Transborder Information, Local Resistance,
and the Spiral of Silence:
Biotechnology and Public Opinion
in the United States 1
Susanna Hornig Priest
Texas A&M University
Toby Ten Eyck
Michigan State University
Medical and agricultural biotechnologies are being touted by some as the answers to such problems as world hunger and disease. 2 The conventional wisdom with respect to these new technologies is that people within the United States are at least neutral and for the most part extremely positive about them, whereas populations in Europe and parts of the developing world, such as India and Africa, are very pessimistic. Explanations offered within the scientific community for the differences in opinion, perhaps not surprisingly, often center on education, suggesting that if only people understood these technologies more fully they would appreciate them and not be “afraid” (Garland, 1999; Priest et al., in press).
This “ignorance and superstition” explanation fits more neatly with our perceptions of the developing world, however, than of Europe. For an explanation of public opinion concerning biotechnology in Europe, one alternative explanation has been the effects of the media, particularly the tabloid press. In the UK, at least, the tabloids have undergone relatively recent expansion in comparison with the older prestige press with its tradition of restraint in the context of public controversy. Tabloids have subsequently become a scapegoat for all kinds of public relations problems— from mad cow hysteria to the death of Princess Di. The tabloids' use of the “Frankenfood” designation and similar representations have been widely blamed for turning Europeans against biotechnology (Gaskell et al., 2001).