November 10, 2016 | By

Where the Wild Ideas Are: Food, Facts, and Fiction Online

A worker inspects lettuce plants growing under artificial light and in a liquid solution at China's first computer-controlled greenhouse seedling factory located on the outskirts of Beijing. REUTERS/David Gray

The adage “you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts” holds increasingly little sway over conversations about food and agriculture, and carries even less weight on social media. It’s nothing new for like-minded people to bond over sharing what they know each other would like to hear—this is human nature, from politics to friendships. We like to be around people who think like us, and hear our own views reinforced: the more personal the topic, the more intense the need to feel reassured. On the whole, it’s not inherently a bad thing, but the benign nature of friendly rumors has begun to shift in part thanks to social media. Through Facebook and other platforms, you can select what news you read (and don’t read); find friends who share articles you agree with (and block those you disagree with); and ultimately self-select the world view you wish to see. This helps creates echo chambers—closed groups that only receive select, incomplete news and information on a topic—which damage public debate, objectivity, and healthy public discourse.

Widespread, tailor-made facts impact public discourse on issues ranging from the rapid polarization of politics to the mistrust held by some about vaccines. This week’s election in the US holds many insights into the rapid proliferation of tailor-made worldviews: just consider how radically different Democrats’ and Republicans’ Facebook feeds look. The more personal the topic, the more difficult it is to combat half-truths, and the more people who think  “I heard it from so many places, there must be some truth to it,” the harder it is for even skeptics to resist the tug of but what if…   

The echo chamber effect has impacted many issues, but food and agriculture have been hit harder than most. From the public’s perspective, people know that what they eat impacts their health, and they know that how we produce food impacts the environment, the water, even the air. But the details—these people know much less about. Some plant breeding techniques use genetic technologies that employ complex science that’s difficult to explain. Agriculture happens on land most people don’t get to see. It uses agri-chemicals most people don’t understand. Agri-companies control much of the plant breeding, chemicals, and processing; but these are companies that remain a mystery to most people.  

Agriculture is complicated, high-impact, and has low transparency. Can you think of an issue more prone for misunderstanding?

Earlier this year, the National Academies of Science published a study on the spread of misinformation online, and found that most echo chambers begin as simply as people choosing selective new sources. Think about how easy that is: something as inconsequential as “liking” a group on Facebook means you’ll start to see articles that that group shares. If you read, like, or share those articles, you friends will see them, too. If your friends read, like, and share similar articles, those articles will start popping up on your news feed—suddenly, even though these articles are all from similar sources and only half-true, those half-stories begin to take on legitimacy through sheer volume. You may start to think “I heard it from so many places, there must be some truth to it.” You may seek additional information to confirm your suspicion. You’ll undoubtedly find something to support any position online, and when you find it you’ll probably share it on Facebook. The whole thing starts out harmless. But it rapidly becomes a self-fulfilling cycle where half-stories become the whole picture.

So what makes food and agriculture so susceptible to this kind of self-propagating misinformation? For one, food and agriculture is complicated, and to most people, it’s an abstract concept. Very few people have a strong understanding of the agricultural system, and describing how food and agriculture works almost always requires some degree of oversimplification. And when you oversimplify the facts, you provide windows of opportunity to those who are only looking to find plot holes in your story; and in the world of echo chambers, evidence of a plot hole is evidence that you’re hiding something.

This on its own is important, but perhaps the biggest challenge for food and agriculture: food is personal. How do you argue against a claim like “GMOs are damaging to your health”? It’s a worry rooted in caution of the unknown; it’s an argument that can make even the most educated among us think “I’m sure that’s not true. But if it is…

So what’s to be done about this? That’s tough to say. The more personal an issue is, the more closely held a person will keep his or her beliefs about it, and little is more personal than food.  Beliefs about food can even enter the realm of personal identity: the same way a person’s beliefs on religion and politics can transcend the realm of debate, and become an element of self-identify. And self-identify doesn’t change just because information-to-the-contrary is suddenly available.

Beliefs in misinformation about food and agriculture won’t be remedied through argumentative tit-for-tat fact checking; but the public’s understanding of food and agriculture can be salvaged through food and agriculture taking back its own narrative. But it has to do so in a way that actually addresses the underlying issues: skeptics who distrust agriculture won’t change their minds because of a PR campaign that says “trust us, we’re farmers.”

The way you tell a story matters. And PR matters. And science PR is a crowded, not particularly effective field. But there is one stand-out success that food and agriculture could look to as a model: climate change. In the 1990s, climate change—then most often called global warming—was paralyzingly decisive. Confronting peoples’ misheld beliefs with a barrage of science and facts did nothing but put people in the defensive, if anything they dug in their heels on their opinions even more. But through a careful restructuring of the argument, by turning the narrative from the narrow issue of global warming to the broader issue of climate change—an issue that personally impacted people through flooding and hurricanes and crop failures and drought—people became more receptive to the idea. They saw the connections between global actions and impacts felt by them personally, and the public’s view on the issue began to turn around. Today, some of the old decisiveness remains, but the basic facts of global warming, and the impacts it’s having on our planet, have never been more accepted or cared about.

When issues become identity, arguments move beyond facts to become personal. It’s a status that’s difficult to remedy, but food and agriculture doesn’t have to fall into this trap—though half-truths won’t be won over with partial stories. The whole picture needs to be seen: agriculture isn’t a binary outcome—it’s not GMO or organic groceries—but rather is survival, hunger, sustenance, and livelihoods. There are real farmers out there growing our food. For them, things like agricultural science are the difference between crops failing or thriving in drought and flood; it’s the difference between nations facing crop failure, hunger, and instability or bumper harvests, full stomachs, and prosperity. There’s a great big story to tell about how our food gets on our plates—it doesn’t do it justice to focus on only part of its story.  


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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