On February 3, the Attorney General of the state of New York, Eric Schneiderman, announced his office had taken action against several major retailers regarding some herbal remedies sold in their stores. The state’s investigators found that about 80% of the products contained none of the active ingredients on the label! Further, some products contained allergens or other substances not listed on the label. The testing was done using a DNA barcoding technique. A “cease and desist” order was issued, requiring these products to be removed from shelves in the state of New York.
Skeptics were generally supportive of this action, of course – we’ve long argued that many herbal supplements have poor evidence of efficacy and are poorly regulated. The supplement industry, needless to say, is not happy. They have attempted to rally opposition to this move, and to get supporters of herbal supplements to call, write and Tweet the Attorney General about this issue.
Only the Attorney General’s office knows how many letters or phone calls were generated. But Twitter posts are, by default, public. This means we can peek at their efforts to lobby on this issue. Let’s do that and see how it is going.
As you may recall, in my plenary speech at TAM 2012 I told the story of a previous supplement industry lobbying effort. In that case it was a backlash directed at Congress in early 2010 when an effort to toughen supplement regulations was introduced. Skeptics failed to take note of this lobbying effort at the time, missing an opportunity to lobby Congress ourselves in support of the measure. I immediately began to wonder if something similar might happen here.
This post is only about the grassroots campaigning on Twitter. For more details on the science of this story, see the several posts by skeptics Scott Gavura, Steven Novella, Sharon Hill, Joe Nickell and a page at Quackwatch. It is worth nothing here that, as Gavura and Rachael Rettner point out, there might be some question as to whether DNA barcoding is an appropriate technique for testing supplements. This is allegedly because some supplements are processed in ways that may destroy the DNA. On the latest Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, Steve Novella disagrees, he says there are studies that back up its use for this very purpose. In his opinion complaining about the barcoding issue is simply special pleading.
In any case, the natural products industry quickly decided to focus on the barcoding issue in their campaign. The Natural Products Association sent out an action alert on February 5 (also archived here) – just two days after the state’s announcement. The action alert included a prominent button marked Send Your Tweet. Clicking it sends a tweet identical to this one:
They are asking that the test data be released, so they can review it, presumably to make their point that the DNA barcoding techniques are insufficient. For those unfamiliar with Twitter, note that @AGSchneiderman is the Attorney General’s verified Twitter account. By including that in the tweets, each post will cause a notification to whoever runs that account. This can get quite annoying, as we have explored multiple times on this blog.
The tweet above is in fact the first one that was sent, and it was followed by many others. The action alert was followed the next day with this press release (also archived here) which also asked their supporters to call or write to the Attorney General’s office, as well as using Twitter.
I decided to take a look at how effective this campaign was in the ten days after it started. I was interested in not just the identical tweets, but any other tweets that were being sent to Eric Schneiderman. I created a story on Storify.com, and collected all tweets directed at @AGSchneiderman, in chronological order from February 4 through roughly February 16. Then I manually went down the list and deleted irrelevant tweets, keeping only those that directly referenced the herbal testing story, or were replies to related threads. Originally there were about 600 tweets total, but many were deleted as irrelevant.
Finally, I went down the list starting with the initial campaign tweet shown above, and noted any tweet (identical to it or not) which seemed critical of the state’s actions and/or which demanded transparency or release of the test data. I noted the identity of the sender, how many other tweets they sent in this list. I recorded where they lived, mostly from their Twitter bio but sometimes from information on the associated blog or LinkedIn account. Where possible I determined who their employer was, again either from info in their Twitter bio, their recent tweets or on their associated linked website.
Overall the breadth of the campaign was somewhat unimpressive. While it did significantly increase the number of @ mentions sent to the Attorney General during the period, the overall number of tweets was 378 over the ten-day period by my count. Those tweets were sent by 122 distinct accounts. Considering that government data indicates 20% of Americans (i.e roughly 64 million people) use an herbal supplement of some kind each year, that’s not a very impressive result.
There are other indications that the Natural Products Association was ineffective in getting the word out about this campaign. In the press release mentioned earlier, and in tweets like this one, the same call-to-action URL is used.
The bit.ly URL here leads you directly to an input box on Twitter to create the aforementioned identical tweets. An interesting thing about bit.ly links is you can add a plus sign to the end of the URL, and the service will show you statistics on how many times it was clicked. Doing so with this link indicates 122 clicks at the time I’m writing this, but only 72 clicks during the February 5 to 15 period covered by my Storify archive.
There are other indications of poor response to this campaign. The NPA attempted to use the Thunderclap service on February 10 to send a number of simultaneous tweets about the matter. Here is their initial call to action on this. But as you can see from the Thunderclap campaign page (also archived here), they only managed to sign up 43 people of the 100 required. No tweets were sent from Thunderclap, as far as I can tell.
Digging deeper into the source accounts for the tweets, more flaws in their campaign emerge.
Astro-Turfing by Industry Insiders
The first flaw in their campaign is the vast majority of tweets were sent by accounts that are clearly associated with the industry, or from employees of industry firms. When ranked by number of tweets, the entire top 5 (all accounts that sent 10 or more tweets) are insiders:
- @NPANational – Natural Products Association (NPA) a “nonprofit organization dedicated to the natural products industry”
- @UsulawNY – a “boutique law firm” which “advocates for the natural products / dietary supplement industry”
- @DrFabricant – the CEO and Executive Director of the NPA
- @BrielleSF – Sales & Marketing Director at Ethical Naturals, which supplies ingredients to manufacturers
- @CRN_Supplements – Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) is the leading trade association representing the dietary supplement and functional food industry
Just those 5 accounts sent 195 tweets together, more than half of all the tweets. Counting up other industry insiders I could find, including lawyers, PR people, other NPA employees and so on, I found 39 accounts that had sent 254 of the tweets.
That’s nearly two thirds of all the tweets being sent by members of the very industry that Schneiderman is trying to regulate here! I’m sure his office is aware of this, and are therefore not paying too much attention to those tweets. It is the Twitter equivalent of an arrested perpetrator yelling “But Officer, I’m innocent!”
Use of Sock Puppets
Digging a little further, I found a number of accounts that look like this one:
(Also archived here). This is a user who is following nobody, who has only tweeted once – to join this very campaign. Clearly this is a sock-puppet account being used specifically to boost the numbers in this campaign.
Twitter users know when you see an egg icon like that, you’re dealing with a newly created account and/or very inexperienced user. This one might have been created specifically for this campaign. Some others I found had tweeted several years ago and sat idle, then mysteriously “woke up” to tweet in this campaign. Some of the other obvious sock-puppet accounts I found include @wintreadway (archived copy), @samwang1288 (archived copy), @donnawanda1 (archived copy), @DevineErindl (archived copy) and @MarneyRise (archived copy). I have archived each profile page in case the owner(s) of these accounts delete them after this post appears.
I also found these tweets:
(The last account was suspended after I wrote this post, which is why it displays differently). Those accounts are anonymous retweeter robots – you can post something using an associated website and the account will automatically tweet it. So this is another form of sock puppetry.
All told there were 16 sock-puppet accounts which sent 23 tweets in my survey. There is no way to know who is responsible for these sock puppets, unfortunately. They could have been set up by industry insiders or unethical PR/marketing contractors. Or they could just as easily have been sent by an overzealous fan of herbal products.
Irony Alert: Complaining About PR
Speaking of PR, near the end of the Storify you can see these two tweets from Dr. Fabricant:
Here he seems to be pushing the idea that something untoward is going on because Eric Schneiderman has a PR person working for him.
What he doesn’t mention: many of the tweets from the natural products industry are coming from their own PR people, such as Susanne Shelton, Melinda Price, Lauren Cohen and Anne Bell. In fact, in that screen shot showing the first four tweets in the campaign above, you can see Shelton, Price and NPA all tweeting within seconds of each other. That implies to me that the PR people were actually operating at least a hunk of this campaign.
Potential Allies Ignored the Campaign
Meanwhile, ostensible allies of the industry did not come to its aid on Twitter. For instance, on the same day the campaign was launched, Mike Adams “The Health Ranger” tweeted the story this way:
The headline there is totally wrong (the FDA is not involved) and the story takes the angle of decrying big business like Walmart and recommending readers buy their supplements from Adams himself. No mention at all is made of grassroots campaigning.
Joe Mercola finally tweeted about the story on February 18th:[tweet 568169340974927874 hide_media=’true’]
In his article he did cover the regulatory dispute, but did not direct readers to lobby on the issue, and also made the case that supplements bought from his web site would not suffer from these issues.
So the industry was getting no help from the biggest stars on Twitter who commonly talk about herbal products. Instead, they were taking this as an opportunity to bash their competitors in selling these same products.
But What About New York?
But lets set all the industry insiders and sock puppets aside, and look at the actual “civilians” who appeared to be tweeting in this campaign. Keep in mind that Eric Schneiderman is an elected official (just re-elected in November 2014). Therefore he’s going to be interested if likely potential voters are angry with his actions – that’s kind of the point of a campaign like this.
I found 67 accounts that were likely individuals or local businesses such as health food stores and the like. They sent 101 total tweets – just over one quarter of the total. And herein lies the biggest problem with this campaign.
Eric Schneiderman is an elected official in New York state. As such he is only beholden to (and interested in the opinions of) the voters who live in his state. NPA was making no apparent effort to specially reach out to New York voters in their call to action. Since they didn’t do it, let’s filter out the Twitter accounts who cannot be located or which are clearly located outside the state of New York, and see who is left.
After we do that, we end up with a total of nine people who sent a grand total of twelve tweets!
Conclusion and Call To Action
If roughly 20% of Americans use herbal products, there should be roughly 4 million residents of New York that might be affected by this legal action. Despite that, over eleven days the natural products industry was only able to get nine of them to tweet about it to their Attorney General. Now, there may be more action going on via snail mail and telephone. To find out that, someone could file a request under New York’s FOIL law. But if this Twitter campaign is any indication, it sounds like there might not be very much.
But before you go gloat about this failure on social media, remember it is ongoing. NPA is actually claiming their campaign is having an impact, though it’s not clear what they based it on. There are other action alerts which were sent by other organizations later on, and which are more targeted at New York residents. There is also an article at Natural Products Insider (an industry trade magazine) which gives many links to other responses I haven’t covered here.
So this campaign could become noisier and more effective in the coming days. Besides, we as skeptics need to be aware when this type of campaigning is going on. We also need to make the powers that be know that the negative tweets aren’t representative of the entire public.
If you are a skeptic reading this who lives and votes in New York state, consider tweeting, writing or phoning the offices of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman:
- Tweet to @AGSchneiderman that you support the herbal products investigation
- Send an email message of support to his office via his official online form.
- Call his office at (212) 416-8050 or the public helpline at 1-800-771-7755
- You can also send paper mail to:
Office of the Attorney General
Albany, NY 12224-0341
Again, do not do this unless you live in New York state! But those of you who do, let your Attorney General and your state legislators know that there are people who appreciate their efforts to rein in the herbal supplement industry.