Vixen Valentino delves into the latest trolling tactic deployed against her and GMWatch. By Jonathan Matthews
One of the best troll busters we’ve come across goes by the name of “Vixen Valentino” – the nom de guerre of “an environmental activist with a smart mouth who cares about leaving a less-shitty world behind to her kids.” Vixen uses an online pseudonym for her blogging, tweeting and Substack because calling out corporate PR agents, “fake skeptics”, and assorted poseurs and bullies, tends to make you a prime target for smears, bigotry and intimidation.
We at GMWatch know this from experience. When, for instance, my research exposing Monsanto’s use of AgBioWorld as a key conduit for black propaganda ended up in The Guardian, a leading AgBioWorld contributor promptly claimed I was linked to a “terrorist group”. And when I criticised a notorious pro-GMO troll for using demeaning graphics and Hitler memes, he promptly made me part of those memes and started posting defamatory accusations, which the industry-backed Genetic Literacy Project then turned into articles profiling us.
Although it’s harder to target someone who uses an alias, Vixen has still been harassed numerous times, as she explains in a guest article she has just written for the award-winning investigative reporter Paul Thacker’s Disinformation Chronicle. The article focuses on the latest attack on Vixen’s Twitter account by a Monsanto-loving troll best known, in Vixen’s words, for her “disgruntled pit viper act”.
“Somerville’s favourite pesticide sales lady”
Mary Mangan from Somerville in Massachusetts is a scientist who, Vixen notes, “spends enormous amounts of time online promoting the interests of the agrochemical industry”. So much so that Mangan has been humorously dubbed “Somerville’s favourite pesticide sales lady”.
But Mangan’s reach is far from parochial. She sits on the advisory board of the (Cornell) Alliance for Science, the PR outfit funded by the Gates Foundation to propagandise for GM crops worldwide. Mangan also writes for groups like Biofortified and the Genetic Literacy Project, which Monsanto considers its “industry partners”. There, on social media, and in an endless stream of comments under blogs and articles, Mangan posts scathing attacks on critics of the agrochemical industry, like Guardian journalist Carey Gillam – a favourite target of Monsanto’s. Mangan also feeds material for hit pieces to reporters, in at least one case in consort with Monsanto’s former director of communications, Jay Byrne, infamous for orchestrating attacks on industry critics.
New means of harassment
But Mangan’s latest means of targeted harassment involves not smears but copyright claims – claims that, as Vixen explains, were earlier piloted on GMWatch by a long-time associate of Mangan’s, the Hitler-meme loving troll mentioned earlier:
“Some years back, Mangan was often associated on Twitter and in the comment sections of news articles with Maryland public school teacher Stephan Neidenbach, the founder of We Love GMOs and Vaccines (WLGV). Neidenbach is another well-known troll and self-professed Monsanto fan boy, who was profiled by the Disinformation Chronicle in 2021.
“Mangan likely learned from Neidenbach’s example of how to abuse the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and intimidate anyone who pointed out her outrageous behaviour defending Monsanto, GMOs, and glyphosate. Neidenbach’s ploy began after the UK-based nonprofit GMWatch posted an article on him with photos showing Neidenbach posing for a selfie while wearing a Monsanto t-shirt. Another photo showed Neidenbach socializing with Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science and University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta, whom the New York Times exposed for taking money from Monsanto, while – you guessed it – denying ties to Monsanto.
“To erase the record of his behavior, Neidenbach contacted GMWatch’s webserver and claimed the photos he posted publicly of himself promoting Monsanto and rubbing elbows with other industry lackeys were copyrighted. Despite the photos complying with fair use laws, GMWatch removed the images to avoid legal hassles and getting their website shut down.
“GMWatch countered by hiring an artist to produce the photos of Neidenbach in caricature form. I personally found the result to be a quite satisfactory way to resolve the complaint.”
Vixen Valentino makes an obvious target for Neidenbach-style harassment, not just because of how fearlessly she calls out the industry mouthpieces, fake skeptics and trolls that she tracks across the net, but because she always keeps the receipts – often in the form of screenshots – and is well known for peppering her blogs and tweets with impactful images documenting her points.
So it’s no great surprise that Mary Mangan recently complained to Twitter that Vixen had violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). In what Vixen calls Mangan’s typically “calm and reasonable fashion”, Mangan claimed that: “Vixen Valentino, repulsive anti-vaxxer and crank, is attempting to harass me – a scientist – by using my image and my work. She does not have permission to use them, they are my property.”
Needless to say, there are a number of things wrong with this. For instance, having read Vixen’s blog over many years and long followed her on Twitter, I can attest that she is no “anti-vaxxer”, repulsive or otherwise. But then Neidenbach, Mangan and others hurl “anti-vaxxer” routinely at critics even when it is clearly untrue.
Owning the Internet
More importantly, there are two obvious problems with the copyright claims that Mangan and Neidenbach have been making. The first is, as Vixen notes, that these are images that they themselves have spread on the net without any proprietary claims. Vixen gives the example of a screenshot she posted of the slideshow Mangan used to promote Monsanto’s side of things on GMOs to the Boston Skeptics. By claiming copyright on Vixen’s screenshot, Mangan got Vixen locked out of her Twitter account, even though Mangan herself had posted these slides to sites, like SlideShare, that allow anyone to download the entire slideshow for free.
Mangan even claimed copyright on a screenshot Vixen tweeted of the results of a Google Image search. Because this screenshot contained a couple of small images of Mangan among a whole series of thumbnail pics of various other Mary Mangans, Vixen found herself locked out of her Twitter account once again – for merely posting what anyone who Googles “Mary Mangan” is likely to see. The irony was that Vixen’s only reason for tweeting the screenshot was to underline the absurdity of Mangan’s copyright claims.
“There’s a word for this”
The other problem with what Neidenbach and Mangan have been doing is that they themselves have not only shared other people’s photos on social media but have done so to intimidate them. Neidenbach, for instance, as payback for our reporting on his trolling, used a photo of me holding a cup of tea – my then Facebook profile pic – in order to pair me with Adolf Hitler.
Vixen gave me another example of Mangan and Neidenbach using other people’s images to harass them. It involved photos of children gardening that a nurse had tweeted about and posted on her popular Facebook page about organic gardening. One of the photos shows the nurse’s nephew gathering seeds from a large sunflower that he and his classmates grew in their “Victory Garden” at his pre-school. The other photo of children gardening was one that a woman in Texas, who the nurse sent seeds to, had shared with her. Mangan and Neidenbach retweeted these photos, falsely claiming that the nurse had no connection with any of the children and had actually stolen the photos she tweeted. Inevitably, Neidenbach also claimed that the nurse was “anti vax”, which once again wasn’t true.
Neidenbach subsequently photoshopped another of the nurse’s tweets so as to replace an image of her nephew in her garden with a photo of Black slave children hoeing a field. He then posted the doctored tweet on Facebook, leading the nurse to suffer such a barrage of abuse for her supposed racism that she ended up deleting her Facebook account. (Read the full story of what happened here.)
In other words, Neidenbach and Mangan object to our calling attention to their antics by using images they posted online, despite their having used other people’s images to troll them. As Vixen says, “There’s a word for this I think…? Oh right, hypocrisy.”
However absurd their copyright claims, they can still be an effective means of censorship. That's because Internet companies often err on the side of extreme caution when faced with any suggestion they might be held liable for hosting content involving copyright infringement.
When Neidenbach told our webserver we had violated his copyright by reproducing images such as the one of him in a Monsanto t-shirt, they were willing to let us present our counter arguments but still insisted that unless we could either prove we held the copyright to the images or had written permission from Neidenbach to use them, we had to remove them – otherwise they would close down our website.
Vixen found that Twitter acted still more defensively, locking her out of her account until she agreed to the removal of the disputed images. They did give her the chance to contest Mangan’s claim of copyright violation, but this placed her in an impossible position. In any such counterclaim, she had to include her legal name, her full home address, and her phone number, and all of that information would be passed along to Mangan, who could obviously share it with anyone she liked.
That wasn’t an option for Vixen, who blogs and tweets anonymously because she knows of others who have challenged industry supporters and then had “their businesses attacked with fake reviews; had their personal information doxxed including full names, physical address and spouse’s social security number; had pornography sent to them; and had pictures of family members photoshopped to make them appear to be Nazis or slave owners.”
All of this has left Vixen thinking “social media simply isn’t a fair playing field, and bad actors have learned how to exploit the system”. But that doesn’t mean she is going to let them scare her into silence or stop her calling out industry stooges.
That's why she moved her blog to Substack after Substack refused to censor a Disinformation Chronicle profile of Stephan Neidenbach that included images, like the Monsanto t-shirt one, that he is desperate to suppress. And because Substack doesn’t facilitate these kind of abusive copyright claims, Vixen’s own article for the Disinformation Chronicle contains images that Mangan is keen to censor.
We can’t do the same on our site, but we can respond, as we did to Neidenbach, with satire, and by joining with Vixen in exposing these trolling tactics. As Vixen says, “If my cautionary tale exposes these tactics and helps other people bust these frauds, then my work here is done.”
Many thanks to Vixen Valentino, as well as to Paul Thacker at the Disinformation Chronicle, for letting us republish extracts from Vixen’s article. You can read her article and view the accompanying pics here but you’ll need a Disinformation Chronicle subscription to read it in its entirety.
More from Vixen Valentino
Check out Vixen’s blog, her articles on Medium, and her new Sick of It All Substack. Follow her on Twitter.
More on Mary Mangan
Latest Online Trolling Tactic: Claiming Public Images Are Copyright Protected
More on Stephan Neidenbach
We Love GMOS and Vendetta
Launched by Monsanto-Loving Middle School Teacher Stephan Neidenbach, Hate and Disinformation Thrive at “We Love GMOs and Vaccines”
Censorship or Consequences?
Is GMWatch a Front for Industry and Other Dark Forces?