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Fake news not new for agriculture

One could easily argue that agriculture has absorbed the brunt of bad journalism over the years.

I have an affinity for the phrase, “fake news.” Rest assured, that’s not a political statement (set aside any worries about where this is headed). Rather, I like the phrase because it’s so descriptive. It fully encompasses the occurrence of bad or false information that ultimately gets traction –- regardless of the topic.

Fake news is nothing new for the food system. We didn’t describe it as such, but there’s been a constant barrage of negative, unfounded, inaccurate stories about food and agriculture in mainstream and social media during the past 10 to 20 years. Food was fighting fakes news before we ever called it fake news.

In fact, I’d argue agriculture has absorbed the brunt of bad journalism over the years. The closest I’ve gotten previously to naming the fake news phenomenon for food and agriculture was a column several years ago describing it as “food gossip.” That discussion went like this:

[In public] things don’t always play out in a logical or objective manner. That can prove frustrating given we live in the information age where data and facts should mean something. But that’s not always the case. Rather, what’s changed is the rate and scope of information transfer – it doesn’t necessarily improve quality of information transfer. In other words, it provides a platform for bad information to move around just as easilas good information.  That leaves the door open for baseless misinformation getting traction. Consumers get bombarded by what essentially amounts to nothing more than food gossip. It all gets perpetuated, accelerated and amplified by their friends and/or the media.

The underlying cause or motivation for fake news is complex. It derives from several sources including the 24/7 news cycle and enduring incentive to fill time and space. Social media also has been an important driver of errant facts for the food world. It’s the influence of social media that recently sparked my interest.

My thought process stems from a new book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are (Seth Stephens-Davidowitz). The book explains that, “On social media, as in surveys, you have no incentive to tell the truth. On social media, much more so than in surveys, you have a large incentive to make yourself look good. Your online presence is not anonymous, after all. You are courting an audience and telling your friends, family members, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers who you are."

The book provides a fitting example of how that plays out in practice in the real world:

To see how biased data pulled from social media can be, consider the relative popularity of the Atlantic, a respected, highbrow monthly magazine, versus the National Enquirer, a gossipy, often-sensational magazine. Both publications have similar average circulations, selling a few hundred thousand copies. (The National Enquirer is a weekly, so it actually sells more total copies.) There are also a comparable number of Google searches for each magazine. However, on Facebook, roughly 1.5 million people either like the Atlantic or discuss articles from the Atlantic on their profiles. Only about 50,000 like the Enquirer or discuss its contents.

In other words, the Atlantic Monthly vs. the National Enquirer are roughly equal in terms of popularity as measured by circulation and Google searches. However, when it comes to Facebook likes and/or shares, the Atlantic Monthly possesses roughly a 30-to-1 advantage compared to the National Enquirer.  

There’s little doubt that phenomenon has played out over the years around food and agriculture – being a critic has seemingly become popular sport. That’s not surprising given that such a small portion of our population is directly involved with agriculture in some form or fashion. We’re outnumbered and that opens the door for misinformation and serves as an outlet for the “incentive to make yourself look good.”

It’s a good thing “fake news” is now part of our vernacular. It draws attention to the importance of objective reporting (or the lack thereof). Hopefully, that’ll improve accountability going forward. But that alone won’t solve the problem.

In the meantime, there’s still work to do. That’s where we come in. To that end, Bill Lovette (President and CEO, Pilgrim’s Pride) provided attendees of the 2017 Chicken Marketing Summit some best practices for the food industry:

•           Don’t sell your story, tell it with transparency and heart

•           See it through their eyes

•           It’s not about being right, it’s about respect of choice

•           Fearlessly take on the issue, but let values lead the conversation

•           Respond with speed and balance

•           Empower people to advocate and innovate

Those are good tactics that need to be implemented every day across the food industry! And for good measure, let’s add one more to the list: take a breath. Maybe, just maybe, spreading fake news is less about real convictions and more simply about the enduring “incentive to look good.” And if that’s the case, there’s still hope to win the realm of public opinion.  

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