging them to research the issue and draw their own conclusions.

Within about a week — faster than we had hoped — a longtime Wikipedia editor conducted her own research and found several review articles that concluded that PCBs probably cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma, at least in some cases. So she edited the article to say as much — a vastly simpler and clearer result than the one our client had initially sought.

Lawsuits and Wikipedia share an important goal: assessing evidence for factual claims, and making that evidence more accessible to a non-expert. (In Wikipedia’s case, the general reading public; and in the case of a lawsuit, the jury.) While those interests may not be in perfect alignment, they have a great deal in common. Parties to lawsuits can participate in making Wikipedia better, provided that they follow Wikipedia’s rules, and treat Wikipedia editors with respect.

The opposing parties in the Monsanto case had differing views of how to interpret the scientific evidence. The intervention of uninvolved Wikipedia editors was necessary to adjudicate that disagreement and clarify the issue in accessible language. Sometimes, that’s what Wikipedia editors do best.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here: wikistrategies.net/pete-forsyth
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