This is part of the book “Stéphane Foucart et les néonicotinoïdes. The World and disinformation 1” in which we present one of the information manipulation techniques often used by journalists. All quotes are translated (by me), except the ones marked between [ ] in the french version (french quotes are to numerous to be marked in this one).

Quoting is very ordinary and even a good practice to give a really accurate picture of what a person is saying. However, it is also a process that can be abused to convey an implicit message. This wrongful practice of quotation, as used by S. Foucart, has three roles:

  1. create distance;
  2. make his point credible, for example by referring to someone who will be presented as an authority (eg David Goulson or Vincent Bretagnolle on bees);
  3. repeating a vehement or extreme statement, for example from an activist, without endorsing it (which allows him to produce radical remarks without losing his appearance of neutrality and objectivity).

By citation we can understand “reference”. I have indeed observed on a few occasions that these effects could be produced without specifically citing the words, by simply referring to them (but this is quite rare).

1. Create distance and discredit

The simple fact of quoting an opponent, instead of synthesizing his remarks, makes it possible to create distance: “he says that, I do not comment on the relevance or the precise content“. In doing so, he may announce a certain mistrust in the meaning and sincerity of the subject, so as to leave open useful interpretations of the argument developed by S. Foucart which would be much more difficult with a synthesis.

This is a very useful tool for dealing with objections and, more broadly, for insinuating.

a. One of the tools for handling objections

We have already discussed how this technique is used to handle objections in the article on IUCN, which we discussed earlier. Let’s take another excerpt. This is his way of presenting Mr Potts’ response to his “turnaround” (which we will see did not appear to be one) on NNIs between positions 6 months apart:

“Why this turnaround? Asked in May by Le Monde, he replied: “As any good scientist should be, I am open to new evidence, and my opinions may change with new discoveries” – without saying more about these ” new discoveries”.” (19)

This passage will tend to create suspicion in the reader, the remarks of Mr Potts, however perfectly valid, appearing as a simple pretext. The informational content is quite poor. Reporting his words could perfectly be summed up as follows:

“When questioned in May, he replied that he had changed his mind following new evidence. He did not tell us which ones. “

Even if you keep the little end sentence (which doesn’t add anything: Mr Potts owes them no information), the suspicion aroused is less than with the quote.

b. A subtle innuendo

More broadly, it is a technique used to insinuate, while being perfectly “undetectable”: you will never be criticized for having quoted someone. You have it for example in the article (2) (The bankruptcy of the evaluation of pesticides on bees), paragraph 18:

“Are these experts in a conflict of interest situation? Are they competent? Impossible to know. “The list of these experts is not secret: it is accessible to the governments of our member states who wish it, but it is not made public,” says Ringolds Arnitis.” (2)

The person cited, a representative of the EPPO, whose integrity was questioned by S. Foucart, appears here as someone caught in the act. The author does not at any time discuss this argument, which is quite viable. It slips on as if it were a simple pretext not worth dwelling on. However, the measure described is quite logical: if the experts have responsibilities, it is entirely logic to keep their identity of the general public, to avoid pressure (from industrialists as from environmentalists).

c. An effective combination with the apposition effect

Let us return to the passage, which we have just spoken of, where S. Foucart questions the reasons for a supposed change of opinion by M. Potts:

“Why this turnaround? Asked in May by Le Monde, he replied: “As any good scientist should be, I am open to new evidence, and my opinions may change with new discoveries” – without saying more about these ” new discoveries”.” (19)

We saw that the citation here was intended to create a distancing supposing a distrust of the words of the researcher. Let’s read on:

Along with eight academic researchers (including another member of the IPBES expert committee), in May 2014 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Mr. Potts signed a scoping study on the evaluation of the effects of these famous neonicotinoids. The paper appealed to both industry and the Crop Protection Association – the UK’s pesticides union – circulated it in a press release. But the sorrowful spirits immediately noted that, in contravention of the journal’s publication rules, neither the financing of the study nor the possible conflicts of interest of its authors were specified… Solicited, the publishing editor of the publication assured Le Monde, at the beginning of July, that he would ask the authors for details. Four months later, these have still not been brought.” (19)

This element is absolutely not logically linked to the previous remarks. Yet the interpretation is clear: it would mean that his turnaround should not have happened by chance and that it would have fallen into the camp of the industrialists. However, S. Foucart does not really present any factual basis for this idea. An organization is free to answer an article. How many dozen requests are answered each year? As for the issue of conflicts of interest, let us recall that Mr Potts is one of the senior executives of IPBES and that S. Foucart himself has qualified the latter as “IPCC of biodiversity”… weren’t they just too busy to answer a troublemaker? By adding the elements together, the author conceals the weakness of the whole. So Mr Potts’s answer is thus clearly seen as a mere pretext, when it is a valid answer. We can see how the taking of distance by the quotation reacts with the use of the affix.

2. Build credibility

The quotation also helps to give credibility to his remarks by invoking the words of an expert: “I am not the one saying it, it is a famous researcher”. This process can be used very well. This is generally the case when S. Foucart writes an article on a new scientific study and leaves the floor to its authors. So, for example, for article (1), which dealt with a study showing the sublethal effects of NNIs:

“On its own, infection by Nosema ceranae causes only limited mortality,” explains Frédéric Delbac, professor-researcher at the Microorganisms, genomes and environment Laboratory (Blaise-Pascal University in Clermont-Ferrand, CNRS) and co-author of the ‘study. Likewise, the exposure levels to which we subjected the bees were very low, in the order of a hundredth of the dose from which we observed 50% mortality.”” (1)

There is nothing wrong with that, it is even good practice in popular science.

a. Reinforce questionable opinions

However, it can also be used to give credit to more questionable words. We saw this above when he invoked the opinion of “researchers” on the “agricultural model”. For example, you have this short passage about flaws in risk assessment procedures:

“These shortcomings are, in the words of a French apidologist who requested anonymity and researcher in a public body,” an open secret.”” (2)

The fact of quoting “an apidologue” makes it possible to use, without losing credibility, the expression “open secret”. At the same time, it helps to support the idea that there is something hidden. We are a long way from the relevant use of the quotes just discussed.
It also helps hijack credibility. This passage illustrates this mechanism well with regard to the Epilobee survey, which focused on mortalities and the presence of diseases or parasites:

“On the other hand, no pesticide measurements were made in the beehives analyzed. A point that arouses sharp criticism in the scientific community: “This study is a bit strange, said ironically the apidologist David Goulson, professor at the University of Sussex (United Kingdom). They spend over 3 million euros studying bee health and don’t even mention the word “pesticide”! “

In fact, the word is absent from the thirty pages of the published report. “The chosen protocol considers only one category of factors that can cause bee disorders: pathogens and parasites,” adds the apidologist Gérard Arnold, research director at the CNRS. If you only look for infectious agents, there is no risk of finding pesticide residues. This choice is political, not scientific. “” (15)

Quoting these opinions makes it possible to sell the idea that “this choice is political, not scientific”, even though it is difficult to see the factual basis of their affirmation. They do not even provide any information on the price of this kind of surveys and the additional cost of additional analyzes.

Here is another example:

“In a letter addressed to the French biologist Anne Larigauderie, the executive secretary of IPBES, and of which Le Monde has obtained a copy, Klaus-Werner Wenzel, professor of medicine at the Charité University Hospital in Berlin, said to himself” shocked by an obvious conflict of interest affecting members of a large panel of experts”.” (24)

Here he gives public and general significance to the private words of a professor of medicine. Here is another, relating to the decision of the Nice court to suspend the MA for sulfloxaflor:

“Asked by Le Monde, the lawyer for Générations futures, Me François Lafforgue, welcomes the court’s decision. “It puts a stop to this logic of systematic use of pesticides. Today, the legal response is adapted to the situation, and it is now hoped that the political response will follow on the harmful effects of pesticides on human health, including the creation of a victim compensation fund. “

The lawyer also wants to see it “as a positive signal in the context of the review of the registration of glyphosate”. On Monday, November 27, the member states of the European Union are due to decide, in an appeal committee, on the re-registration of the famous herbicide.” (38)

The judgment in question did not have this significance for several reasons: it was only a first instance decision and a temporary interim measure until the legality of the MA was reassessed. Note that he additionally speaks of impact “on human health“, referring to a risk that seems very, very doubtful.

By attributing the remarks to a lawyer, the author gives it credibility and shifts the responsibility for the manipulations mobilized: disinformation to create fear (effect on human health) and an attempt to bring glyphosate closer to sulfloxaflor and NNIs.

b. The combination with the juxtaposition

It is also possible to use a quote in combination with the apposition to make a scientist say what he is not saying. Here is a passage from an article criticizing the uselessness of the moratorium decided in 2013:

“The second reason to be depressed about the European decision is that it will probably not help. The moratorium (two years) is indeed shorter than the lifespan of these molecules in the environment. In a review published this year in the journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Jeroen van der Sluijs (University of Utrecht) and his co-authors explain that “neonicotinoids show a potential for accumulation in the soil and can be taken up by subsequent crops. up to at least two years after application”.” (13)

The natural interpretation will be that the researchers’ words match the original statement, that the moratorium would be of no use. Yet the researchers are not saying the moratorium will do no good, but that NNIs can persist for more than 2 years…

3. Endorse extreme or politicized remarks

The quotation also makes it possible to take up and support comments that are politicized or too questionable without actually being the author, thus allowing the journalist to maintain an appearance of neutrality. More specifically, it is about:

  • promote a political agenda;
  • speak under cover or
  • to resume militant impulses.

a. Promote a political agenda

Here is an example of promoting a political agenda by proxy:

“The beekeepers gathered in UNAF have for their part already announced that they would not be satisfied with this proposal. They want a total and definitive ban of these systemic plant protection products, suspected of being the major cause of the decline of honey bees and wild pollinators.” (5)

This allows S. Foucart to promote a political measure (which is the one he promotes in the entirety of his “work”) without showing it, while retaining an appearance of independence.

Here is another example:

“EFSA confirms what has already been shown by abundant scientific evidence: neonicotinoids are a serious threat to bees and the future of agriculture,” comments Marco Contiero, agricultural policy officer at Greenpeace Europe. The Commission should extend their ban to cover all uses of neonicotinoids, on all crops, and end its current policy of exemptions. Viable non-chemical alternatives exist and the European Union should encourage farmers to use them.” (23)

Here a representative of Greenpeace presents what he thinks the European Commission should do. Strangely, this sticks precisely to what S. Foucart implicitly suggests…
This approach can also be part of a logic of credibility. For example, here are some words from a researcher, V. Bretagnolle, about NNIs:

“None of these three countries has succeeded in reversing the trend: to achieve a tangible effect, practices have to be changed over considerable areas. Otherwise, the effects are imperceptible. It is not a problem of farmers, but of an agricultural model: if we want to halt the decline of biodiversity in the countryside, we must change it, together with the farmers.” (43)

He promotes the idea that “the dominant agricultural model” should be radically changed. Not only does S. Foucart capture the credibility of the intervenor’s function (researcher), but in addition he makes him convey a political discourse (difficult for him to assume, since this would endanger the aura of neutrality that he is trying to create).

Likewise in this passage:

The authors of this work have little doubt about the involvement of neonicotinoids in the decline of biodiversity in general. “We must adopt international restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids without delay and prevent their replacement by equally dangerous products,” write researchers who participated in this publication, in a column published in Le Monde.” (44)

b. Speak under cover

Abusive quotes can also be used to express a questionable idea that is potentially questionable or politically engaging while keeping an appearance of neutrality. Take this example, concerning the desire expressed by the Minister of Agriculture (2017) to reverse the biodiversity law for legal reasons, due to the lack of alternatives for some NNIs.

“The deputy (PS) of Deux-Sèvres Delphine Batho, at the origin of the amendment on” neonics “, in the law for biodiversity and the reconquest of landscapes, considers that” no legal quibbling can justify that we come back to French law”. […] “The European regulation authorizes member states to take precautionary measures,” she explains. Germany and Italy have made use of this possibility to ban certain neonicotinoids beyond European provisions. Finally, she recalls, “scientific studies have established the impact of neonicotinoids on human health with” unfavorable neurological consequences on humans”.” (30)

Here the quote allows the journalist

  1. to characterize the targeted argument as “legal argument”, suggesting that it would have been a mere pretext to reverse the ban;
  2. To claim that NNIs have been shown to cause neurological damage to humans (which is highly questionable).

Letting the MP say it makes the remarks far more credible than if these remarks were made by S. Foucart and it allows her to take responsibility for the questionable allegation of the Minister on the health impact of NNIs.

The fact that S. Foucart speaks under cover is perfectly visible in this paragraph:

“According to our information, France is among the member states in favor of the application of the new tests. But Mr. Laarman warns against possible fooling games. “If France or other states are in favor of this overhaul of the system,” he said, “let them take a public stand and campaign! “Because the French position is ambiguous: new generation insecticides, based on sulfoxaflor – a molecule marketed by Corteva (ex-Dow Agrosciences) – were thus authorized in 2017, in France, by the National Agency for Health Security of food, environment and work (ANSES) on the basis of obsolete tests. The authorization was immediately challenged by the UNAF in court, with success.” (48)

He says something, picks up militant remarks continuing what he said, then clarifies the scope of the latter. Laarman’s intervention is part of the very structure of what S. Foucart says. Note at the same time that he implies that ANSES would be at the orders of the government, which seems to me extremely dubious.

c. Echo the militant impulses

Finally, the quotation makes it possible to take up and support the militant outbursts, which reinforce the scope of the arguments promoted by S. Foucart. For example, here is a reaction to the MA for sulfoxaflor:

“It is shameful, scandalous, pitiful and irresponsible toward future generations,” says Gilles Lanio, the president of the UNAF. I still can not believe it!” (36)

A reaction to the suspension of the Sulfoxaflor MA:

“This file reveals a scandalous situation on the management of European approvals of active ingredients of pesticides which are granted in the absence of nonetheless essential data on product safety, called confirmatory data, which will not be transmitted until two years later, notes François Veillerette, spokesperson for Future generations. This situation must end as soon as possible, and we call on the French ministers concerned to act quickly on this issue.” (38)

A reaction to the re-authorization for NNI on beets at the end of 2020:

“François Veillerette, director of the Générations futures association, denounces” an unacceptable setback which shows that this government easily bends under the weight of the agrochemical and industrial agriculture lobbies, and has given up being the leader of the fight against bee-killing insecticides in Europe”.” (63)

1Notez qu’il glisse en même temps une autre idée : les gouvernements ne feraient pas attention à ces choses … sans doute parce qu’ils seraient eux-mêmes dans la combine ?