A hoax, a prank, an internet scam, an act of agricultural bio-terrorism

A Hoax, A Prank, An Internet Scam, An Act Of Agricultural Bio-Terrorism

Klaus Pichler, 2021 -

In July 2020, more than 45.000 US households received packages from China, containing small bags with unsolicited plant seeds. Those 'mystery seeds' sparked biosecurity concerns and the US Department of Agriculture warned people not to plant them. Kentucky agriculture commissioner Ryan Quarles (R) stated: 'we don’t have enough information to know if this is a hoax, a prank, an internet scam or an act of agricultural bio-terrorism'.

Next to the official investigation, conservative media and conspiracy theorists presented their own interpretation of the 'mystery seeds‘ story. Driven by anti-Chinese sentiment in the heated pre-election period and overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, they claimed the unsolicited seeds were an attempt of a biological attack. FOX News anchorman Tucker Carlson even suspected that they were part of 'China's plan to destroy the United States'.

In fact, the unsolicited seeds were part of a brushing scam scheme, used by Chinese online marketplace sellers to boost their seller rankings. A final report on the case, published by the US Department of Agriculture in February 2021, stated that there was 'no evidence that someone was intentionally trying to harm U.S. Agriculture with these shipments'.

The 'mystery seeds' case is not only symptomatic for the current post truth era. It is also a visual metaphor for the process of how assumptions can grow out into 'alternative facts'.

The photo sequence of the project / book is an attempt to 'zoom in' onto the seeds and seedlings which are depicted in close proximity. The sequence is intertwined with pages containing quotes, facsimiles and screenshots from the 'mystery seeds' case and reflections on conspiracy theories and social media in general.

Both parts are following a parallel gradual progress – the seeds are shown on their way from the packages to different stages of germination, the texts and facsimiles are sorted in the chronological order of the case. By showing the growing process of the seeds and the unfolding of the case, the project provides a metaphorical collusion of 'innocent' seeds and their human-made context between fact-based investigation and conspiracy/political monopolization.

Sign up to our weekly newsletter

Stay in the loop